WAR DIARY: Of shells and tanks

School Take-home Project: A War Diary

Today, I am working on a long-due school project, started in 1974 but was never finished. It is to be a diary of my life as an elementary grade school pupil. As a Martial Law baby, to chronicle my generation’s witnessing the crests and falls in the almost four decades of Mindanao conflict, this diary begins with memoirs of the 1970’s, spent in turbulent childhood in Jolo, Sulu.

Circa 1970. Free ticket to live movies

I was one tiny first grader in a barangay elementary school in Jolo town, when the  Moro National Liberation front (MNLF), or more popularly known to us as aktibis and mawis had become very active in 1971. On some afternoons, my classmates and I would walk home from school and would be caught in the cross-fires between AFP and the aktibis. We would then scamper for cover under the fish vendors’ lean-to stalls because the rich Chinese merchants inside the big stores and glass-walled shops had shooed us away and hastily locked themselves in the safety of heavy metal gates, leaving us children out. Under the wet and slimy wooden fish-table, I would be watching the street-fight, as one would a Fernando Poe starrer.

My memories of the MNLF fighters were usually of young men, just about the age of my eldest teenaged brother, sporting long hair not too different from my brother’s own hippie-inspired locks, except that their’s would not be of rustic guitar but armalites, Thompson and AK 47s slang proudly across their shoulders. The grenade launchers and bandolier heavy with rounds of ammos were cris-crossed and strapped to their chests. Unlike my brother’s hippies, they did not croon like Elvis or the Beatles but chanted a slogan: Hulah, Bangsa iban Agama! (Homeland, people and God) and the chorus of Allahu Akbar! (God is Great). As they exchanged volleys of fire with their enemies, they would stand, not crouch. Suicidal as it looked to me, they held their head up high as they rushed and hacked to finish off a gasping Philippine Army soldier with their glinting barung (bladed weapon) and bolo, afterwards, seeking no cover nor shield, just as valiantly fell down chanting their battlecries as they breathed their last.

This ordinary street scene I have witnessed, and more of details of the horrible war had been stored in my mental war-diary.

November, 1973. The Sikatunas

Down the languid streets of Jolo, the military armored personnel carrier or amphibian tanks were a common sight. We called them the Sikatuna (I am not sure how it got such nice nick). Their slow rolling movement also got them baptised as kagang-kagang, or crabs. The tanks would prowl around town practically all day on almost every day, creating so much impact in the minds of children, that they had become associated with evacuation and death. How we dreaded meeting tanks on the road on our way to school, and always avoided crossing paths with it, for doing so was sort of a bad-luck. Our dread was so strong in much the same way as to avoid meeting hearst on a black limo in the streets today.

The Sikatuna’s heavy chained wheels dented deep and ugly claw-marks into the soft but smoothened asphalt road in front of our school-house. It dug into the padded dirt-road and churned out sticky alkitran, on its wake leaving behind a trail of rocks and rubbish that emitted out a putrid smell of gas and toxin that prevented us from playing balatin (patintero), tumba-lata, bending and all other street-games usually played after school. I’m sure, the same ‘claws’ have also wounded and forever left ugly scars in the hearts and minds of young ones in Sulu, like myself. Many times, these metal monsters had lead a victory joy-ride to show-off the military’s recent hauls from the gimba (jungle), and like trophies, the AFP would parade wounded MNLF or cadavers of insurgents around. Some of the captured aktibis looked battle-weary and haggard, but the military took much delight in embarrassing the famous Tausug pride as, all hog-tied and chained, placards hanging from their neck where written in red bold letters, they were branded as “thieves, bandits and murderers”. But the smoldering fire in their glinting unrelenting eyes—defied the unconquered spirit within – those had been haunting.

