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Where it's not safe after dark

Publication Date : 23-10-2012


The best hotel in Cotabato City in Mindanao is Alnor Hotel. It is also the safest hotel in the city, which is the most dangerous city in the Philippines.

“Where are you billeted?” is a popular question when I was in the city that a former US ambassador to the Philippines insulted by calling the “doormat for terrorists”.

“In Alnor,” I replied.

“You are safe,” a Mindanao politician told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It is owned by the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front),” he said.

I flew into Cotabato City from Manila as the city was about 15 kilometres from Camp Darapanan, the MILF headquarters, in Sultan Kudarat province.

On Monday, I was at the camp to be with the armed rebels as they listened “live” on the radio the signing of a framework agreement for peace between the MILF and the Philippines government in Manila.

In the day, uniformed security personnel armed with M16s guard the hotel located in the Alnor business complex which opened in August last year. When night falls, a group of 10 well-built 20-somethings patrol the premises.

They casually carry their M16s as if they were toys.

“Why do you need to carry an assault rifle?” I asked one of the armed men.

“Protection from the enemy, sir,” he replied.

“Who is the enemy?” I asked.

“Those who kidnap, hold-up, loot and bomb, sir,” he said.

If you walked around at night in Cotabato City, you could end up becoming a crime statistic. Or even worse, dead!

Life is cheap in the city. For 5,000 pesos (US$120.98) you can get a hired gun.

During the first two nights in the city, my colleague P.K. Katharason and I finished work at around 10:00pm. Hungry, as we had not had our dinner yet and the restaurants at the Alnor business complex were closed, we asked a hotel receptionist for good places to eat.

“No, sir. It is too dangerous,” she told us, rather alarmed at the idea of two Malaysians taking a motorised tricycle to have a grilled tuna belly dinner.

We did not heed her warning. At around 10:30pm, the highway (a concrete street with potholes leading downtown) was nearly deserted. As the tricycle “sped” on at 30kmph towards the restaurant, you could see street kids and menacing-looking youths roaming about.

Poverty was apparent in some parts of the city. Almost all of the shops along the highway were closed, giving the city a ghost town feel.

Avenue Grill, about 1km from Alnor Hotel, is a restaurant that placed security instead of aesthetics as a priority for its interior design. The “grill” in its name probably refers to the grill at the entrance of the restaurant as well as its speciality – grilled dishes.

After dinner, the bill came and the cashier could not break 500 pesos. Curious, I asked why. And I was told there were frequent hold-ups in the city that business owners would remit cash takings every one hour.

We were told that we were lucky nothing had happened to us when we went for dinner without protection.

I suspect criminals thought my colleague PK was a terrorist.

Many in the city asked if he was a Pakistani. With his beard and Afghan scarf wrapped around his neck. PK looked like he was a terrorist using Cotabato City as a “doormat” to journey to rebel camps in Mindanao.

Unlike downtown Cotabato City, Alnor business complex was a vibrant hangout place for the middle-class at night. In trendy Bo’s Coffee, armed with iPads and Samsung Galaxy S3s, the young from “big families” – some of them women sporting trendy hijab (Muslim headscarf) – hangout with their bakadas (best friends).

From Bo’s, you could see VIPS – politicians, businessmen, MILF commanders and Armed Forces of the Philippines’ commanders – arriving in Hummers and 4WDs with tinted windows, together with their armed bodyguards to patronise the restaurants in the business complex.

Curious to know about life in the most dangerous city in the country, I spoke to Jhastine Gay Polinar, a 26-year-old Bo’s Coffee barista. She felt “comfortable and safe” living in the city.

The media has made ...,” she said, making a “quote sign” with her hands, “Cotabato City a crime city. But we are immune to what is happening around us.

“We take precautions so crime will not happen to us. My first safety precaution is that I don’t leave home after 5:00pm,” she said.

“There’s no such thing as night life in Cotabato City.

“It (crime) is just a state of mind. You can be a victim of a hold-up anywhere in the world,” she said.

“Will you stroll around the streets now?” I asked her as she was preparing to close the cafe at 11pm.

“Are you crazy? I can get robbed,” she said.

*US$1=41.33 pesos


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