Berwina Timbang, a grade six student in Sultan Jamalul Kiram Elementary School in Maimbung, Sulu, was diligently listening to her English teacher when I first saw her. I was in Sulu then for a one-day news coverage. Occasionally, she would glance outside the window, her eyes innocent and her face hopeful. In a class of around forty students, Berwina was among the very few who can speak Tagalog. The rest can only converse in their native Tausug language.
During their break time, I talked to Berwina. She is a timid, young girl – a little too shy to speak in front of our camera. I had to adjust my voice to a friendlier tone to make her feel comfortable. Berwina told us the tale of her life – that she has been in Sulu since birth, and it has been peaceful since. Contrary to how most Manilenyos would think of Sulu, their community was rather quiet, and she has never heard a single gunshot, much less be aware of the insurgency that happens in other parts of their province.
“Pangarap kong maging guro (It is my dream to be a teacher),” Berwina says hesistantly, when asked about her dreams. “Pero ayaw ko dito sa Sulu. Gusto ko pumunta sa Manila o sa Davao para ma-enjoy ko naman ang buhay ko. (But I don’t like it here in Sulu. I want to go to Manila or Davao so I can enjoy my life.)” I was almost in tears.
A Challenging Assignment
Admittedly, I was half excited and half anxious when my superiors told me I will be sent to Sulu for coverage. It was just a one-day assignment to cover Go Negosyo Para Sa Kapayapaan – a pioneering public-private partnership project aiming to alleviate poverty in the province. For many years now, Sulu has always been in the margins, or what we call laylayan, as they have been behind other areas in Mindanao like Zamboanga and Davao in terms of development.
From the Zamboanga City Airport, we took a 20-minute chartered flight to Jolo, Sulu’s capital. Together with our team are representatives from various organizations in the private sector, all hoping to give their generous shares in helping Sulu. Sulu doesn’t have a proper airport, only a fenced military area where private planes and C130s can land. Tausugs and travelers going to Sulu usually take the slowboat from Zamboanga, which takes 8 hours to get to its shores.
Before the flight, our group leader told us to take extreme caution when dealing with the locals. Sulu is a conflict area, a homebase to many rebel groups including the infamous Abu Sayyaf. Broadcast journalist Ces Orena-Drilon and her team was kidnapped in Indanan, Sulu in 2008. With that, we were strictly ordered never to leave the convoy without any of our military escorts.
Upon landing, we were shepherded by our military escorts to the Sulu Provincial Capitol to pay a courtesy call to Governor Abdusakur “Totoh” Tan II. He is part of the Tan political family of Sulu that practically ran the province for decades. A portrait of him and President Rodrigo Duterte is displayed in his office, among other ornaments that show the colorful culture of the Tausugs. Governor Tan laments the lack of many basic facilities in his province, like medical equipment for their hospitals and books for their schools.
Going around, one would notice that the streets of Sulu are a picture of how impoverished the province is. I saw no major establishment except for a Palawan Pawnshop near the capitol. Kids who have never been outside Sulu probably have never seen and tasted Mcdonald’s or Jollibee. Very few areas have electricity and Internet connection.
We visited the Hadji Butu School of Arts and Trade or HABSAT, one of the very few learning institutions there. HABSAT offers vocational courses for their youth, in a bid to increase their chances of employment after graduation. The study areas looked more like a barracks than classrooms. The garments class of around 20 students had to share one sewing machine. There was only one drawing table for the drafting class, and their automotive and machine class had no equipment. Their teacher, in jest, told us that they only teach in theory because they had nothing to use anyway. I saw only one classroom had lights – the classroom for electrical students.
After that, we visited the next town, Maimbung, to do an ocular of the Sultan Jamalul Kiram Elementary School. The classrooms were likewise old. It was a quiet place, and at first glance, one would not think that it was situated in a conflict area.
“Tahimik naman dito, lagi kaming nandito e. Kung may bakbakan, sa may bundok yun, (It’s quiet here; we’re always here. If there is a clash, it’s in the mountains.)” Sitti Usba Paradji, the school principal, tells us. But she confessed that at the back of her mind, she still expects their students to leave Sulu after finishing high school. She walks us around, stopping in a class of Grade 6 students who were studying English then. “Karamihan sa kanila, mahirap, pagsasaka lang ang ikinabubuhay (Most of them are poor; farming is their only livelihood),” she adds helplessly “…kaya ko sinasabi sa kanila, mag-aral mabuti para maka angat-angat naman. (That’s why I tell them: study well so they can have progress)“
We also toured around the towns of Indanan and Patikul, known for high levels of insurgency. But to my surprise, what I saw were lush green farmlands, with lots of coconut trees. Bahay-kubos dot their major highway while cows graze around. I didn’t hear bombs being detonated, or guns being fired. We all got back to Manila in one piece. But all throughout the trip, we were escorted by AFP and PNP personnel. Safety first, always.
The Story of Hope
The group we are with pioneered “Go Negosyo Para sa Kapayapaan” — a plethora of projects which aim to help in easing poverty in the region. As a starter, they did groundbreaking ceremonies for two housing and classroom building projects. It was an initiative of Go Negosyo, joined by friends from various organizations like SM and Metrobank. They also launched Kabalikat sa Kabuhayan, a program geared to increase productivity of Tausug farmers by introducing scientific farming methods. These may not be grand but are nevertheless significant steps towards achieving economic prosperity in Sulu.
“Kung puro military projects ang gagawin para mawala criminality dito, baka hindi tayo matapos, (If only military projects will be done to combat criminality here, we will never finish)” said Sulu Governor Totoh Tan. He wishes for more economic projects in the belief that putting an end to poverty, or at least trying to do so, is the long-term solution to achieve peace in their province.
He adds “Mas dama na namin ang pagbabago ngayon. Maya’t maya may dumarating para tumulong (We can feel more improvement now. Help arrives frequently),” Governor Tan is a proud supporter of President Duterte, the first Mindanaoan chief executive.
The Story of Berwina Timbang
Berwina’s story, her wanting to leave the province and enjoy life somewhere else, is a common narrative of many Tausugs. The idea of migrating to Manila, or Cebu, or Davao seems so good a promise for children who have been trapped in poverty in their desolate island. Peace and prosperity remain elusive, that kids there live in despair instead of grand dreams for their future. But all is not lost if we will pitch in and help.
After touring the province for a day, I firmly believe that insurgency isn’t Sulu’s biggest problem — poverty is. Until the government finds a long-term solution to fix this, Tausug children like Berwina will still dream of leaving Sulu.
About the Author:
Jervis Manahan is a News Reporter for PTV 4. He is part of the original roster that founded SubSelfie.com He was previously a News Writer for 24 Oras and Unang Balita and a News Researcher for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. Broadcast Communication 2012, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.