The Basilan Operation

Still reeling from that unforgettable trip to Sulu and Tawi-Tawi last year, I already found myself onboard a fast craft ferry from Zamboanga to the one of the most feared towns in the Philippines - Isabela City, Basilan.

I was a bit more weary this time, since that Jolo experience. If Sulu is where the bad people live, the big bosses of the bad people reside in Basilan, and consider it their home base. My agitation got worse when I recently watched a documentary in Nat Geo on the Dos Palmas kidnappings. The hostages were taken to Basilan, where the war between the government and the Abu Sayyaf rebels was at its peak.

So when we arrived from a surprisingly comfortable ferry ride at 7AM in the morning, still a little bit dozed, we were unsurprisingly picked up by the military police. We rode the patrol car immediately and drove off to our hosts. 

I was shocked to see Isabela very neat and organized. There weren't many people, and the surroundings looked very peaceful. It didn't feel like the dirty and distressful Jolo, where everyone looked at us, strangers. There were several franchised establishments, like Jollibee, which says a lot about the progress of the town.

We were here because of a shoot, and we were met up with our gracious hosts from an NGO. We were told that our shoot will take place in Matarling, around 30 minutes away from the city. I was asking if the area was safe. The only answer I got was, "may kasama naman tayong militar". I guess, to them, nowhere is safe.

So we rode the patrol car and conveyed our way to smooth winding roads. The scenery was stark peaceful. There were several rubber tree plantations, as rubber is a main product of Basilan. I even heard Goodyear gets its rubber supply from here.

The eerie peacefulness was very disturbing, and images of ambushes grazed my mind. There were curves, some blind ones, and what if some rebels has set a trap for us. I took out my iPod and set my music in full blast. Finally, we arrived at a small village, in the town of Matarling.

I was glad that we arrived safe. I really think it was more dangerous riding a patrol car. Nevertheless, I got down in high spirits, and got to work. We were in the middle of nowhere, and we had to hike around 30 minutes more to nowhere.

We looked like a military operation. With our cameras, tripod, and military escorts, I really felt like I was part of a war movie, or a news team. We hiked our way through the coconut plantations, passing through a river.

Good thing it wasn't raining. I didn't know that we would be hiking, so I was in my white sneakers that turned into chocolate afterwards.

Finally, we arrived at a hillside, where our shoot location would be. Well, I'll skip the work part, but as you can see, again, the pictures showed that we looked like a military operation ready to go on assault.

After the shoot, that lasted 3 hours, we made our way back to Basilan, since our ferry leaves at 3PM. We  passed by another town, very clean and again, peaceful. It looked like any bustling town in the country, and I was happy to see smiling faces, both Christians and Muslims all learning to how to bake a cake.

We went back to Isabela and had lunch in where else but Jollibee. We ate breakfast in a small restaurant near the ferry, and Jollibee's the only other dining option. I wandered off as they entered the fast food joint, to take pictures of the town's plaza. Two military guys rushed to follow me, which made me panic a little. I thought there was something going on. They told me I should not just go off alone, since a lot of kidnappings happen in the plaza. 

After lunch, we had the opportunity to go around Isabela, and tour some sights. The center of Isabela looked developed, with small shops and establishments. There was only one hotel though, and it looked unmaintained. We were brought to this resort, somewhere by the mountainside, around 15 minutes outside of Isabela.

The Isawad Resort is a popular getaway for the locals of Basilan. The huge spring water pool was amazing, and the water looked so refreshing. The resort was playing party music so some of the guests were dancing by the pool - kind of like spring break, which was really weird to see at this part of the world. 

We were then brought to a waterfall that was visible from the road. By this time I was already at ease with Basilan. I was rushing to take pictures, stopping the patrol car to capture views of landscapes. We were told to go back to the pier as the last ferry was leaving. After circling the city hall and the rest of Isabela, we found ourselves back in the pier, boarding a ferry that was jam packed. 

Basilan was such an eye opener for me. It wasn't turbulent Jolo, nor relaxing Tawi-Tawi. I got an eerie feeling of fear amidst a backdrop of peacefulness. Basilan is beautiful and does not deserve the bad image it currently holds. But of course, we couldn't do anything about that. Till then, I just pray for peace and prosperity in Basilan. 


  1. been wanting to go there for ages... thanks for sharing :-)


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