December 1973. A Postponed Christmas

It was in January of 1974 when we returned back to school without the usual enthusiasm since previously, we had to let December fly away without having a class Christmas party. I felt very bad about that since I already had my gifts wrapped, with the usual stuff that my Papa would painstakingly prepare: the roasted peanuts in their shells, 2 laranghita oranges, 10 bubble gums called ‘Tarzan’, 10 caramel candies and two packs of biscuits and a one-peso bill. My baon for the Christmas party had also been readied consisting of 8- ounce bottle of warm Coca Cola (as refrigerators were rare in those days and we had not heard of “ice”), biscuits and some sweets and the peanuts and oranges to go. There were four of us schooling kids in the house and each of us would have the same presents for our manitas and manitos at school. All were to take the same baon  to our respective parties. That year, as the lowest grader in the family, I had the misfortune of having been assigned with my younger brother who was not yet in school. I was to take him to my class party, complete with his own provisions neatly wrapped days before the party. We would lovingly look at our presents and caress our baon before turning in to bed and longingly count the days before the manita-manita and the Christmas party. But, as would be ill-fated, December finally came, school was called off and parties were cancelled, and so we ate our baon and unwrapped our presents during the New Year’s eve at home.

So that, that January, to be back in school had not been as exciting and in fact had rather been tensed. On the first day in school, at about half past eleven in the morning, very close to lunch time and our class dismissal we were jolted by a loud explosion. Everyone rushed out of the classrooms and we were aghast to see blood and mangled pieces of flesh of what used to be children’s bodies scattered all over and around the playground area. Apparently, two “visitors” (Grade 0 pupils) were waiting by the stone bench for the afternoon shift when a landmine planted on that bench went off. So for another week, we had to stay home, bored and missing school very much especially as I had started loving my new student-teacher, Miss Manga, who had taught us a new song titled “The First of May”.

January 1974. Napalm Bomb ruins Hawaiian Dance

January was supposed to be a festive month, as we were celebrating the Isra wal Mi’raj (i.e. Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven), one of the Muslim holidays. Schools always celebrated auspicious occasion like this with big parades, the main attraction of which were us, the school children, in our smartest best of stiff jumper uniforms and crisp white blouses, complete with our small caps, one that popes were seen to wear. In sleepy towns like Jolo, inter-school parades were about one of the most exciting and awaited events by the townsfolk. Parents and teachers would go out of their way preparing and decking their kids up to the point of madness. In my school, I was among the few selected pupils who were to wear Hawaiian costumes. I remembered crying all night when my mother, who just came back from the islands after some months having not seen or visited us, and she was so upset that my two other sisters and I had been infested with kuto or head-lice and all sorts of parasites in our scalps. ‘It is the curse of napambam’, we’d often hear adults argue in whispers, when we had our usual baths at the common tap.

The napalm bombs were routinely dropped from droning planes, hiding in the cloak of darkness. One famous young soldier last-named Honasan on command by an officer, a certain lite colonel Fidel Ramos, allegedly unleashed one such terror. Its poisonous fall-out had caused children to develop lung problems and scabies, oozing boils and dreadful skin and scalp infections, so the flies grazed and laid their larvae and the parasites thrived in our heads. My old aunty used to treat us with her traditional concoction of coconut milk and yellow ginger. Rubbed into our hair and scalps, that felt really cool and refreshing, not to mention yummy to the taste. Later, she learned from the other women in the water-hole to add a pinch of the deadly white powder, she knew only as DDT, that health officials usually sprayed to quell out the malaria epidemic that was killing infants and very old people. The DDT mixed into her herbal medication, she rubbed into our infected arms and scalps. And so that night, my mother, always the impatient and tactless one, took out her dressmaker’s scissors and furiously cut off our hair. Had she had her way she would have not left a stump standing on my head, but my father upon seeing our despair, stopped her rampage, reasoning that we would not want to be seen at school on baldheads. You see, my long black hair had its own history too. I had waited for months and even years for it to reach my buttocks. Hawaiian dance was the current craze of that time and young girls with long hair at school were always chosen to give a dance number and proudly became  hoola girls during school convocations. I had always died to be one of them, tired of having to represent only in quiz shows or be the emcee but never picked out in the dance numbers or to be among the performers to be prompted up the stage. So I cried the hell out all night because I would not want to lose that long hair to one snip especially since I could not contemplate having to wear the long moomoo (Hawaiian) gown now with a short bobbing hair — notwithstanding the beautiful flip it gave my natural curls ala Susan Rocess, as my aunt wowed– the outfit just did not match with the hair!

