Hussien, a freshman in high school when the Battle of Jolo erupted in the Philippines, discusses his experiences and observations of life immediately before and after martial law was declared in the country, as well as how he and his family faced the challenge of war and violence.
A freshman in high school when the Battle of Jolo began in 1974, Hussien recounts how the area had been bustling with various activities before martial law was declared by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972. Life in Jolo was harmonious, according to Hussien: the Muslims got along well with the Christians with many intermarriages between both groups, and the residents of Jolo enjoyed access to various goods from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet signs of instability had emerged in Sulu even before 1972, as the Philippine government ramped up military training in the area in response to the emergence of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Hussein remembered that there were frequent skirmishes between the MNLF fighters and the Philippine army in the years leading up to the Battle of Jolo. The residents of Jolo had favourable impressions of the MNLF–in part due to their indoctrination efforts–and thought of the Front as protectors of rights and religion. In contrast, the residents were mostly fearful of the army as the soldiers were often being defensive and angry towards them.
On February 7, 1974, MNLF rebels launched an attack on Jolo. The army responded by using armed helicopters and gunships to bomb the MNLF from the air and the sea. This resulted in deaths and injuries not only among rebels and soldiers but also civilians. Hussien described how Jolo had been turned to ashes, less than one day after the rebels had entered the town. Civilians were either fleeing in all directions, or looting various stores around the area. Other than the neighbourhoods of San Raymundo and Busbos, the entire Jolo had been burned down. The only thing that was in Hussein’s mind as the battle raged was how to escape to the nearby city of Zamboanga. Hussein also noted that some civilians helped the combatants on both sides, even though most of them opted to help the MNLF rebels as they had relatives who were part of the Front. Those who helped the military did so by constructing barricades for them.
Elgin: Hello? Hello, Sir?
Hassan: Hello. Oh yeah, good evening.
Elgin: Ah, good evening Sir. Salaam Alaikum. So, okay are you ready, sir?
Hassan: Yes, anytime.
Elgin: So, is it okay sir if I record our conversation?
Hassan: Sure, no problem.
Elgin: I already click the record button on my cellphone. Can I ask your full name and where are you from?
Hassan: I’m “Hassan” and I’m from Kasalamatan Village, Jolo, Sulu.
Elgin: Ah, Jolo, Sulu.
Elgin: Okay. How old are you?
Elgin: 67, okay. What’s your work?
Hassan: I’m a retired public-school teacher.
Elgin: Public school teacher.
Hassan: But I’m currently hired in a private school. I’m teaching college students at Sulu College of Technology.
Elgin: Ah, okay. Are you married sir?
Hassan: Yes, very much.
Elgin: Where were you when the 1974 Battle of Jolo erupted?
Hassan: I just finished my freshman year.
Elgin: So, you are really in Jolo when the battle started?
Hassan: Yes, I’m in Jolo.
Elgin: Ah okay, okay. But before we proceed to the battle, can you describe a typical characteristic of a Tausug?
Hassan: Ah Tausug are people of the current. Tau mean people while sug means “current”. Ah they are actually, they are both fishermen and ah— they engaged in agriculture, in fishing and planting.
Elgin: What makes the group distinct?
Hassan: It’s wrong that people point out that we are too brave. We are brave if we are upholding our truth and when we fight back.
Elgin: Ah okay. For the next question, we will discuss your personal experiences during martial law. Can you describe your experience before the 1974 Battle of Jolo erupted?
Hassan: Jolo is really beautiful. The relationship between Muslim and Christians was extraordinary. In fact, Jolo’s Cathedral was first created before Zamboanga. There was no discrimination. There’s no religious disparity. There were intermarriages between Christians and Muslims. The town center was more developed than Zamboanga City. Trading was plentiful because Jolo is the crossroad to Malaysia where we enjoy foreign goods from other countries.
Elgin: What’s the source of development in Jolo. Aside from being a crossroad, what’s its significance in relation to Malaysia? What did you export?
