Basilan folk finally get their dream highway
IF Manilans complain about daily gridlock on Edsa, residents of Basilan, almost 1,500 kilometers to the south, are thankful for getting a simple, concrete road, something many people in the capital take for granted.
When the Basilan Circumferential Road was finally completed in December last year, the fear and insecurity the locals had endured for decades vanished.
Its symbolism and significance are not lost on the people of the strife-torn province: the road stands for peace and development.
It has cut travel time from the provincial capital, Isabela City, to Sumisip from eight hours to 45 minutes, allowed the transportation of goods and the establishment of businesses, and, most important, it serves as a deterrent to extremism and violence.
The road starts from Isabela and traverses Lamitan City and the municipalities of Al-Barka, Tipo-Tipo, Ungkaya Pukan, Sumisip, Maluso, Lantawan, and ends back in the capital.
These are areas that have become synonymous to unforgettable violence: the Lamitan siege in 2001 where Abu Sayyaf fighters held hostage hospital staff and American missionary couple Grace and Martin Burnham; the beheading in Al-Barka in July 2007 of Marine troops who clashed with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas while searching for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi; a nine-hour gun battle as government forces tried to take over an Abu Sayyaf camp in Ungkaya Pukan that left 19 Marines dead in August 2007; and the clash between the MILF and Army Special Forces in Al-Barka in 2011.
Basilan is the hometown of Abu Sayyaf ideologues Isnilon Hapilon and Khadaffy Janjalani, and has long been a stronghold of the group that was once considered the most potent terrorist organization in the country.
With such a background, it is easy to see why it took 16 years to complete the 138-km circumferential road.
The project had to be guarded 24/7 that the withdrawal of the military for combat operations meant a halt in construction, leaving the road muddy, bumpy and unsafe, as workers and their equipment became vulnerable to harassment by lawless elements.
To hear the people of Basilan speak with excitement about what to city folk is an ordinary thing is perhaps the most significant change the road has brought to the island since the project was completed.
Ibrahim Hadji Sali Ballaho, the 35-year-old head of Barangay Balas in Lamitan, proudly spoke about 30 tricycles now going around his village when the place used to have only two jeepneys.
“We now also have nice facilities such as a barangay hall, a covered court, children’s playground, a public market, a fish port, and many others,” Ballaho said.
Fruits from Isabela are now available in markets in Sumisip because of the faster and easier travel, said Isnira Mannan of Buli-Buli, Sumisip.
It was a far cry from the six to eight hours she used to spend in traveling from Sumisip to Isabela, where she went to college.
“Now with the Basilan Circumferential Road, it only takes 45 minutes whether on a jeepney, a van or a motorcycle,” she said.
Mannan is relieved that since the completion of the road, more armed men have left her hometown—armed men who used to kidnap teachers like her.
Rubber-tree farmer Aslan Dansalan, 50, said after the road had been completed, he and his colleagues from the Tipo-Tipo Agrarian Reform Beneficiary Agricultural Development Cooperative (Tarbadeco) could now easily and regularly deliver their products.
Now, too, they no longer waste time repairing their trucks, which in the past broke down due to the rough ride on the rutted road, especially during the rainy season.
The new road also allowed farmers and traders to take the bigger vessels going to Zamboanga City instead of making do with the rickety pump boats called timpil, because they can now reach the port in Isabela faster, Dansalan said.
In the past, it took residents of Tipo-Tipo, Dansalan’s hometown, two hours to go to Isabela. Now it takes them only 30 to 50 minutes.
Dansalan said his town now had an ambulance and it could actually run emergencies on the new road.
“It used to be difficult to transfer emergency cases, like mothers giving birth, because of the long travel (from Tipo-Tipo to Isabela City where there is a hospital),” he said.
P-Noy at inauguration
Ballaho, Manna and Dansalan spoke about the road on its inauguration on March 21, with President Aquino joining the event held in Barangay Tumahubong in Sumisip.
Mr. Aquino was the first President to visit Tumahubong, one of the most dangerous villages in Basilan.
The night before the President’s visit, two blasts rocked Sumisip, and a homemade bomb was detonated on a roadside.
Despite the incidents, Mr. Aquino insisted on going to the inauguration of the road, which had to be held under heavy security.
“I would be there for only a few hours while the people who live there have been facing (uncertainty) all their lives,” the President explained.
The new road “could spell the difference in those people’s lives,” he said.
The difficulty posed by the absence of a passable road made it easy for terrorists and other criminals to thrive and play cat and mouse with security forces.
“Because we did not have a decent road, we were consumed by fear,” Ballaho said.
Frequent firefights kept people inside their homes. Starting a business, a normal activity in other parts of the country, was unimaginable in Basilan.
“Life was difficult … and people felt forgotten by the government. No one else wanted to care for us. We didn’t feel real service from the government,” Ballaho said.
This was the reason, he said, why many residents felt hopeless. Disheartened and dejected, they joined rebel groups.
But with a functional road, trade and commerce are now possible and people can actually move around, busy going about their daily activities.
The military hopes the road will be instrumental in keeping the guns silent in Basilan.
Ranking military officials credit the completion of the road to the tenacity of Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), who is a native of Sumisip.
They said Hataman worked well with the military and worked hard at negotiating with armed groups whenever they tried to harass the road project.
Return to Basilan
One officer said the completion of the circumferential road could encourage Basilan residents who had migrated to other places to return to their province and “contribute” to its growth.
According to a Malacañang brief, only a 61.77-km stretch, or 47 percent, of the road was concrete and in good condition when the Aquino administration began to work on it in January 2012.
“Traversing the road was inconvenient, time consuming and prone to accidents, as some sections were rocky, muddy and slippery and impassable during the rainy season. Some [portions of the road] were also dangerous to take, as lawless elements engage in highway robbery, ambush and [vehicle theft]. Transport service was also scarce and expensive,” the brief said.
The Aquino administration spent P1.83 billion for the concreting of 51.56 km of the road’s unpaved sections. Some old parts of the road were also rehabilitated.
Basilan’s 450,000 residents now benefit from the road—residents like Ballaho who said that with the completion of the road, “there’s no more fear in our hearts.” TVJ
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