Travel By Heart: Lamitan, Basilan – Part 04

I have mentioned before, I was never good at riding boats big or small as I always get seasick. I politely told the doctor that I need to get some air as I’m already about to vomit, she smiled and said: “Go ahead”. I went out to a door leading to the side of the ship, was surprised to see a member of the coast guard with a long rifle looking out into the ocean, I smiled at him and he smiled back. I don’t know what I was thinking but I blurted out, “Have you ever been to Lamitan?”. His answer actually surprised me. “I have been assigned on this boat for a while now, but I have never set foot on Lamitan”. When I asked “Why?”, he said, “There is no reason to.”

I went back to talk to the doctor a little bit more before arriving at Lamitan. I finally dropped the bomb on her and asked: “I was told that it is relatively safe to go to Lamitan, is it?”. She looked at me and said, “It is relatively safe… but there are things that you need to be aware of, one of them would be kidnappings.” I asked her to elaborate.

For those who are not from the Philippines Lamitan, Basilan is known for the terrorist group called Abu Sayaff. The group has plagued the island for years, usually with their high profile kidnappings and their endless war with the government.

“The truth is… it is not the Abu Sayaff that does the kidnappings, it is done by people that we call urban hunters”. I have never heard or read of such a term so I was deeply interested in what she is telling me. “Urban hunters do the profiling, they look for possible victims once they find a target, they are the ones who do the kidnapping. After that, they turn over the person to the Abu Sayaff for some amount. Then it is up to the group as to how they will price the ransom money and handle the negotiations.” I was really surprised to hear this, never knew that this is how the whole kidnap for ransom business operates here. “You can be a target, it is pretty obvious that you are not from around here. With all your black riding gear and your camera’s, it is easy to mistake you for a journalist of some sort.” Was not surprised by this one.

“Once we arrive at port I will instruct the Special Forces to accompany you, I’m very good friends with their captain. I will introduce you to him just to add to your safety. He will take care of you.” With those words, I felt like a heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders. It also got me excited, I have been always been fond of the military. Especially the branches with highly trained soldiers with specific tasks. From what I have heard our Special Forces is one of the best in the world it would be a treat to actually meet them in person.

We finally arrived. I went down to where my motorcycle was parked, prepared my gear and myself. The big steel door of the RORO slowly opened. One by one the vehicles inside went out, the man with the yellow shirt that introduced me to the doctor signaled, it’s my turn to go out. As I do, I saw the doctor approach a truck loaded with soldiers, one by one they went down to greet her. As she was talking to them, she looked at my direction and pointed at me. Then she looked back to the soldier, that’s when the soldier signaled me to follow their truck. There was an eerie feeling at the port, there were an unusual amount of eyes that were glued to me, watching my every move. They looked at me as I trail behind the military truck.

A million scenarios went through my head as I follow them, all ranging from bad to worse. The ride going to the SF Base was short and dusty, as we arrive a big wooden gate welcomed us. From the outside you would not immediately know that it was a military base, it’s evident that the materials that they used were what was available to them. It looked and felt like a beach resort, to be honest.

The wooden gate was opened for us by soldiers with rifles. The truck parked then one by one the soldiers inside it went down, but I did not stop riding inside the base until I was near the beach, one word came out of my mouth “Wow”. I’m now looking at the mooring station. It does look something that you would see on travel brochures. It had a long wooden bridge with a hut at the end surrounded by the blue ocean, everything was serene and peaceful… a stark contrast to what the island is known for.

A tall man with an imposing stance wearing running shorts and army green shirt approached me, he extended his hand and said: “I’m the captain of this base”. Apparently, he has been briefed even before we arrived. The doctor approached so she can formally introduce me to the captain. She said “I will leave you with the very capable hands of the captain, he will take care of you from now on. I have to leave to attend to my clinic”. and just like that, she left me.

The captain invited me to a hut that resembles a small restaurant it had a TV and a bar. He asked me to sit in front of him before he could even ask me a question. I immediately said that I’m not what some people think I am, “I’m not from the media, I don’t work for anyone. I don’t want you guys to think that I’m taking advantage of the situation since I’m improperly introduced as a media person”. He smiled, apparently on the information that he gathered I was still “someone from the media”. After the clarification, we talked for a good 10 minutes. He asked me different questions about what I’m doing and I asked him questions about the place and his job. The last questions he asked of me was “So, where do you want to go?”.

“I honestly don’t know. None of this is part of my plan.” I replied. “Ok, here’s what I’m going to do. I will have a truck take you wherever you want to go,” he answered quickly and very stern. “Respectfully I don’t think that would work. I will just be wasting their time as I have no clue whatsoever as to where I need to go. I think it would be ideal if you could give me suggestions, I will visit it one by one on your truck.” I suggested. Then he quickly asked, “You came here to ride right?.”. I was startled with the question that it took me a while to say “Yeah”, “Then ride.” he replied.

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