Hassan: Jolo before, was very rich in aquatic resources. In fact, Sulu Sea is a fishing ground. Then we have “upland rice” before martial law. But many people also engaged in smuggling.
Hassan: Product from Malaysia like cigarettes were brought here.
Hassan: That’s the source of income for many people. But most people engaged in domestic trading.
Elgin: Ahh domestic trading. By the way, why is it that there are many Chinese in Jolo?
Hassan: Hmmm the relationship between China and the Philippines, Sulu. Alaikum Salaam. It’s good. In fact, today, there are Chinese woman who married a Muslim. She later converted to Islam. My cousin and my cousin-in-law are half-Chinese.
Elgin: Oh okay. So, next question. It’s more of your personal experiences. Can you describe your family’s life before the 1974 Battle of Jolo happened. What is your most unforgettable experience before the burning of Jolo?
Hassan: Before martial law was declared – before 1972, people were awake all the time. Cinemas were open until twelve midnight. People can play outside until morning. The town is beautiful. It’s memorable to reminisce about the past. We were still teenagers. It’s really beautiful.
Elgin: What’s the work of your mother during that time?
Hussein: She’s a weaver. Our family also earned a living from trading dried coconut. But I’m from a broken family. I wanted to live with my mother, but my father is so insistent. So, I stayed with him.
Elgin: For the next question, when did you notice that tensions within the province started to appear?
Hussein: Even before the declaration of martial law, rumors already started where trainings commenced in the hinterland by 1971.
Elgin: Ahh, okay.
Hussein: There were (military) trainings during that time because in Manila, demonstrations already started. I was in Manila at that time in 1971. I was in high school. I already felt the presence of Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youth). In fact, I joined the Kabataang Makabayan High School Chapter in Kamuning (Quezon City). It was called Kamuning Chapter. I know you know that because you are from the University of the Philippines. I was then in an irregular third year high school at Ramon Magsaysay sa Cubao. Third year high school in Cubao (also in Quezon City).
Hussein: My parents said that we need to go back to Sulu because of tensions in the capital (Manila). This was also the time when the Sultanate wanted to retake Sabah from Malaysia. To retake Sabah, the Marcos government planned an attack towards Malaysia. So, the government organized a training in Corregidor. Then Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino exposed this plan. However, the Muslim trainees were massacred. This was known as the Corregidor Massacre. It’s fortunate that one person survived the incident. He is Jibin Arula. He was rescued by fishermen of Cavite then exposed the massacre to the public.
Hussein: This became the basis for some sectors to create MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). They used the idea that the government was trying to kill every Muslim. Indoctrination if you’re educated. If they talked to ignorant people, they would follow.
Hussein: Many people have not attended school in our place (Sulu) during that time. So, they would easily believe these educated people. Many of them eventually joined the organization (MNLF).
Hussein: For the next question, what did the soldiers do before the 1974 Battle of Jolo? And what did the MNLF do?
Hussein: In fact, I became a member of the ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Course). Jolo was beautiful. Jolo was beautiful at that time. But during 1973, encounters started to appear. The first encounter happened in Patikul (in Sulu).
Elgin: But were there abusive soldiers during the early years of martial law?
Hussein: Jolo town was already under siege. The soldiers that time were not abusive since they were novice. They were still adjusting. But later on, it was difficult for them to penetrate Sulu, and Jolo. There were already encounters in Parang municipality. Many people died.
Elgin: Were there abuses from the soldiers by 1973?
Hussein: There are abuses outside…
Elgin: Outside of what?
Hussein: Outside of Jolo.
Elgin: Ah, okay so there were abuses?
Hussein: Yes, there were encounters. There were also massacres.
Elgin: Okay. Can you elaborate the abuses of the soldiers?
Hussein: They declared some places as “No man’s land”. People got displaced. Then, the soldiers get some things from the people. They were then massacred.
Elgin: What particular towns were affected from these abuses?
Hussein: There are many places that experienced the wrath from the military like Talipao, Maimbung, Patikul, all the surrounding towns (of Jolo) experienced problems. People cannot even buy their own food and they need clearance before obtaining one. People could not just buy their food whenever they like. The food that they could acquire was limited by the soldiers.
