HomeFeaturesSurvivors muster courage to retell horrors of Jolo siege

Survivors muster courage to retell horrors of Jolo siege

Survivors of the Jolo Siege gathered at the University of the Philippines to share their testimonies on how the tragic incident changed their lives.

The gathering was organized by Bantayog ng mga Bayani, UP Law Center, Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID), and Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission (HRVVMC) last February 12.

The Jolo Siege was a military confrontation between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the government. The battle erupted on February 7, 1974, and it is dubbed as one of the early incidents of the Moro insurgency that transpired during the Martial Law of dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

For some, it is a precedent of the Jabidah Massacre, which led to the establishment of the MNLF. The siege was also known to have led numerous Moro leaders to resist the Marcos dictatorship.

The HRVVMC, through Deputy Executive Director Lawrence Charles Salazar, said that they don’t have the exact number of the victims of the Jolo Siege. However, he mentioned that 75,749 victims submitted their applications to the agency for compensation.

Of this, only 64 individuals have been officially recognized — 32 women, 31 men, and one deceased.

“There is a big challenge for this issue and there are a lot of efforts that we need to do,” said Salazar.

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These numbers are considered low and under-recorded in terms of the damages incurred during the Jolo Siege. In a 1974 New York Times report, the scene was described to parallel that of the ruins of World War II, affecting and displacing at least 40,000 people.

Surviving the siege

The horror of seeing dogs eating bloated dead bodies — this was the portrait of Jolo during the siege as recollected by Amroussi “Cheng” Rasul, one of the survivors.

Rasul is the son of the first Muslim woman senator Santanina Rasul and the grandson of the first Muslim senator, Hadji Butu Abdulbaqui. In 2015, Rasul was appointed by their Sultan as his Prime Minister. During the forum, he recalled that he encountered three near-death experiences.

“The first one was when I was instructed to get the jeepney of my uncle. As I was going up to the airport, the soldiers asked me: Are you a rebel? They were about to shoot me but my cousin attested that I was a student. Later on, I knew that I was spared my life as the military killed rebel suspects of my age, one of them was my classmate in Notre Dame,” Rasul said.

The second time was when the Philippine Air Force strafed his home. “One of the bullets almost hit me from above and I witnessed its continuous spinning to the ground.”

He mentioned that the strafing happened because the rebels were also trapped in their house, a group led by one of the commanders of the MNLF.

“They were looking for my family but I told them that they were in the Middle East. But I cannot forget what the commander said to me: I need milk for my newborn child,” Rasul said.

Rasul was in high school at that time.

The third time was when he almost stepped on a landmine, vividly remembering its bluish-green color, after looking for food in the groceries.

Rebecca Tan, one of the panel of survivors, flew from California to share her narrative. She was only 12 years old when the siege happened and at that time, the danger did not seem to get to her, but she remembered the little details.

Photos from the archived video of the Associated Press

“One of my cousins was hit by shrapnel from a landmine. The adults were trying to take out the shrapnel with only a small pocket knife. I saw blood oozing out of his head,” Tan said.

She thought it was just a usual night — they would always try to move from her father’s house to his grandfather’s house. She recalled that her mother left money for the maid to buy bread because she knew that they would come back. But that did not happen.

“There was shooting outside and the fire started. We were kind of trapped, I am not sure if we were close to the fire but the adults were panicking,” she added.

Tan described how their family had a dilemma when their home started to catch fire. They could not decide if they should leave the house and be caught in the crossfire, or stay and be burned.

“Then suddenly, all of us decided to go out. In our mind, the bullets may have missed us but the fire was already reaching us. It is okay to get wounded by a bullet than be toasted alive,” she said.

The bombings and the fires destroyed the town. The Philippine military then reportedly used Sabre jets, C-47 gunships, and armed helicopters supplied by the United States. They also used Napalm bombs which caused severe burns, asphyxiation, unconsciousness, and death for rebels and civilians alike.

The majority of the fire would be later traced to the napalm bombs, which were only issued by the Philippine military back then. The Minister of Public Information, Francisco Tadtad, said that the MNLF rebels used Belgium-made rifles, M-16, and two 81 mm mortars as their weapons.

However, according to the accounts gathered by Agnes Shari Tan Aliman, author of the book “The Siege of Jolo, 1974,” the military denied it by saying that the MNLF was behind the bombing to escape.

