LOUIS, MISSOURI–I broke out from the surface of the water in a failed attempt at a hair flip. It was high noon but my friends and I could barely feel the heat of the sun as the cool, gentle waves of Malamawi Beach lapped against our sunburnt skins. I’ve been to hundreds of beaches in my life but Malamawi was incomparable.
Stretching endlessly from the shore, all that met the eye was an expansive, sparkling Tiffany blue ocean. The only demarcation was a subtle line marking the horizon, where the azure sea met the clear blue sky. It was a beach where you could unabashedly kick off your shoes and dance barefoot. The instant your feet touched the fine, powdery sand, there was nothing but the sensation of soft grains beneath your soles.
Over a decade ago, the idea of enjoying oneself at Malamawi Beach seemed inconceivable. Today, the thought of overlooking Malamawi Beach is simply unthinkable. This small slice of paradise situated off the coast of Basilan has evolved into a cherished getaway for both locals and a select group of tourists in search of an untouched haven amid the Philippines’ 7,641 islands.
For years, Malamawi remained concealed from the public eye, largely due to Basilan’s prolonged and intricate engagement with conflict. Persistent clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group, coupled with a series of abductions by the group, solidified Basilan’s association with terms like “chaos” and “kidnapping.” The fact that Malamawi was once the stomping ground of former Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani only intensified the stigma people attached to the area.
“So much has changed yet, so much could still be changed,” my schoolmate and Basilan native, Claudio said as he motioned for us to dig into a sumptuous spread of grilled seafood and yellow domes of cassava steamed to perfection. Before returning to serve his hometown as its tourism officer, Claudio led a dynamic corporate career and then pursued his graduate studies in Europe where he received many tempting offers. Yet, he turned all of these down to come home to Basilan.
I traveled to Basilan with my close friends, Chino and Ana, at Claudio’s invitation. However, making the decision was not easy for us, considering that everything we knew about Basilan and Southern Mindanao was shaped and influenced by media narrative. I would be lying if I said we had no reservations about our trip. Despite the stark contrast between the present-day Basilan and the war-torn, conflict-ridden island of the past, the notorious reputation associated with Basilan continues to instill fear in the hearts of those who only know it from a distance.
I once heard someone say something strange about Basilan – that there are more guns than people. We can’t be sure if it’s true, but as we cruised through its extensive network of roads after leaving Malamawi for Lamitan, we realized something else: there are definitely more coconuts, rubber trees, cassava, and chilis in Basilan than there are people.
Today, the island is a patchwork of lush forests and productive farms. Following the Philippine government’s invitation for ASG rebels to exchange their arms for farms, many members of the group chose to surrender their guns and embrace a fresh start as farmers–sowing seeds instead of terror. This significantly whittled down the group’s size from over a thousand to less than 20 today. Most of them are believed to have abandoned the island completely.
Instead of people scrambling to hide at the piercing sound of gunshots, children played freely and celebrated Eid Ul Fitr with their families underneath the canopy of leaves. Earlier that morning as our ferry approached the port of Isabela de Basilan, motorized jungkongs–long boats resembling a genie’s slipper–zoomed past us, almost hovering above the surface of the water, as it carried families from their stilt houses to worship at the island’s ivory colored mosque. Badjao teens in colorful clothes were gathered in a circle at the port, engrossed in a game of cards while the Yakan community in Lamitan wove their exquisite tapestries not to distract themselves from armed encounters but to keep their art and tradition alive.
These transformative changes didn’t materialize overnight but unfolded gradually through a sustained commitment in the community’s sustainable development. These ongoing efforts breathed new life into industries and artisanal communities that had long been crippled by decades of instability. The substantial investments made to construct Basilan’s extensive network of roads played a dual role — not only connecting farmers and artisanal fishermen to markets but also empowering authorities to navigate the island efficiently and respond swiftly to security threats posed by terrorists.
The collaborative partnership between the Philippines and development entities like the United Nations has been instrumental in Basilan’s progress. Projects supported by these partnerships, ranging from enhancing the productivity of local farmers to ensuring children stay in school and providing cleaner, more affordable sources of energy, have played a crucial role in helping Basilan and its people reclaim the years lost during the reign of terror imposed by the ASG. As our jeep swiftly traversed the circumferential road en route to Lamitan, we saw a hotel under construction, a tangible symbol of the ongoing positive transformation in the region.
