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Basilan: The 'Wild West' of the Philippines

Soldiers holding guns, civilians on boats
Basilan has become a virtual no-go area for outsiders  

By Maria Ressa

BASILAN, Philippines (CNN) -- When you board the ferry to Basilan, you're met by soldiers carrying submachine guns.

They say the Abu Sayyaf has its informers watching the people boarding, and that by the time you reach Basilan, the welcoming party is ready.

That's part of the danger of this ferry ride, particularly for Americans, Europeans and wealthy Filipinos. What you don’t want to do in this situation is stand out.

The Abu Sayyaf, which kidnapped 20 tourists and workers from a tourist resort, says it will continue kidnapping American and European hostages.

That's killed tourism and international investment for one of the Philippines' poorest provinces.

It’s also why Basilan has become a “no-go” for international news correspondents and crews, but it's impossible to comprehend the complexity of this story unless you understand the roots of the problem.

That means going to Basilan, traveling through the rugged terrain, meeting and gauging the mood of the people there.

Rebel heartland

What we found was a ‘wild west’ of armed men: mercenaries, rebels, renegade rebels, pirates -- most men who found it easier to carry a gun rather than search for non-existent jobs.

"It's difficult to separate political from criminal motivations," says military Spokesman General Edilberto Adan.

"In the recruitment of these young men, they use their identity as Muslims that have been deprived -- and it’s a very natural enticement. And then when they are already trained, recruited to fight for a noble cause, they would now be told to do something which is basically criminal in nature."

There are rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF, which is fighting for an independent Muslim state.

There are also renegade rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF.

Once the largest Islamic separatist group in the Philippines, the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996, but not all its members agreed.

And then there is the Abu Sayyaf, made up of Islamic fundamentalists -- extremists compared to the MILF and MNLF -- and renegade members of both.

Abu Sayyaf birthplace

Basilan is the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf, which has "franchised" its members to surrounding islands like Jolo (where one of the groups of Abu Sayyaf kidnapped tourists from a Malaysian resort last year and allegedly received millions of dollars in ransom).

The Basilan Abu Sayyaf are fiercer, more dogmatic, more violent.

Add to that the militia group trained by the military, the CAFGUS, as well as numerous private armies trained and armed by a wealthy elite.

What we found was an underdeveloped capital full of residents so distrustful of central authority that they are setting up their own neighborhood vigilante groups.

"Vigilantes, properly managed, are not dangerous to the community. It will be very helpful," says Basilan's Governor Wahab Akbar.

Part of the reason is residents’ distrust of the police and military. With a decade’s history in the province, corrupt soldiers have been caught selling arms to the numerous armed groups in Basilan.

Everyone knows everyone, and at different times, the players have changed sides.

Like Governor Akbar: once a member of the MNLF, now he speaks for the government. The past helps explain actions in the present taken by those who just know how things are done.

“For instance, the governor, he is under pressure to prove to all that he has no links at all to the Abu Sayyaf because he has been associated with that group,” says author Glenda Gloria.

“So because he doesn’t trust the local police because he knows it’s not enough to confront the Abu Sayyaf, he creates his own private army.”

Anguish and sacrifice

“Some people think that they are not safe any more,” says Akbar, “Some people think they are still safe. Some people think, well, we can’t do anything. This is our place so whatever the consequences, we’ll have to live with it.”

That resigned attitude permeates this society.

Many residents have a lifetime of anguish and sacrifice -- like 54-yr old Isabella Cabaya Cruz.

Nearly three decades ago, she owned her house and land in Lantawan - until her family was forced to abandon their home by armed men.

She moved to Lamitan, where the same thing happened. Still, that hasn’t kept her family safe.

In the past decade, 6 members of her family were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.

“We’re afraid,” she says, “This has been our life. Run. Sleep in the jungle. Hide. That’s it. It’s always been like that for us.”

Last year, the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped more than 50 teachers and students from two elementary schools in Basilan.

Although most were rescued by the military, four teachers and a priest were killed by their kidnappers.

This time on May 27, the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, from a high-end tourist resort.

For the people of Basilan, not much has changed.

• Philippines tourism
• Philippines Government
• The Abu Sayyaf Group
• Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs

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