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Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayaff
by Jose Torres Jr.
Manila : Claretian Publications, 2001

Jose Torres Jr. does what should have been done a long time ago: write about Basilan, that tormented island just off Zamboanga City, that is both the home base and battleground of the Abu Sayaff. Torres goes beyond the gory headlines and the macabre details of beheadings and massacres that are the stuff of daily news to give us a sense of how violence is woven into the fabric of everyday life in an island that often defies explanation.

Instead for explaining, Torres tells a story. He unravels the chain of events that led to the kidnapping in March 2000 and the murder six weeks later of Claretian missionary Rhoel Gallardo, the director of the Claret school in the frontier town of Tumahubong, which lies on mountainous terrain barely accessible through a road strewn with boulders. Torres portrays a place so torn by needless strife that it no longer makes sense to ask why or how it all began.

The central characters in the book are resigned to the fate of a violent death. Its most enigmatic heroine is Dolor, a blind healer and seer, who can read death in the palms of men. Death, brutality, and violence are recurring themes in the book. The storytelling begins and ends with tales of gunfire raining down on clueless civilians, bringing home the reality of this war and of the cost it has extracted in terms of innocent lives.

In a sense, Father Gallardo embodied this innocence. He was a quiet man from a middle-class family in a central Luzon town whose realities are so far removed from life in Basilan. As administrator of a Catholic school, his tasks were fairly routine, although the milieu in which he completed them was far from ordinary – a community made up of Muslims and Christians, where priests had been kidnapped and killed, and where schoolteachers were favorite targets of kidnapping by armed Muslim youths driven to banditry because there were few options available to them amid the poverty, joblessness, and despair of Basilan.

This is not a pleasant book. Sometimes the brutality is described in such graphic terms, the reader cringes. It is noteworthy that Torres handled the sexual abuse of the Abu Sayaff victims sensitively, opting to allude to the abuse rather that giving vivid descriptions. It helps that the writer, although a Manila-based journalist, was born and raised in Mindanao. Arguably, the sensibilities and the perspectives are different, and it is a pity that Mindanaoan writers are virtually ignored by the book-publishing worlds.

Torres maintains an even narrative tone and remains, for the most part, nonjudgmental. Side-by-side with stories of the Abu Sayaff’s viciousness are anecdotes of how Muslim students protected their Christian teachers from their abductors.

Some of the most memorable portions in the book are his descriptions of everyday life in Basilan; these fill a wide gap as news reports tend to focus on the violence and the body count, without providing the color and flavor of the locale. This Torres does in abundant detail.

Where he fails, however, is in providing the background and context. There is an attempt to do this at the end of the book, where readers will find a chronology of the Abu Sayaff and a capsule history of Basilan. But one wishes these were woven into the text rather than tacked on, as if they were mere afterthoughts, at the end of the book.

In the end, while Into the Mountain is a satisfying read about a place where there is not enough intelligent reporting, it also leaves the reader asking why in Basilan and why the Abu Sayaff. Violence and poverty are everyday realities in many rural slums in Luzon and the Visayas, yet this combination does not necessarily give rise to the kind of extremism and banditry that the Abu Sayaff is now renowned in the world for.

The Claretian Missionaries, who for decades have been involved in education and development work in Western Mindanao, should be commended for publishing Torres’s pioneering effort. They, perhaps more than most, should be wringing their hands wondering why, despite their well-meaning missionary work there. Basilan is mired in the pits of despair. Why did the likes of the Janjalani brothers, trained in Claretian schools on the island, become founders of the Abu Sayaff, abducting and killing the missionaries whose life’s work was devoted to educating the poor youths who would later turn against them.

It is easy enough to day, in these days of the “global war against terrorism,” that the roots of extremism lie in marginalization and poverty. Even President Arroyo and US Secretary of State Colin Powell spout this rhetoric. But the specific contexts that gave rise to the Abu Sayaff need further probing. That story has yet to be told.

Source: Coronel, Shiela S. Investigative Magazine. (January-March 2002) Understanding Basilan.

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