“What about the military? What are they now preoccupied with on the island?” I asked Claudio when we stopped momentarily at a checkpoint near what looked like a military base. We were heading back to the port to catch the last trip back to Zamboanga.
“They’re mostly busy helping carry out humanitarian missions like medical missions or to sort out minor, family-related conflicts,” he replied. These conflicts included those arising from rido or blood feuds that persist in certain communities.
As the peace and security situation on the island continues to change for the better, there’s a noticeable shift in the military’s role and how they engage with the local population. While ensuring peace and security remains a core mission for soldiers in Basilan, their responsibilities transcend traditional security measures.
Soldiers are now actively involved in supporting initiatives that pave the way for lasting peace and prosperity. It’s no longer just about safeguarding; it’s also about contributing to sustainable development, thereby providing long-term benefits to the community. The emphasis is on creating opportunities that eliminate the need to resort to arms for survival. This signifies a shift towards addressing the root causes of conflict and building a foundation for a stable and thriving community that doesn’t rely on armed measures for sustenance.
The focus has broadened from simply maintaining security to actively participating in efforts that create a foundation for peace to thrive. This evolution showcases a commitment to addressing the root causes of instability and fostering an environment where both peace and prosperity can coexist. The military’s role has become more comprehensive, reflecting a dedication to the well-being and progress of the local population in Basilan.
Earlier that day, we left the port of Isabela de Basilan on board outrigger boats expertly navigated by Sama and Badjao boatmen to start our day at Marang Marang, a floating bamboo restaurant surrounded by a lush, green mangrove forest. A little while later, another boat arrived carrying a Tausug family who graciously prepared us a breakfast of Moro delicacies and freshly brewed native coffee. For a moment, we resembled a microcosm of Basilan with each community almost represented on board, breaking bread and engaging in a lively conversation about things that transcended culture and creed: family, food, and the future.
Indeed, Claudio’s role as the tourism officer posed a formidable challenge, bordering on the aspirational. To lift Basilan from the shadows of its troubled past, there’s a need to alter people’s perceptions. However, the challenge lies in convincing individuals to visit and experience the island firsthand. It’s a bit of a conundrum, reminiscent of the classic “chicken or egg” dilemma — persuading people to visit before changing their perceptions, or changing perceptions to attract visitors.
“It’s a long journey, but we’re getting there,” Claudio said. “It’s in our slogan: #HAPIsabela. In our language, ‘hapi’ means ‘en route to’. We are and will continue to be on the road to a happier, more peaceful Basilan no matter how long it takes.”
Claudio’s infectious optimism set the tone for the rest of our brief stay in Basilan, transforming our fear into a robust sense of hope; our worry into an exhilarating sense of anticipation for the boundless potential that lay ahead in Basilan’s future. As Claudio’s hopefulness buoyed us, we found ourselves shedding the shadows of uncertainty. This journey was not just a passage through physical landscapes but a transformative odyssey of emotions. Each step we took in Basilan carried with it a newfound enthusiasm, and the vibrant energy that made us see things from a different light.
Our fears, once looming and foreboding, now seemed like distant echoes in the wake of the optimism that surrounded us. We began to view challenges as opportunities for growth, and the once-daunting unknowns became exciting prospects waiting to unfold.
In Basilan, amidst the verdant landscapes and warm hospitality, we discovered not only the beauty of what was once a seemingly inaccessible region but also the resilience and optimism of its people. For a moment, we opened a poignant chapter in a larger narrative, a broader outlook on life’s uncertainties, where optimism triumphed over fear, and anticipation heralded the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
In Basilan, amid lush landscapes and gracious hospitality, we uncovered not only the captivating beauty of a region that had once seemed beyond reach but also the remarkable resilience and boundless optimism of its people. In this tiny island, we witnessed a poignant chapter unfold—a broader perspective on life’s uncertainties, where optimism conquered fear, and the anticipation of a brighter tomorrow was more palpable than the balmy sea breeze that covered us in salty kisses.
Our journey was not just a passage; but a tribute to resilience, an eloquent testament to the indomitable human spirit, and a gentle reminder that, even in the face of adversity, hope sows the seeds of transformation.
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