OPINION: Burn into memory

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Feb 06 2018 04:59 AM | Updated as of Feb 06 2018 10:11 AM

Some things should never be forgotten. Good, as well as evil things. The burning of Jolo town from February. 7 to 9, 1974 would fall under the latter category, but, paradoxically, remembering this great crime against the Bangsamoro Tausug has the potential of doing great good—that is, if we all remember, and honor the memory of the dead. 
 
For sure, it merits the hashtag #NeverAgain as much as the other heinous violations of human rights by the Marcos regime do.
 
Two years ago, I found a copy of Criselda Yabes’s award-winning novel “Below The Crying Mountain” among my things—it may have been a gift, or a book I bought for my “to read” list. The book may be a novel, but it triggered so many memories of the stories handed down to me by my elders. It hit me then as it still hits me now: What went into her novel was all too real for my people.
 
“Below The Crying Mountain” is set in the two horrendous days in February 1974, when Marcos’ martial law was in effect. This is a story that is now part of our Moro narrative, as much as the story of how we came to follow Islam. It is part of the long history the Bangsamoro that includes the history of the Sultanate of Sulu. 
 
We tell each other, and those who would listen, this narrative so we may remember who we are and what we have been through as a people. 
 
I am burning this into my memory, like a brand that goes down to the bone. I may not have been alive when Jolo burned for two days, but it is part of my history. As much as I would like the distance of forgetting, remembrance is still the best option.
 
I’d first heard about the torching of Jolo when I was in grade school. My relatives retold the stories of deaths, evacuations, the burning of houses—including ancestral homes that had stood for centuries--and the way the establishments owned by Tausug and Chinese businessmen were razed to rubble and embers. My family told me how Jolo, the repository of Sulu Sultanate’s glorious and powerful past, was flattened to scorched earth over two horrifying days by Marcos’ soldiers. 
 
Children have vivid imaginations. The stories took on a three-dimensional quality as I listened to them. My elders’ retelling of the stories made a grisly movie run in my young brain: I saw the dead, their burned bodies sprawled and broken along the roads with no one to give them their final rites. 
 
I saw in my mind’s eye how Moongate, a popular restaurant in Jolo, burned to the ground. My folks were in their late fifties as they told me their stories. They spoke of how their graduation from high school was delayed by the attacks: Their togas and freshly-pressed formal dresses gone up in the same flames that devoured their home. They told me of small children who survived stray bullets and bombs in foxholes.
 
The pain in the telling, to me, was as much a part of the stories as the words themselves. The voices of my elders told me so much about just how strong they’d had to be to survive what they couldn’t fight toe to toe. All they could do was pray, hang on for dear life, and hope Allah would show them mercy. When those two infernal days came to an end, they had to find the strength to rebuild their lives amid their mourning. They had to rebuild a city.
 
When you hear Tausugs tell the tale of the burning of Jolo you will hear my people’s resilience. You will know just how hard we fought to keep ourselves and our family members alive. This kind of strength and endurance must remain in conscious memory. Things like the siege of Marawi City happen. If I didn’t have the stories of how Marcos burned Jolo to remind me of the strength of the Bangsamoro, I wouldn’t have been able to draw on my family’s memories to stay calm as I reached out to our brethren in Marawi.
 
This is what the Moro narrative is all about: We keep our memories close at hand—both the good and the bad. The lessons are as valuable as the tales pull you in and put you where the storyteller was in the narrative. We pass them on from one generation to another, in much the same way that the oral histories of the tribes of this archipelago pass their histories on from parent to child. 
 
We want the people who come after us to never forget how lives had to be sacrificed so others could live. We want them to remember that they have the same strength, resilience and determination to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds. If only it could be about being a superhero, but, no. It is about being part of the ummah of the Bangsamoro. It is what being a minority is: We need to remember what we survived in order to be able to survive again if our narrative turns dark and bloody again.
 
“Below The Crying Mountain” retells the story of the burning of Jolo through the eyes of Rosy France, a beauty from Zamboanga City from a wealthy family with roots in the colorful colonial past of the Zamboanga’s illustrados and its cacique oligarchy. She eloped with Omar, a young teacher at the same school who brought her to Jolo, where she saw that city razed. The facts are that the Philippine military and renegade Moro freedom fighters turned the city into a theater of war, leaving 20,000 dead and an entire city reduced to ash and broken stones.
 
Remembering both the novelization and my family’s oral history, I cannot help but think of Marawi City. Forty-three years separate the destruction of both cities—and the reasons for the conflicts in both cities are not the same: Rebellion is a different thing from terrorism, after all. Jolo’s desolation took two days. The Marawi Siege unfolded as an anti-terrorism operation to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Group members entrenched there and it spanned five months. The end-result was the same: A city was destroyed and its residents reduced to bakwits in their own land. We Moros must, again, rebuild what we can.

Jolo was burned on the orders of the dictator Marcos, on the fourth day of a “major offensive by the Philippine Military against Muslim rebels,” as a United States State Department dispatch to Washington reported it. “Both sides appear to have taken heavy losses, at least five [government of the Philippines] aircraft were destroyed or damaged and most of the province capital was gutted by fire.”
 
Some newspaper accounts of the two days that Jolo burned say the rebels had burned the Jolo airport—in fact, that’s what the US dispatch report said. But other reports said it was Marcos’s soldiers who burned the airport. 
 
The dispatch reads: “Phil. Military now control [Jolo] airport and charred city but are faced with caring for large number of refugees and civilian casualties and continuing problem of dealing with rebels.”

According to that report, the government seemed to be “returning to [a] military approach to Muslim rebels and [the] relatively successful ‘policy of attraction” in [the] area seems to have been put on [the] back burner for the moment.”
 
Where the old US State Department dispatch is curt and cold, Yabes’ book framed the conflict between the government and the Moro freedom fighters in the personal struggles of its main characters. 
 
The survivors, kin to the victims, are Tausugs from the Sulu archipelago and the Zamboanga peninsula. They remember how Jolo burned with remorse or sorrow, or both. But they also tell this story for it to serve as inspiration for continuing the fight for justice. This painful tale is a strong reminder of the Bangsamoro people’s right to self-determination. It saddens me that even Moro artists, writers, and those who are engaged in other creative arts and are active cultural productions in the region seldom revisit the burning of Jolo. 
 
Whether told as part of an oral history or as a fictionalized tale, the story of the destruction of Jolo City is agonizing. It is traumatic, but it is a story we must remember. It is part of the fabric of who we Moros are. Remember it well. Keep the story alive.

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