WHILE the rest of Mindanao is generally peaceful lately, there are areas in the island still caught in a long history of terrorism. Civilians and law enforcement officers have suffered the violence that causes fear and anxiety among entire communities.
Property has been destroyed and people’s lives disrupted. Atrocities are being perpetrated by lawless individuals including teenagers, some of whom have joined the bandits or terror groups. There are recruits as young as nine years old.
Many of these bandits, however, have quietly returned to the fold of the law.
For instance, more than 80 members of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan province recently surrendered to the government and renounced their affiliation with the terrorists and their violent past.
An 18-year old who wants to be identified only as “Habib,” is one of them. He left the terror group and returned to civilian life and lives freely again. Raised in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, he got involved with the ASG when he was barely 14 and only a Grade 4 student.
It started simply enough. Some ASG members asked him to buy food in the public market until it became his daily routine before going to school and before heading for home after classes.
“I was ordered by the Abu in Baguindan to buy something in the market everyday. One day they did not allow me to go back home,” Habib said.
Soon, he became a member of the group with regular access to the ASG camp in Barangay Baguindan in Tipo-Tipo. The camp was recently overrun by government troops.
According to Habib, ASG members receive a monthly allowance, one more reason that prevented him from leaving the group. “Inside the camp, a single member is given P5,000 a month, those who are married get P10,000 so that they will no longer have a hard time giving support to their family,” he said.
Habib is the fifth of eight siblings. His father died when he was six and his mother became an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) when he became an ASG member.
I have no more father, and my mother was no longer around, all my siblings are married, so there was nothing to keep me from joining the ASG,” he said.
Habib recalled many experiences in the four years he stayed in the ASG camp. He was assigned as errand boy who helps in the day to day needs of the combatants – buying food, cooking and helping prepare the weapons before an operation.
He was once assigned to abduct a woman in Tipo-Tipo.
“If there was going to be a kidnapping in Zamboanga, someone would be waiting at the Port of Zamboanga, then another one would wait in Isabela, Basilan. Upon arrival in Isabela, the victim will be brought directly to Lamitan and finally to Tipo-Tipo where we wait for the kidnap victim in Baguindan,” Habib revealed.
When asked how ASG members treated the kidnap victim, Habib said, “When I was the one asked to fetch the female kidnap victim, I wanted her to escape out of pity. But my older fellow ASG members warned me once that if I let the victim escape, the group will kill me.”
“If you are going to show your sympathy to them [hostages], or feel afraid for what was going to happen, you will get scolded by them [ASG leaders],” he said.
With his young peers, Habib witnessed ASG leaders beheading hostages inside the camps. He said the group’s leaders would first ask for volunteers among them to do the beheading.
“I have witnessed on several occasions the beheading of a hostage whose family failed to give the ransom demanded. If there was someone to be beheaded that day, all of us were ordered to watch. The commander will get mad if we didn’t,” Habib said.
He added that the commanders, especially the senior ones, were the ones who beheaded hostages.
Habib said in 2016 at Baguindan, he was assigned combat duties against government soldiers. “If you are armed, you would feel brave.”
He added that he led a violent life full of uncertainty until he yearned for a decent and peaceful life as a civilian.
“I wanted to escape but I didn’t know how to do do it. I was also afraid,” Habib said.
He saw an opportunity to escape during his participation in an encounter against government troops in Baguindan last year.
“After the war in Baguindan, that was the time I thought about escaping and surrender,” according to Habib.
“I was already tired of life in the camp, I wanted to go back to school and study, I missed all my siblings, and I wanted to escape and not live in fear constantly but I also need to hide,” he said in tears.
When he finally reached home, he learned his mother had just returned home for good from working abroad as an OFW.
“I was so happy when I saw my mother in our house together with my siblings,” Habib said.
“That is why I have finally decided to go back to the fold of the law so that our lives would become normal again, especially my mother has returned from abroad too,” he added.
Habib said he wants to go back to school. “If I can graduate from college, I want to enter the Philippine National Police so that I would in turn be the protector of the people of Basilan against the Abu Sayyaf.”
He is one of the returnees who underwent psycho-social intervention, debriefing and dialogue with the military and government officials and took part in a brief course on farming.
Finally, Habib is on the road to freedom and a new life.