"Contrary to both their self-image and the public image they carefully cultivated, the Abu Sayyaf bandits lacked elementary discipline. They had commitment, which was not necessarily the same thing."
The second part of the report-review I wrote after reading Gracia Burnham’s "In the Presence of My Enemies" came out on May 10, 2003.
LATE in July 2001, about two months after the Abu Sayyaf raided the Dos Palmas resort, the hostages and their abductors found themselves guests of another fugitive group — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
"To reach this camp, which was along a beautiful river, we had to descend a steep cliff. This was the toughest terrain we had dealt with yet," Gracia Burnham writes in "In the Presence of My Enemies," the searing, finally serene account of her 377 days in captivity.
The camp on Basilan island "belonged to the MILF," Gracia says. And for the next few weeks, it was home to the ragged group of captors and captives. Soon after arriving at the site, the hostages learned that the MILF, the largest secessionist movement in the country, enjoyed more advantageous terms with the authorities. "Their dialogue with the government was going better than the Abu Sayyaf’s," she reports.
The book does not dwell on the relationship between the bandit group and the Moro separatists. It doesn’t even have a single conclusion to make about the MILF. But the mere presence of the Abu Sayyaf in the camp seems to confirm repeated allegations by the Armed Forces that the MILF was coddling the bandits. Apparently, the MILF was taking advantage of the friendlier environment to give support to the smaller but higher-profile kidnap group.
In the end, according to Gracia’s account, the two groups of hostages that were split less than a month previously were reunited in the hard-to-access camp. And the weeks the entire group eventually spent in the MILF site proved to be, relatively, the least stressful.
Reflecting on their captivity, Gracia says the hostages either had no time to themselves, because they were walking all day and all night to escape government soldiers, or too much time on their hands, sitting around with nothing to do.
"The weeks in the MILF camp along the river were definitely the second of the two," she writes.
The Abu Sayyaf did not lack for sympathizers or supporters, at least in the early stages of the hostage crisis.
Once, fleeing the chaos in Lamitan, the bandits and their growing number of hostages reached a school sometime around noon. It was about a week after the Dos Palmas group had landed on Basilan. "Although classes weren’t in session, there were a few teachers around, and for some reasons they weren’t afraid of us," Gracia writes. A cow was killed and cooked, and boiled eggs, noodles and rice were prepared. The women hostages were also given a change of clothes.
Pit stops like this marked the hostages’ increasingly desperate race through the Basilan jungle. But when the Abu Sayyaf’s money ran out, supplies became a problem, even on the island which the bandits knew intimately.
The first time the food supply dropped, Gracia writes: "People would show up with extra goodies and, when questioned, would say, Oh, this is ‘personal.’" With the bandits on the run on Basilan, the transfer was financed by some P15 million in ransom money that a benefactor had paid for the Burnhams.
The proof that Abu Sabaya and his group handling the hostages had received the ransom was visible: new equipment, food on the table. "At least the Abu Sayyaf had new phones, thanks to the ransom money, which allowed us to order supplies," Gracia writes, recalling the events of May 2002.
The bandit group also received support from the media, in particular Radyo Agong, the Radio Mindanao Network station Gracia describes as friendly to the Abu Sayyaf. The news, sometime in the first quarter of 2002, that the negotiations with the general who wanted 50 percent of the ransom money had fallen through came via a "coded message" aired on Radyo Agong as a public service bulletin.
The announcer, using "a tip-off name for Sabaya," used a real estate transaction storyline to convey the message that "the bank" had rejected the offer to sell and would now "take the house by force."
The message was unmistakable. Gracia recalls. The announcer, for good measure, had added a piece of advice: Leave the house to avoid trouble.
It was time to move on.
Commitment but no discipline
Contrary to both their self-image and the public image they carefully cultivated, the Abu Sayyaf bandits lacked elementary discipline. They had commitment, which was not necessarily the same thing.
Sometime in November 2001, just before the holy season of Ramadan, when Gracia, her husband Martin and Lamitan hospital head nurse Ediborah Yap were the only hostages left, Gracia asked Abu Musab, the second-in-command of the Abu Sayyaf, why it was all right to steal the cow they were now cooking. Musab’s answer was straight to the point: The warrior fighting a holy war had priority over all others. Gracia pressed the case. Can holy warriors still steal even when they already live in a pure Islamic state?
The answer, coursed through Ediborah, who served as interpreter, was hard to forget: "If we need it, it’s not really stealing."
The disconnect between the Abu Sayyaf’s rigid theory and rather flexible practice became even more visible during the Ramadan fasting season itself, when the bandits ended up eating more, not less.
Late in 2001 or early in 2002, Abu Sabaya, the bandit spokesperson, engaged the Burnhams in a conversation about Muhammad Ali, who was featured in the December 2001 issue of Reader’s Digest.
Ali, the most famous Muslim convert alive, condemned the terrorists who had brought down the World Trade Center, saying they and others like them were "not real Muslims."
"Well, of course Muhammad Ali would denounce this," Gracia quotes Sabaya’s retort. "He’s living the good life in America!"
Once, sometime in September 2001, the Abu Sayyaf made a terrible mistake.
Using Joel, another hostage picked up in Lamitan, as her main source, Gracia recounts the massacre that nobody wanted.
The Abu Sayyaf had planned to stake out a major road, stop any jeepney, and then relieve it of any food packages it might be carrying.
A jeepney loaded on top with sacks of rice came into view. Riding shotgun was a Cafgu regular (a militiaman). When the bandits emerged from the shadows, the Cafgu raised his gun.
That prompted the Abu Sayyaf to open fire, sweeping the entire jeepney with their Armalite rifles.
Eight or nine civilians died in the massacre.
As it turned out, the Cafgu’s gun wasn’t even loaded. Even children had died in the ambush. And at least two of the victims were related to an Abu Sayyaf member.
The massacre helped make some of the previously sympathetic villagers hostile.
"We walked through several Muslim villages that were totally deserted … But the civilians had fled, knowing that wherever the Abu Sayyaf came, bloodshed followed," Gracia writes.