|19 My Own Version Of
was in Jolo, in 1974, in that conflagration, as a fifteen-year old high school senior
expecting to receive, in another month, my graduation diploma from the provincial capitol
school that was breathtakingly named: Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandao Memorial High School,
The name was a hint of the other
educational institutions that would shape my future. Shortly after that war, I got into
the University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Arts & Sciences, and later, the
University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Engineering. In a further evolution, I
got involved with the school that started out as the Philippine School in Jeddah and, by
the time I left it, had the elaborate name of International Philippine School in Jeddah,
Why could not have Destiny just preordain
me to languish in something more succinct like Harvard!, or Yale! ?
As it was, in the dark dawn of February 7,
1974, before our graduating class could even start practicing for our graduation rites,
the tranquility of the municipality of Jolo was shattered by a loud explosion that was
clearly heard from one end of town to the other. For the next three, four days, Jolo
became embroiled in a shooting war, house to house, door to door, with the Moro National
Liberation Front rebels, Lost Commands as some MNLF apologists would later
claim, initially marching into town to lay siege on the government army encampment at the
My family stayed in our San Raymundo house
during most of the first two days of fighting, except for some uncles who ventured out
into the streets to get some drinking water.
It seemed that most of the fighting were
happening elsewhere, like a television war movie that one was not particularly paying
attention to. Of course, there were no TV sets in Jolo at that time. This kind of
realization came much later along with other realizations, as these things normally do.
In the afternoon of the second day,
everything else around the neighborhood broke loose, with mortars and gunfire screaming.
From a high window at the back of the house, I watched the brittle nipa-thatch roofs of
nearby houses caught the fireballs whooshing down from the sky.
When it was all over, the only thing that
remained of our house was the front stairs leading up to a charred front door that opened
up to clear, blue sky.
I did not get to see this skeletal sight
until several days later when we made our way down from a government refuge hospital on
our way to the dock of Jolo. We trudged through the center of town in the morning
(although my sister Sang recalls this to be in the afternoon), through the smoking ashes
of Jolo, passing by contorted, burnt shapes frozen in their final acts to reach for the
sky from where they had fallen down at either side of the blackened asphalt roads.
My younger sister, Sang, who is now
finishing her doctorate degree in Illinois, asked me then: "Is that a tree stump or a
corpse?" The rotting odor of flesh mixed strongly with the burnt smell of logs, rags,
paper and plastic that were wet with dew. The sharp scent burdened the air, all over town.
In such an atmosphere, give me the
aliphatic air of the Jeddah Industrial Estate any time, and I will say my thanks to you.
I always gave Rear Admiral Espaldon the
benefit of the doubt since it was his naval boats that mercifully plucked us out of the
teeming pier of Jolo Island and transported us to Zamboanga City in mainland Mindanao. For
most part of a night, we had to camp out at the open landings of the pier and wait there
in the cold wind along with thousand others in a scene played straight out from a movie.
The moment my mother and us children
boarded the deck of one naval boat, I spent most of my waking time standing against the
starboard railing of the ship, looking out into the sea, constantly suppressing a violent
urge to spit.
I would realize, years later, while
watching the movie Titanic, that the urge to spit out into the sea is a very natural,
healthy desire that will come to pass on anyone who stands long enough against the railing
of any ship.