A daughter of a coast guard in the Philippine Marines during the Battle of Jolo in 1974, Maria recounts the chaos and destruction that ensued when the Philippine Air Force commenced bombings against the rebels during the battle.
Born in Jolo, Maria went to Manila to attend school up until her first grade. During her second grade, she and her family relocated back to Jolo. She recalled that the community in Jolo was ethnically diverse then: her mother was half-Muslim, many of her relatives were Christians, while she had many Muslim and Chinese classmates. Her father was part of the Marines and was working at a pier. As the family of a soldier, Maria and her family lived in a military camp in the city. Maria also recalled how the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was much more disciplined during the time when Nur Misuari helmed the Front, by pointing out how the rebels then had not harmed any civilians for personal gain–unlike in the present day. She had also not recalled any instances when the Philippine military had harmed or abused civilians.
Maria recollected that it was one of her relatives who had warned her family about an impending attack on Jolo in 1974 by the MNLF. Her father had concurrently noticed a sudden influx of people from the pier he was working at, and concluded that the town had been infiltrated by the Front. Maria vividly recalled that the Philippine Air Force conducted tora-tora (aerial bombings) campaigns against the rebel forces. The bombings caused so much destruction and burning that she still vividly remembers the intense heat that emanated from the battlefield. Banks and pawn shops were looted by various people–including soldiers, according to Maria. Starving civilians also ransacked stores and warehouses in order to get enough food to survive. Due to the destruction that the battle caused to Jolo, many residents–including many of Maria’s friends and relatives–migrated to nearby Zamboanga City.
Elgin: Before we start our interview, can I ask for a brief background about your life?
Elgin: What’s your name and where do you live?
Maria: I’m Maria and I live in xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Fort Bonifacio Taguig
Elgin: How old are you?
Maria: I’m 58 years old.
Elgin: What’s your present occupation ma’am?
Maria: VAWC (Violence against Women and Children) Desk Officer.
Elgin: Okay, VAWC Desk Office. Ah okay. Will you consider yourself a Tausug?
Maria: Yes, because I was born in Sulu. So, I’m a Tausug.
Elgin: Okay ma’am. As a Catholic, how was life in Jolo?
Maria: Just recently, the Catholic church of Jolo was bombed. Well, it really depends. We are Catholics but some of our relatives are Muslim. It really depends on the person. It’s my opinion.
Elgin : Where were you ma’am when the 1974 Battle of Jolo happened?
Maria: I’m in Jolo.
Elgin: I’ll ask you later regarding the 1974 Battle of Jolo but can you describe the town before the conflict started?
Maria: The town was really beautiful. It’s small yet it’s quiet. The conflicts happened in the mountains. The rebels did not fight the civilians, but they fought the military. But right now, even the civilians were implicated. During the time of Nur Misuari, they didn't touch the civilians.
Elgin: Can you describe Jolo before the war?
Maria: Jolo was beautiful. It’s hard to explain. Before the war, people were free to walk without danger. They are also free to stroll around the town. There was no war.
Elgin: How’s the relationship between Christians and Muslims?
Maria: The relationship was okay because like what I have said, I have relatives who are pure Muslim.
Elgin: From which side of your family, from your mother or father?
Maria: On my mother’s side.
Elgin: Ah okay. How about the Chinese?
Maria: Yes, there are many Chinese. I also have many Chinese classmates.
Elgin: Where did you study in Jolo?
Maria: In Notre Dame. The school was diverse. We have Chinese, Muslim, and Christians. In school we use English and Tagalog to converse. We can’t speak Tausug because we might get penalized.
Elgin: Ahh okay. That’s very typical (in the Philippine context).
Maria: The nuns are very strict. They will call you to the office, and then they will spank you.
Elgin: How’s the business sector before the battle? How’s the people?
Maria: We have fishermen and they caught fresh fish. By the way, my father served the military.
Elgin: Then how about your mother?
Maria: She’s half-Muslim.
