I have mentioned here a number of times that I tend to be rather adventurous, and I tend to go to places where a lot of other foreigners don’t really go. One place that I went to earlier this year that was sort of “off the beaten path” was to the Island of Basilan. Basilan is in the Sulu Archipelago, south of Zamboanga City. Basilan is notorious as a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an Al Qaeda splinter here in the Philippines. As such, not many tourists go there, to say the least.
Actually, I was taking a trip to Tawi Tawi, which is further south of Basilan in February, 2006. Tawi Tawi is actually closer to Malaysia than it is to Zamboanga, that shows just how far south it is. I had to fly from Davao City to Zamboanga City, then take another flight to Tawi Tawi on a small plane. On my flight to Zamboanga, I was reading the in-flight magazine and they had an article about things to do in Zamboanga. One part of the article was telling about Basilan, which is about a one hour ride on a fastcraft boat from Zamboanga City. The article was interesting to me, and I found myself wanting to go to Basilan. After coming back to Zamboanga from Tawi Tawi, I would have two days to kill before the next flight to Davao, so the trip to Basilan was particularly interesting to me. I wasn’t sure, though, so I kept it in the back of my mind. I had never heard anything good about Basilan, only how dangerous it was, so I was a bit skeptical about going there.
After returning from Tawi Tawi, my blood started getting some excitement when I thought about the possibility of visiting Basilan. I called my friend, Bobby Timonera, who has connections all over Mindanao. If anybody could give me good advice about a visit to Basilan, it would be Bobby. Bobby listened to what I had to say, and told me that he would get back to me. Within a couple of hours, Bobby called and gave me contact information from a fellow named “Rico.” Bobby said that he knew Rico’s mother, and that Rico would be happy to go to Basilan with me and act as my guide there.
I talked on the phone with Rico, and we agreed to meet on Sunday morning at my hotel, so that we could talk for a while and possibly make the trip. Rico showed up right on time on Sunday morning, and we had breakfast at the hotel. What a nice guy! I was really happy to know Rico, he was a great guy, and very knowledgeable about Basilan. As I talked to Rico, I found that he has an “NGO” (non-governmental organization) on Basilan. In the USA we don’t usually use the term “NGO” although it is used in many other countries. Basically it is a non-profit or charitable organization. Rico’s NGO is called MOPI (Maluso Outreach Program, Inc.) and it assists children in Basilan. Rico is very dedicated to helping people in Basilan, particularly children.
We had a great time in Basilan, and Rico was really a good guide. Not only did he know all the places to visit, it seemed that everybody on the Island knows him! Everyplace that we would stop, it seemed that there were people who knew Rico and would wave and say “Hi” to him when we passed.
During our time there in Basilan, we visited Isabela City, which is the Capital City of the Province of Basilan. We also went to Lamitan. For those of you who are not familiar with Lamitan, it is famous because it is a place where American Missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham were held by the Abu Sayyaf Group in a kidnapping in 2000 and 2001. There was a major gunfight at the hospital in Lamitan, which resulted in the escape of the Abu Sayyaf and their hostages, leading to many more months of captivity for the Burnhams. I actually visited the very hospital where the Abu Sayyaf had been involved in the gunfight, which was a very humbling and interesting experience. One of the Abu Sayyaf hostages who died in the ordeal is actually buries right next to the front door of the hospital, and I paused there to honor her presence.
Without Rico Valmonte, I probably would not have been able to visit Basilan. Having him with me, with his experience allowed me to gather the courage to visit the troubled island, and I hope that someday I can go back there again. Right now, things are really hot in Basilan, it’s really back to being a war zone again. In July 10 Philippine Marines were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Basilan, and now there is a strong military presence there, with war seemingly ready to break out at any minute. I do hope that this passes and I can return to the island again sometime in the future.