Elgin: What are the other abuses of the soldiers that you know?
Hussein: It heightened during 1974.
Hussein: Many were picked up, disappeared, and suddenly became suspect. Then you see them dead the following day.
Elgin: As in? But did you know someone who became victims of military abuse?
Hussein: Many were captured by the military. Some of them, you will see them floating in the sea. We don’t know where they were abducted. Sadly, we are living in fear.
Elgin: Do you have personal experience where you were harassed?
Hussein: I was not harassed by the soldiers. In fact, some of them became my friends.
Elgin: Ah okay.
Hussein: But there was a time when our house was raided by intelligence officers. But I just talked with them. They did not get something from me that day. They immediately left the house.
Elgin: What did the MNLF do before the 1974 Battle happened?
Hussein: Before, they lived outside (Jolo). A kilometer away, they could not go outside the town proper. We are confined inside. But every night, we would hear shelling of cannons and the sound of small arms. We are inside the house and that's what we hear.
Elgin: What did you know about the MNLF, maybe from your parents or from your community?
Hussein: The MNLF rebels have a good reputation among the locals. They were like protectors of rights and religion; The less educated would be persuaded to join them. Around 75 percent of children and elderly joined them.
Elgin: Ah! So, meaning they are really respected in the community?
Hussein: Very respected.
Elgin: Very respected, okay. How about the military, sir?
Hussein: People are afraid of them.
Elgin: Why were they afraid of the military?
Hussein: They were very defensive and they were always angry towards the people. So, it seems like you were always suspected to have links with the rebels. People were afraid of them. Aside from that, they were undermanned. Compared to the MNLF, they were less in terms of numbers. Since many Tausug joined the rebel group, they need to project that they are strong.
Elgin: Ah okay. So, it seems like it’s their defence mechanism. Ah okay, okay. Did you hear any rumors that the MNLF rebels are affiliated with the Maoists or activists (referring to activists of the National Democratic movement)?
Hussein: Yes, they are activists. They were referred to as Maoist. Because the original members were trained in Malaysia and one of the original members was Nizzam Abubakar who was also trained in China. He is from the University of the Philippines. But 75% of what they fought is related to religion. They want independence of Muslim of Sulu.
Elgin: We will now proceed to the 1974 Battle of Jolo but before anything else, what have you noticed before violence inside the town started? And what did you do when violence commenced?
Hussein: My experience was that I always heard that the rebels might enter Jolo. But initially these were just rumors. Months have passed but no invasions happened. But actually, some of them were already in Jolo. They were already in Jolo. But it was during the night of February 7, around 3:00 AM that we could already hear the sound of the guns. But their target was the location of the brigade and the headquarter of the Philippine Constabulary including the vicinity of the airport. It was the centre of the encounters. But here in Jolo town proper, the encounters were less but tensions already started to be felt.
Elgin: Mm, okay. But personally, where were you when tensions started to arise?
Hussein: That night, I went to the hospital because I experienced stomach ache. But when we arrived at the hospital, the local police approached us and told us to go home because the MNLF were about to enter Jolo. So we went back home at around 10:00 pm.
Elgin: Ah okay, I get it.
Hussein: By 4:00 pm, encounters started. The rebels were stationed at the airport. By that time, many had already entered Jolo. Then the next day, the town of Jolo turned into ashes. By that time, we had already left the town. Everything was so dark, so we escaped. But we could not do it. So, we just went to the hospital area, a public hospital. We stayed inside and locked our house. We packed our things up and prepared ourselves that anytime, we would evacuate.
Elgin: Okay, so you packed your things.
Hussein: Then any source of fire like gas tanks, we put it outside the house.
Elgin: How about your neighbours?
Hussein: Still the same. They were inside the house. The following day, they evacuated.
Elgin: Mm, okay.
