MANILA: Darwisa Jakiram, the village head of a town in Indanan province on Sulu island, knows the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf group all too well.
She was once kidnapped by the militants and now suffers from stress and high blood pressure whenever she feels they may be in the area.
“I had just withdrawn a lot of money from an ATM in Jolo and was making my way back to my town when a car pulled up and men grabbed me from the tricycle I was riding,” she said. “I was only kidnapped for a few hours until they had the money they wanted but it was traumatising."
Soldiers in Jolo get ready to go off on a week-long operation to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
Darwisa is now doing her part to ensure others in her community are safe. Her village houses one of the five evacuation centres in the area providing shelter to families who have been displaced by the fighting between the government and extremist groups like Abu Sayyaf.
In times of need, they turn their elementary school into a refugee centre, which at one point housed hundreds of families fleeing from ongoing skirmishes in their own villages.
Darwisa describes her constituents as the victims in the war against terrorism. She has seen first-hand the destruction caused by the ongoing battles between the Philippine military and members of the militant group, whom locals call "soldiers".
“People are scared because of the firefight between the military and extremist groups,” said Darwisa. “They’re scared of getting hit by a stray bullet or being used as a human shield.”
In September, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) reported that more than 4,000 families from at least five towns in Sulu had been affected by the ongoing intensified military campaign against the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu.
Myrna Jo Henry, information officer of ARMM’s Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team, said most families were displaced and had moved out of their villages to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
Marines from the Philippine military doing morning exercises. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
A Philippine military helicopter flies over Sulu. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
But by moving out, families disrupt their lives - they lose their livelihood and source of income, their children stop going to school and they live in cramped conditions with hundreds of other families.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte intensified his campaign against the militants after the group was blamed for a spate of abductions off the Philippine coast and bombings in Davao City which killed 14 people and injured 67.
In September, he declared a “state of lawlessness” in the area which led to a higher police presence, more checkpoints and military.
Duterte said he wanted the Abu Sayyaf destroyed, adding that it was pointless to talk peace to them because it was not clear whom they were fighting for or what ideology they have. He has taken the fight to the thick jungle areas of Sulu and Basilan islands that are Abu Sayyaf strongholds.
In this cat-and-mouse game, the Abu Sayyaf is constantly on the move around the jungles of Patikul, Indanan and Parang, slipping in and out of villages. The members put civilians in danger by using the homes of their relatives and friends to hide from troops. Many locals take the militants in and lie to passing armed forces personnel, fearing reprisals if they do not comply.
A food vendor in the port area of Tawi Tawi. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
Octavio Dinampo, a teacher who lives in Indanan, who was himself an Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim, said one of the reasons why the group has not been eliminated despite the best efforts of previous administrations is because it uses blood and political ties to evade the authorities.
The military has tried to get the cooperation of the locals, asking for information about Abu Sayyaf members passing through or staying in the villages, but it is hard to gain trust if they are only positioned there temporarily.
“About a third of the Abu Sayyaf are hiding in villages,” he said. “In these villages, they hold the community hostage. I sense that people are silent from fear. The Armed Forces of the Philippines presence only comes and goes and isn’t enough to keep them safe."
According to Macrina Morados, dean at the Institute of Islamic Studies Centre at the University of the Philippines, there have been reports of the Philippine military making villages hostile areas to prevent Abu Sayyaf militants from seeking shelter there.
“Wherever there is a military operation, they will often destroy the crops of the ordinary people because the military thinks that when the Abu Sayyaf reach the area, they use the village as a resting point to refuel and harvest the corn and vegetable,” she said.
The military said its campaign is bearing fruit - the Abu Sayyaf is now on the defensive and hiding out in various villages in Sulu and Basilan. But while the group's activities may be curtailed for now, it is the innocent civilians who continue paying a high price.