Elgin: Ahh, half-Muslim. Okay. What’s the work of your mother?
Maria: She’s a housewife. But she’s also a seamstress and a landlady.
Elgin: Anyway po, you mentioned that your father is part of the marine. What’s his position in the marines?
Maria: First Marine.
Elgin: Ah okay, First Marine. Ah okay, but your family already lived in Jolo or your family migrated before the war?
Maria: I actually studied in Manila during my first grade. Then by the time I reached second grade, we transferred to Notre Dame when I reached second grade.
Elgin: Can you describe your life or your family’s life before the 1974 Battle of Jolo happened?
Maria: We’re all fine. We’re a typical middle-class family. We’re neither rich nor poor.
Elgin: What’s your most unforgettable experience in Jolo before the 1974 Battle of Jolo when you were still a kid?
Maria: We always play inside the PC (Philippine Constabulary) compound because our house was inside the camp.
Maria: Yes, our house was near the residence of the Provincial Commander.
Elgin: Is it still possible that the old peaceful and beautiful Jolo will come back?
Maria: It’s impossible. Most people migrated. Even my cousins live in Zamboanga City right now.
Maria: And right now, I live in Laguna. Only very few of my former classmates live in Jolo. My (Christian) cousins noticed that they were being watched. If you are rich, you might get kidnapped. If you have money or you retire, you might get kidnapped. You might receive an extortion letter.
Elgin: When did you notice that peace and order in the town started to fade?
Maria: During martial law, it was very peaceful. Even Misuari can’t enter Jolo. People even went to the disco that time.
Elgin: Based on what you have heard, what did the MNLF rebels do in Sulu?
Maria: I heard that MNLF rebels hurt civilians, as long as they can get what they want, like money. [Doing things like] kidnapping.
Elgin: What’s the reaction of the civilians when martial law was declared?
Maria: It’s quiet. Jolo was quiet. Misuari was not able to enter Jolo. It’s quiet.
Maria: Misuari was still hiding at that time.
Elgin: Have you heard of abuses committed by the soldiers before 1974 especially towards civilians?
Maria: I never heard of any abuses.
Elgin: We will now tackle the 1974 Battle of Jolo. Can you narrate the events that led to the battle? When did you notice that tensions had already heightened?
Maria: Someone went to the hinterlands, it’s the sister of my auntie’s husband. She heard a rumor that the rebels will invade from the hinterlands. She then went to the town to inform them to evacuate to Zamboanga. During that time, we were inside the camp. Then one early morning, my mother supposedly went to the market but the intelligence officer who lived inside the camp said “Where are you going?”. She said that she will go to the market”. But the officer replied “You are so brave. The town is going chaotic”. During that time, we didn't know what was happening because we lived inside the camp.
Elgin: Ah okay okay.
Maria: During that time, my father worked in the pier because he was a coast guard. He brought fruits. He noticed that near the camp, everyone was busy. There were many people. That was the time that he realized that the rebels had already entered the town.
Elgin: Ah okay okay.
Elgin: So, they invaded that time, right?
Maria: Yes, early in the morning. Around 11:00 pm. You know in the province, it’s still midnight.
Elgin: Yes, you’re right!
Maria: The rebel forces and the military fought with each other. Then they (military) conducted tora-tora. When we say tora-tora, it means to conduct scrapping by the Air Force. Because of this, the town turned into ashes. Many gasoline stations burned. The camp where we lived in was far from the town proper, but we can still feel the heat that it emanated. Our house was full of evacuees since it can accommodate many people. Since the barrack was big, we transferred inside the foxhole. At night, we turned off the light because if the naval boat saw something that was lighted up, they would bomb the place. That’s why we went inside the foxhole.
Elgin: To clarify, what’s a foxhole?
Maria: It’s a cemented pit.
Elgin: Ah okay okay!
Maria: For example, the flooring inside a house has an underground pit. It’s like a deep hole that we can hide in. Since we were small, the foxhole can accommodate many people. After sunrise, shooting continues. Many people were killed within the town proper. Jolo became a ghost town. Dead bodies were scattered everywhere.
