IT’S a “natural” monument and a symbol of the government’s successes in its counterterrorism drive in Basilan.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has revealed that it has laid down plans to develop a portion of the Sampinit Complex—a sprawling, 200-hectare forested area that was once a symbol of the bloody notoriety of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan—into an eco-tourism zone following its declaration as a military reservation.
Casting away stories of countless beheadings, bloody firefights and sufferings of hundreds of kidnap victims that the place once mutely witnessed, it should not be that difficult for the military to promote the complex as a tourism site with its wealth of natural beauties, among which are towering century-old trees and protected animal and plant species.
The visit should be made even more thrilling—if not eerie—by its former ghastly past.
But all of these tourism adventures and sightseeing would only be possible when peace and order has been fully restored in Basilan, the military cautioned.
“Century-old trees and protected wildlife species are abundant in Sampinit Complex,” said Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesman Lt. Col. Alaric delos Santos. “And [there are vast] rubber plantations in some barangays at Sampinit Complex,” he added.
Last month, Westmincom commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., accompanied by local officials led by Basilan Governor Jim Hataman Salliman and Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman, visited Sampinit Complex as part of the initial effort for its impending transformation.
The provincial government and the municipality of Sumisip have turned over 200 hectares of the vast complex to the military, set to be declared as a reservation.
‘Springboard for satanic acts’
VINLUAN, whose party also included Sumisip Mayor Jul-Adnan Hataman, could only recall the numerous cases of beheadings by the ASG in the area after families of the hostages failed to pay ransom. He aptly described it a “springboard for satanic acts.”
For the military, the complex, which sits at the tri-boundaries of Sumisip, Maluso and Isabela City, the reservation area represents the reign of terror and the downfall of the local terrorist group in Basilan. The group has earlier aligned itself with the Islamic State (IS).
It has been the stronghold of the ASG in the province for at least 20 years, a training ground for fighters from other island provinces. It has also kept at least 200 captives until it was cleared by the military with years of sustained operations.
“Their [soldiers’] indefatigable service led to the restoration of this sanctuary. Rest assured that we will continue their legacy by eliminating hostility and bringing about the normalcy in the area,” Vinluan said of the soldiers who lost their lives in clearing the complex of terrorists.
According to delos Santos, there are still more or less 30 ASG members operating in the province after most of their colleagues have been killed—or have surrendered—following the death of ASG commander and IS Southeast Asia head Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City during the IS siege in 2017.
The remnants are just made up of the RJ and Pasil Bayali groups of the ASG.
THE operation and existence of the ASG in the Sampinit Complex caused some of the barangays located in the area to be deserted, although the villagers are slowly returning, encouraged by the level of security and institution of basic services.
The decision to turn over the 200-hectare portion of the complex was first planned by Sumisip officials following the construction of the 30-kilometer “transcentral road,” which connects Barangay Tumahubong in Sumisip to Barangay Santa Clara in Lamitan City.
Aside from the transcentral road, the “Mahatallang Roundball,” the new highway that connects the Mahatallang area to the adjoining Punoh Lumot and Punoh Timugen in Sampinit Complex, has also been constructed.
As a military reservation and an eco-tourism area, the donated portion of the complex, a virgin forest, will be declared a “peace zone” and its vast timberlands and watersheds will be converted into protected wildlife sanctuaries for eco-tourism.
Indeed, for those familiar with the area’s dark past, it’s hard to conceive of this “springboard for satanic acts” as currently a sanctuary where nature heals the soul. But then, the alternative, i.e., letting it stay on as refuge for the bloodthirsty, is way more unthinkable.
Image credits: Westmincom PIO