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TRIBUTE: The Chief

The Seventh Day or Pagpito according to Islamic beliefs is most important after the death of a loved one. It is the day that the departed one will visit the family. Today is the Pagpito of  the father of my children, the late Yusop H. Jikiri.

I write this in his memory… 

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 25 October) —  He cut a formidable picture in his military uniform. As  he entered the room,  you could feel that commanding presence.

Seated beside me was Al Camlian, a Deputy   at the Office of Muslim Affairs who used to be a commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Basilan and  graduated from the prestigious Cairo Military Academy. I asked him for the identity of the tall, dark man in fatigue. He replied in a hushed tone, “That’s the Chief of Staff of the MNLF, Lt. Gen. Yusop Jikiri!”

During the heady days after the  signing of the Final Peace Agreement between the government and the MNLF, I saw him again  in Zamboanga surrounded by MNLF combatants who were eyeing me with some interest. A good friend, his relative, made the introductions. He  thanked me for helping his MNLF brothers while following up livelihood loans at my office.

Greeing card in front, calendar at the back of this campaign material used in 1998 when Yusop Jikiri first ran for Governor of Sulu. He lost the race but won it in 2001. Courtesy of Susan Palad

He had piercing looks that can be disturbing  and this old nitwit  suddenly developed a crush that ended in marriage six months later.

I did not have any intention  to marry him  but he pursued me relentlessly and on December 28,1997, I married him in simple Islamic rites at Malagos Garden Resort officiated by Ustadz Bashir Jailani who came  all the way from Basilan. It was much later in our marriage when I learned  that the Ustadz was a  spiritual  adviser of the Janjalanis. The wedding  was attended only by  a  few close friends and relatives. The three-year marriage produced two children. I  converted to the Islamic faith during our short-lived union.

My husband  did not have the trimmings or sophistication of  an urbanized dweller. He was humble, soft spoken and disturbingly shy but possessed the famous Tausug temper. He was a proud man but never arrogant. He had a soft spot for the downtrodden and could be insanely generous. He had always put  ahead the interest of others  rather than his. He was  kind and considerate to the men around him- Hadji Mami, Hadji Bashing, and a host of MNLF commanders in the field who would come and visit us.

During the baptism of our son, Kahlil Imran, he brought an entourage of MNLF leaders.  He was particularly fond  of a small man who he said was  honest and  brilliant in accounting funds of the organization.

He began to enjoy the unobtrusive  freedom  offered by Davao and would accompany me to watch the Indak-indak during the Kadayawan Festival, the get- togethers of my friends in the tourism industry and    silly and  boisterous family gatherings. He liked simple food.

Yusop Jikiri enjoys life as a father to Sana-a Elizabeth and Khalil Imran in Davao City in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Susan Pala

One time we were at the farm and sitting idly in the midst of cacao trees of my sister when we heard voices. Panting from the walk, they gradually  appeared  -Jose Iribani Lorena, the legal adviser of the MNLF, accompanied by my Tausug friend, the late Esa Bayani who served as guide, and some MNLF brothers. They were desperate to find him. They found him in a hammock sitting idly with our daughter Sana-a. The serious faces of our visitors turned  to amusement seeing the Chief of Staff in a relaxed mode while they had to cross a river and walked through grassy trails to locate him.

He struck friendship with my only brother Manong Jun who fraternally  always took his side.

The  busy frivolous life I led was a whole new experience for this man whose life was devoted to the cause of the MNLF and the struggle of the BangsaMoro people.

He enjoyed the solitude of the farm but was surprisingly scared of “wakwaks” and other spirits. He  did not like the idea of walking in the dark after attending the wake of my Auntie Ending.

Yusop Jikiri, daughter Sana-a Elizabeth, wife Susan Palad and son Khalil Imran in Davao Cty. Courtesy of Susan Palad

I would send him for errands to the grocery accompanied by Bars Baddang, one of my former  staff at SPDA (Southern Philippines Development Authority) who is  Tausug. He came home with two boxes of lychees, conveniently forgetting  the other items I asked him to buy. I sent him to Bankerohan market and he came home with five kilos of cabbage! The man was absolutely clueless!

One morning, I woke up and found him climbing the  concrete wall surrounding our rented house and clearing it of vines and weeds. He then repaired  the roof of our garden shed. That very moment, I experienced  fulfilling happiness seeing my Tausug warrior enjoying domestic bliss.

He told me stories of yesteryears — how the Janjalanis tried to get support for their new organization. When the most senior went for training in foreign soil, he passed by Sulu for his blessing and when he came back he wanted him to join them. He declined. He could not turn his back on Nur Misuari who just signed a Peace Agreement with the Philippine Government.

Yusop was not the first to be recruited by the MNLF but his first cousin who was the municipal chairman  of the organization. An older brother was also recruited. He was only a student then. He got accepted for work by the provincial government  but instead of reporting for duty, he got waylaid and managed to report for training in the MNLF camp and joined his brother.

He told me of his burning anger when he saw soldiers beheading his brother. His brother was part of a reconnaissance team and was captured by a sniper’s bullet. Since then, he accepted any assignment and led attacks on the enemy. It became  a consuming personal vendetta. “It  was as if I got crazy after that,” he narrated.

