Former Abu Sayyaf sniper aims to regain lost childhood
ISABELA CITY — Ten-year-old “Tony” has recently gone back to school, in a madrassa where he can continue learning Arabic—and be a child again.
Only four years ago, Tony did not even have the opportunity to play, let alone attend classes.
Instead, he lugged around an M4 assault rifle and was attacking and evading government troops as a member of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
The boy proved to be no ordinary fighter and was deemed one of the sharpest among the 30 young combatants under the command of Motong Indama, a younger cousin of Abu Sayyaf leader Furudji Indama.
“The training took about a year,” recalled Tony. “I was taught how to handle a gun. The [Abu Sayyaf members] were so happy with me that they called me the Tipo-Tipo sniper,” he added.
Tipo-Tipo was the Basilan town that his group had tried to overrun in 2016, setting off clashes with government soldiers that dragged on for three months.
Though Tony had suffered his first combat wounds in a skirmish even before those encounters, he emerged more gung-ho and unafraid of death.
When Motong surrendered in July 2016, Tony was one of the 11 among his men who followed. The boy now lives with his uncles under the close supervision of Sumisip town officials.
In an interview with the Inquirer last week, Tony said his mother died after being “shot by a soldier” while she was bathing in a river. His father and three elder siblings were later killed in “another military operation.”
He learned about their violent deaths from his two remaining siblings, who were then only in their late teens.
The orphan was only 6 when his brothers took him along to join the Abu Sayyaf, then led by Motong and subleader Radsmil Jannatul.
In the jungle, Tony learned how to fire a gun faster than he learned how to read. Soon he was earning notice as a marksman, a scrawny one at that, who could negotiate steep mountain paths and climb tall trees with ease to spot enemies from afar.
Death had always stalked him—if not by bullets, then by starvation. “The best part of my life back then was having vegetables and dried fish for a meal; it was considered that special,” he recalled.
Despite the Abu Sayyaf’s notoriety as kidnappers who demanded millions of pesos in ransom, the boy said that as far as he knew, Motong’s men were only “tasked to fight” and did not take hostages during his time with the group.
In hindsight, he said, the adrenaline rush he felt when the fighting began had made him numb to all the hardships he faced, more so after he got wounded.
When word got around that Motong was turning himself in, one of Tony’s siblings who had dragged him into the group thought that his kid brother had had enough.
“Now I just want to study in the Islamic school,” the boy said.
Tony was one of the 179 Abu Sayyaf surrenderers from Basilan and Sulu whom the regional government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) hopes to assist in their return to normal life through an initiative called Program Against Violent Extremism (PAVE).
Under the program launched earlier this month, surrenderers are provided medical services, housing, livelihood training and alternative learning sessions.
But the idea found some resistance among those who had fallen victim to the Abu Sayyaf, acknowledged ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman.
“I know many people were hurt by this move, especially the kidnap victims. And while we have not talked about this yet, we are reaching out. The healing is not complete if the victims are not with us on this. There is no total peace, no total justice, if the former victims are not willing [to join us in this idea],” Hataman added.
The governor assured critics that the selected PAVE beneficiaries were “those without [criminal] cases.”
“Instead of teaching them to farm, which is [something they have to do] near the mountains, we agreed to teach them how to market their goods, [as well as the] technology for making ginger tea, peanut butter, etc.,” Hataman said, explaining how the program had been designed with the beneficiaries’ situation in mind.
The military is supporting the effort. “I have read hundreds of books on terrorism, all foreign models. We are confronted with a homegrown terror group [so] only a homegrown solution is applicable here,” said Brig. Gen. Juvymax Uy, commander of Task Force Basilan.
In Tony’s case, that solution may be to give him time to heal his inner wounds from living in the jungle, and again become just another child.
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