Hussein: Some Chinese and Christians evacuated into our house. We really stayed inside the house. Our strategy was we will leave the house and proceed to the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary. But we were not able to reach the headquarters. We just stayed at the compound of the public hospital. The said hospital became an evacuation centre.
Elgin: Okay. So, what did you notice of the people inside the evacuation centre?
Hussein: We’re okay. Of course, we felt the fear because the fire was already big. The entire Jolo was burned down except in San Raymundo and Busbos (neighbourhoods). People were dispersed in different directions. Some went to the streets while others walked for four kilometers to escape. They walked in groups but it’s very far. The civilians brought white flags to signify that they are civilians. It’s like there’s an apocalypse. People came in groups. Some carried their sick loved ones. Some only carried their clothing and food such as rice, and canned goods.
Elgin: Ah okay. What were you thinking during that time?
Hussein: How to escape the town. Specifically, how are we going to escape to Zamboanga City. Because it’s the safest place that we can escape. Because Jolo is not a good place to live in. It’s like we experienced World War II.
Elgin. Ah, okay okay, For the next question, as a Muslim, how does your experience help you survive the challenges that you faced?
Hussein. It influenced me a lot. Because for us Muslim, there is no amount of force for a Muslim if he/she was helped by God in any adversaries and challenges. Yes, if God already interfered there you are already protected.
Elgin. Okay sir. I just want to clarify something from you. How did you get out of your house? Can you share your story?
Hussein. We just escaped. We passed through the CAFGUs (Citizen Armed Forced Geographical Unit). So, they led in fighting the MNLF. They even assisted the military. So, when we escaped that night, troops from the CHDF (Citizen Home Defense Force) were lining up but the soldiers were inside their headquarters.
Elgin. After that?
Hussein: There were explosions and crossfires. Jolo is a small town with eight barangays (neighborhood). Everything is nearby. We immediately entered the hospital compound. That’s the time when we see the damage to the town. The things that people left in their houses were all lost. Many people went to the hospital and PC compound. Everything was there.
Elgin. Ah, okay
Hussein. The MNLF were left with many dead bodies. Some were nearly decomposed because the bodies were left for three days. I needed to get two anti-cholera vaccines. All of us in the hospital needed to inject some anti-cholera vaccines since the air was too bad. No one gets the bodies because they might get suspicious from the soldiers. Then eventually the soldiers disinfected the bodies before they were buried.
Elgin: What were your observations on Jolo?
Hussein. You could not see anything. Jolo is a dead place. All flattened. Some dead bodies have no heads. Some landmines have not exploded. Jolo was like a ghost town.
Elgin. What’s the smell of the town?
Hussein. It smells like something was burned.
Elgin. Okay, aside from dead bodies, what did you see?
Elgin. Looting. Okay. Can you describe it?
Hussein: The stores were abandoned so people looted the storage house of these stores.
Elgin: Who looted the stores?
Hussein: The civilians.
Elgin: Okay. Where did you see those looting? In the market? The houses of the residents?
Hussein: In the market. In the commercial centers that were not burned.
Hussein: They were abandoned in the first place.
Elgin: Did you know someone who died during that time? Maybe your friends or relatives.
Hussein: So far, none.
Elgin: What’s the most common reason why they died?
Hussein: They were wounded… Deaths were caused by gunshots since there were encounters.
Elgin: Okay, so how did the civilians help the soldiers or the MNLF?
Hussein: Both. Some people helped the soldiers. But most people assisted the MNLF rebels. This is because some of the rebels have relatives who are civilians. Because of this, some civilians guided the rebels since they are familiar with the town. Some civilians also fed the rebels.
Elgin. How did the civilians help the soldiers?
Hussein. The civilians helped in making the barricades so that the soldiers could easily pass through the road. The MNLF would not attack the civilians. There were no confrontations.
Interviewer: Elgin Glenn R. Salomon
Many civilians in Jolo decided to help the MNLF rebels because their relatives and kinsmen were part of the Front. How did such kinship and community ties influence the way they understood incidents like the Battle of Jolo, as well as the ways in which such incidents shape the larger Cold War in the region?