So to console me, my Papa brought all of us three girls to the Plaza Rizal early the following morning and had our pictures taken by his old Nikon. And then treated us to a plate of pancit at the Plaza Panciteria. All puffy-eyed and runny-nosed, I had to wear the moomoo to this shooting, complete with the drooping big double-petaled red gumamela tucked to one ear. I was instructed to smile but had growled at the camera instead. The war proved to be a blessing in disguise for my murdered ego as the school parade, and all other school activities for the coming months, were called-off because of the sporadic street fighting. That had been the first and last time I wore my beautiful moomoo before it went to ashes with the rest of our house along Asturias street.

Fast-forward to the New Millenium.

To date, the 1970s generation of evacuees in Zamboanga City are still considered as displaced communities. The war from 1970-1979 alone rendered close to one million perished with about a million became internally displaced persons (IDP) with half of them still in Sabah in North-eastern Borneo as illegal and undocumented migrants. More than three decades after in 2007, hundreds of thousands of us remain stranded as evacuees, perpetually in limbo, still in search of the homeland. We have become squatters and un-welcomed migrants in other parts of Zamboanga peninsula and the Mindanao mainland.

Three waves of Paguy in three decades of war


It was on February 7, 1974 when the town of Jolo was burned to the ground. The military blamed the MNLF for the “siege of Jolo”. The MNLF blamed the AFP for their retaliatory aerial strikes and sea-to-land bombings that included the destructive napalm bombing. For almost two weeks on end there was ceaseless gunfire and burning of houses. At the height of conflict, my Auntie was able to evacuate my two younger brothers, my elder sister and myself, and we fled to safety in Zamboanga City. We were separated from Papa on whose care were my three other siblings who fled to the hinterlands of Indanan in Sulu. For days and nights on, Papa, with our youngest an infant of barely a year old, in tow, had to live in with the MNLF aktibis in the jungle, subsisting on cassava and carabao or horse’s meat. Lactating women who were among the paguy (evacuees) took turns in nursing my sister. They climbed mountains and crossed streams and had to go wherever the aktibis also fled as the military were pursuing them. Papa recalled to us later that, at one point, he got separated from the evacuees and found himself near the Spanish-built sentinel posts of Camp Asturias, where his brother, an Army master sergeant, a non-commissioned officer, owned a house. He had pleaded with the guards to let him and his three children pass through, but was grilled and interrogated for hours if he were a Muslim or a Christian, as he admitted being a Muslim, his small band was denied entry, so with my three siblings in tow they had to retrace their way back to the mountains and rejoined the MNLF camp.

Postscript. A Collage of shells from the sea, coconuts and  M-79

To commemorate this experience, I created a collage in remembrance of the Jolo war. In it are symbols of my most vivid memories of the war that included my new white rubber slippers that I lost when it got stuck in the mud while fleeing. Also, I remembered very well my dolls — cut-out from used clothes and paper — complete with the tiny wooden furniture that Papa built during his tenure as vocational education teacher at the Home Industry in the Office of the Ministry of Education and Culture (MECS). These things I left in one of the aunties’ houses where we had sought refuge. Thus, in latter years, I developed an obsession with cloth cut-out datu’-datu’ and paper dolls.

The collage also prominently displays some seashells and at the centerpiece is an empty mortar slug. The sea-shells were among the prized possessions that I and my younger brother, who is now an ECE Engineer in Abu Dhabi, had been collecting and about the only treasure we’d saved from the ravage of war. They were contained inside a shoulder bag curved out of big coconut shell, another one of the indigenous crafts created by my father as young shop-teacher at the local trade school. The sea-shells and coconut pouch created so much noise as it swung and hit my brother’s knees each step of the way, as we alternately ran and walked to the shelter called paksul, which, in adult year, I realized to mean ‘foxhole’. So like the kubing (foxes) we ran for dear life, but here was one child who could not permit that escape to happen quietly. This annoyed the neighbors and those who had tried to help us escape from military, that, at one point, the exasperated elders had to form a caucus that decided that we should leave behind the “noisy toys” if we wanted to be saved. But my kid brother, on cue from me, of course, cried a bucket and refused to part with our possessions. Finally, the elders grudgingly resigned to have us, kids and shells together, and silently suffered the noisy click-cluck as we trekked up to the mountains.

Mucha-Shim Q. Arquiza

July, 2007/Zamboanga City


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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