Elgin: Were there times where you went out of the camp, or you went to other places?
Maria: We only stayed inside the camp.
Elgin: You only stayed in the barracks?
Elgin: Ah okay. So later, we will proceed to the evacuees since I’m interested in their conditions. Okay. Can you describe the lives of the people, I mean the evacuees. What were you thinking at that time?
Maria: During that time, of course, people had nothing to eat. People destroyed the grocery stores and warehouses out of desperation.
Maria: The banks were also forcefully opened.
Maria: Yes, banks like PNB and Metrobank.
Elgin: How’s the residents? What did you see?
Maria: When we were young, I can still remember that people were cooking hotcakes.
Elgin: Ah okay.
Maria: Of course, the only ingredient left in the town was flour. So later on, business owners opened their stores and let the people get their supplies.
Elgin: So, the businessmen helped the residents?
Maria: Yes, they opened the stores and let the people get items such as canned goods.
Elgin: How did the rebels treat the civilians?
Maria: They did not touch the civilians whether you’re a Muslim, or Christians. This is evident in the time of Misuari.
Elgin: The civilians?
Maria: Civilian, yes. However, they were caught in the conflict.
Elgin: So, let’s talk about looting. Where did you hear that and who really looted the town?
Maria: Pardon, pardon?
Elgin: Who looted the establishments in the town?
Elgin: What’s the story behind those who stole the pawnshops?
Maria: Many said that the military stole the pawnshops.
Elgin: Ah okay.
Maria: Even banks were stolen. I know the military (stole). But of course, there’s war.
Elgin: Okay. So, kindly describe Jolo after the battle.
Maria: It’s very disheartening. The town turned into ashes. The whole town was burned. Then just imagine, the dead bodies were scattered in the street. I don’t know if their relatives get the dead bodies. Just imagine the Air Force was conducting scrapping, the tora-tora. They really targeted people on the ground. By that time, everything was very chaotic.
Elgin: Have you seen dead bodies within the town proper? I think you mentioned this a while ago.
Maria: Inside the town proper?
Maria: Because we were not allowed to go out, we only stayed inside our house.
Elgin: Do you have classmates or neighbours who died during the encounters?
Maria: So far, none.
Elgin: Do you know some civilians who helped the rebels or soldiers?
Maria: We had relatives who became rebels. We helped them and introduced them to the military, but we did not say that they are rebels.
Elgin: When did your relatives leave Jolo and how were they after the battle?
Maria: My cousins already settled in Zamboanga City. They sold their properties in Jolo because of the peace and order situation.
Elgin: Going back to the 1974 Battle of Jolo, have you seen the evacuees? What was their condition in the barracks?
Maria: Actually, they brought their things with them.
Elgin: How about your food and water?
Maria: We fetched our water at NAWASA (Waterworks and Sewerage System Authority). We walked to Jolo just to get our water and food. Some people opened their stores. People usually cooked hotcakes since there were many sacks of flours that were available. Some people also donated canned goods and sacks of rice. But shortly after the battle, people ransacked stores. But the owners just allowed that to happen so that people could get food. People would get hungry. They would also share their food.
Elgin: How was Jolo after 1974?
Maria: Of course, since everything was burned, people went back to zero. Many lost their livelihoods. Many also migrated to Zamboanga City
Elgin: So, there were only a few original settlers in Jolo because many had migrated to Zamboanga?
Maria: Yes, actually 90% of my classmates are now in Zamboanga. Every time we have high school reunions, we usually hold it in Zamboanga City.
Interviewer: Elgin Glenn R. Salomon
What does the ethnic diversity in Jolo, as well as the refrain by the MNLF on harming civilians in the 1960s and 1970s, illustrate about how ordinary people understood ideas like separatism and nationhood? How did these understandings influence the way they perceived or experienced the Cold War in the Philippines?