More to Jolo than just kidnapping

"How safe is Jolo?" I asked Dr Raden Ikbala, a 49-year-old Tausug, who leads an anti-kidnapping NGO in Jolo island, on the night before I flew to the Phi­lippines' cross-border kidnap capital.

We were having dinner in a restaurant in Zamboanga City in mainland Mindanao and about 195km from Jolo island.

"You will have two policemen escorting you when you are in Jolo," he said.

"Is that enough?" I said, as I was a bit apprehensive of revisiting Jolo island.

In 2000, I visited it several times and my memory of the island is that of terror and delicious seafood.

I've travelled to the hinterland twice to interview the kidnappers and hostages of the Sipadan abductions. I've also followed a military convoy when three Malaysians were held hostage after they were abducted from Pandanan island off Semporna.

"I'll call to ask for more escorts for you," said Dr Ikbala, one of the organisers of the Bangsa Sug Against Kidnapping and Other Crimes (Bassakao).

"I think two is ok," said my pseudo-macho alter ego.

Still worried, since there were unverified reports that locals were kidnapped in Jolo town every other day in February and March, I said, "but how about the spate of kidnappings?"

"When the police are visible in Jolo town, there is no more kidnappings," he said.

The next morning, with apprehension, I took a 40-minute flight from Zamboanga City to Jolo island. I was to be on the island for three days to write about the business of cross-border kidnappings.

At the departure hall, I observed the passengers.

"Mama, why no hotdog on a stick?" a kid whined to her middle-class mother wearing a headscarf. And my heart was relieved that there was a middle-class community in Jolo, which is in Sulu, the poorest province in the Philippines.

At the Jolo airport, my 32-year-old fixer, Noenyrie H. Asiri, greeted me with his crew and two policemen.

I was impressed with my security escort. They looked like they were part of SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team. Aejan Hussam was armed with a M204 grenade launcher and a 9mm Taurus pistol and Ahmed Shinoda carried a shotgun (he preferred it, as it was suitable for short-range gunbattles).

First stop was the Jolo fish market as my fixer was still fixing my appointments. There I was introduced to a brother of Sultan Esmail Kiram, who is one of the claimants of the throne of the Sulu Sultanate.

Actually, as Noenyrie joked, you could easily bump into a Sultan of Sulu in Jolo town as almost every other day someone installs himself as a sultan.

"Is it safe in Jolo?" I asked Shinoda, my security escort.

"You are safe with us," he said. "If you have a policeman with you, they will not kidnap you. Even kidnappers are afraid to die."

"What happens if I don't have a security escort?" I said.

"By now the Abu Sayyaf spotters would have already informed someone in the mountains that there is a potential target in Jolo town," said Shinoda, a 30-year-old Tausug.

"How about outside Jolo town?" I said.

"Outside of Jolo town we can't assure you of your safety. There they have bigger arms and if we were to go there we have to go in a big team," he said.

"There" is the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf. It is in the hinterland of Jolo island where most of the hostages kidnapped in Semporna and around southern Philippines are held.

I bought freshly caught tuna and lapu lapu from the fish market and had it cooked for lunch. It was one of the most delicious simple dishes that I ever had. But I noticed my "entourage" was not too impressed with my lunch.

Later I found out that they were rather bored with fish as they ate it every day.

"Only rich people eat meat every day," a photographer told me. "Fish is cheap here. About 30 peso (RM2.20) for a whole fish."

That night I treated them to a meat dinner.

The dinner conversation was on how the world viewed Jolo island and its mostly Tausug population (who are called Suluks in Sabah).

"The world thinks that the Tausugs are barbarians. There are maybe 500,000 Tausugs and the 1,000 who are with the Abu Sayyaf give us a bad name. There are good things happening in Sulu but the media does not highlight them," said Aejan, a 33-year-old Tausug policeman.

"Probably that is what most Ma­­laysians think of Jolo," I told them. "They think it is a lawless place as there are many kidnappings here. Their impression is fair as even lo­­cals are afraid they would be kidnapped in Jolo town."

In my two nights in Jolo town, my impression of the locals changed. They are like you and me. They are into taking selfies and some are into graphic sex chat on Facebook messaging.

However, Jolo town is not your ordinary town.

When the Philippines marines go grocery shopping here, they are armed to the teeth.

I saw a marine with grenades strapped on one man's body. It was kind of overkill for someone going shopping, I thought.

It's a normal sight as after all there is a terrorist group involved in the business of kidnapping in the hinterland.