“It was a very controversial issue up until now and who, particularly, ordered the burning,” said Agnes.

A decade later, napalm bombs were banned by the United Nations (UN) in times of armed conflict through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which the Philippine government ratified.

Damages beyond the infrastructure

For Amina Rasul, President of the PCID, the Jolo Siege did not only burn infrastructure, it also razed the fabric of their society from economic to political structures.

“Tens of thousands lost their lives and livelihoods, families were torn apart, and hundreds of civilians were killed. Psychological scars continue to reverberate in generations,” said Rasul.

Before the siege, Jolo was thriving. The data presented by Rasul states that there is a grave economic marginalization that impacted the region after the siege.

In 1970, Sulu ranked 37 in the number of households with piped water. In 1990, it ranked 52, marking a significant drop. It also ranked 38 in terms of households with electricity but dropped to 73 during 1990.

“We were very well off back then, even if we were neglected by the government,” Rasul added.

She also mentioned that the decline came from the destruction of infrastructure, capital flight, and brain drain.

“There was no opportunity in our region after the siege. The best and the brightest have to leave our town — a big loss to us,” she said.

Jolo was not able to regain what it was before the 1974 siege, according to the survivors. They said that its trajectory is still off-track and they were not able to join the mainstream of development.

Jolo is the capital of Sulu and the center of commerce and trade for the Tausugs. Even before Martial Law, Jolo was considered rich in resources, and agriculture. Survivors recounted how they witnessed international trade with other countries like China and Russia.

Deception of the Martial Law

The MNLF was framed as “Maoist” Muslim rebels through media reports in a bid to legitimize the attacks under dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

“The military and the Marcos government were framed as bearers of peace and order on the whole Sulu archipelago and the whole Mindanao,” said Elginn R. Salomon, a professor and author of Legitimising Martial Law: Framing the 1974 Battle of Jolo in the Bulletin Today Newspaper.

MNLF is not a Maoist insurgency movement. It is a Muslim separatist movement led by Nur Misuari. In the paper of Salomon, he detailed that the redbaiting of MNLF reached Arab countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“The objective of this label was to discredit the call for secessionist movement from the Muslim populace and the international community, especially the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC),” the paper read.

Salomon also added that the Marcos dictatorship then relied on oil extracted in Saudi Arabia and Iran. “The government feared that if both Saudi and Iran sided with the rebels, it might deny the Philippines oil and could plunge the country into chaos.”

Salomon underscored that the Philippine government resorted to misleading people to believe the nature of MNLF, redbaiting, and censorship on the details of the battle — the role of the military in the bombing and the burning of Jolo.

“Labelling is really powerful. Some individuals are being killed because they are labeled communists. Framing is powerful in shaping the minds of the people — the ethical dimensions of the public,” Salomon added.

Justice in remembrance

“History seemed to be repeating itself. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it,” said Judge Soliman Santos, Jr., author of the book “The Moro Islamic Challenge: Constitutional Rethinking for Mindanao Peace Process.”

Santos added that it may still have some hanging issues on both sides of the military and the MNLF: “The burning of the military through the use of napalm and landmines and the MNLF decision to fight in the town centers, the use of human shields.”

However, for him, there is a stronger need to understand that the role of the Moro armed resistance is both an anti-martial law dictatorship and a national liberation struggle for independence.

“In the Mindanao peace process, there is supposed to be a program for transitional justice and reconciliation. Dealing with the past and involving the elements of human rights — right to know, justice, reparation, and guarantee of non-recurrence,” said Santos.

During the forum, there were suggestions to put more importance on the events that transpired in the Jolo Siege: file a class-action suit against the Philippine government to acquire reparation for the victims of the Jolo Siege, and establish a Truth Commission and memorial to commemorate the tragic incident.

The struggle for peace in the Sulu region and the whole of Mindanao continues.

In 2014, the government reached an accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the breakaway group from the MNLF and the current largest Muslim rebel group in the country, prompting the creation of the autonomous regional authority in Bangsamoro.

The 2025 deadline for the roadmap designed on the 2014 accord is nearing. The survivors can only be hopeful in what is about to transpire in the process.

“What they could not talk about 50 years ago has, at last, been spoken,” said Dr. Juan Antonio Perez III who heads the Research and Documentation of Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

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