He was  sent to the mainland  to recruit and lead more mujahideen and somehow,  met his second wife from Carmen, North Cotabato whom  he was already divorced from when we met. She bore him three sons. She often came to the camp because her own father was an MNLF commander and it was lonely in the middle of the forest, he smilingly remembered. From there on I asked him to make a promise that should he decide to take another wife, he would tell me.

He was with us during Christmas and New Year celebrations and seemed amused by the frenzied preparation. He watched, with childlike amazement,  the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

He would come and go — Manila, Zamboanga, Sulu  — but would manage to call many  times. He would go out of the country often but fly back to Davao upon arrival. He was in Pakistan when I was expecting our second child and named him Kahlil Imran. Imran, who later became a prime minister was Pakistan’s famous cricket player. He chose the name Sana-a for our  daughter, after a freedom fighter.

Many of the Muslim women whom I have befriended carried stories of his innumerable exploits narrated by  husbands and relatives. He is protected by the grace of  Allah, according to them, since he was never wounded in the wars he fiercely fought. He was both  admired by the MNLF and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) for his daring bravery. They then hesitantly  asked me what he smelled like. “Sweet pungent smell,” I replied, and they happily answered: “He is one of those chosen  by the Almighty Allah.”

He was highly regarded by Tausugs, Maranaos and Maguindanaos and I have witnessed their reverence towards the man. They would kneel and kiss his hands. He was respected and adored by the 7,000 MNLF integrees who joined the Armed Forces after the signing of the peace agreement and I met them everywhere. Many are already old and will soon face extinction  but they will always be eternally grateful to him. They fondly called him  “Chief”  prior to his years as Governor and Congressman of Sulu. “Mabait ba si Chief” (Chief is good), they repeatedly claim in that distinct accent.

Hadji Bashing told me that back in Sulu, he would drive a jeep with no brakes and sometimes run into a ditch. I have  passed  the MNLF camp in Indanan up in the mountains and I can only imagine what a harrowing experience it must have been for  his MNLF brothers as they navigated the  slopes in a jeep with no brakes!

He also told me of his house in Pasil. When it rains, you will have to seek refuge in areas where there are no gaping holes in the nipa roof and the floor can get muddy. I then told  Yusop that when he sees better times, he must allow his family to experience some luxuries in life.

He was always in his signature  Guitar white t-shirt and blue jeans and an old silver watch. I remember he wanted  to own an expensive  leather jacket  badly  but could only afford a cheap one. I found him on the floor hastily cutting the ordinary linings and muttering, “Someday, I will buy a decent one.”

One day, he was asked by then President Ramos to join him in the helicopter from Cotabato but little did he know they would land in Davao del Norte. He had to find his way back to Davao City with no back up. He was grinning  under an eye- piercing fuchsia cap signed by the President when he finally appeared at our doorstep. He was being offered to throw his hat on the political arena. The Governorship of ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) was  offered to him but I guess he did not want to offend the Maas (Nur Misuari). He also had no competence to go through the political  labyrinth of the autonomous region.

News photo (L to R) Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva, Basilan Governor Wahab Akbar and Sulu Governor Yusop Jikiri, duiring a meeting in Isabela City< Basilan to support President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s policy on warrantless arrest of susected Abu Sayyaf members. (From news clipping)

Then he was asked to run as Governor of Sulu in 1998. Unfortunately, he lost. The resources and support from friends, allies and colleagues were not sufficient to overcome the well-oiled machinery  of his opponent. The second time he ran, he had the backing of some senior military officials. He became close to Angelo Reyes and Diomedio Villanueva.

For as long as the soldiers would protect the sanctity of the ballot, he would have a fighting chance. He miraculously  won and ordinary hopeful people enthusiastically lined up the streets to rejoice.

Unfortunately, he became scarcer in our lives, his absence laced with lame excuses. I finally  brought my children to Zamboanga and asked him  to sign the  divorce papers. He pleaded with me in the privacy of the hotel room but I was adamant. We left the hotel early for our morning flight to Davao and while at the departure lounge, he made a grand appearance with a coterie of bodyguards. With tears welling in his eyes, he said goodbye to the children. He demanded that he be allowed to enter the plane and the security could do nothing but accommodated his wish.

I had already made plans for a vacation in Cebu, Dumaguete and Siquijor with college  friends and he was constantly on the phone begging to join us but I refused. I was seething inside because of a betrayal. A lawyer  and a relative tried their best to patch our differences but there was no turning back for this proud Bagoba.

It was not easy climbing out from that dark  pit but I promised to have a good life with my children. He was just a detour. I realized he did not belong to us. He belonged to the dreams and aspirations of the BangsaMoro People.

I would meet him every now and then and saw lingering sadness in his eyes. Life had dramatically changed for him. He married a couple of times and led the life of a man walking the corridors of power.

Yusop  built the biggest Masjid in the center of Jolo and  Tausugs will always remember him for that. He was a devout Muslim and tried as much as possible to follow the teachings of the Holy Koran. When I met him the second time, I was wearing  a necklace with Islamic inscriptions  given by a friend and in that instant, he said he told himself  “I will marry this crazy woman.” He believed in fate and destiny.

I singlehandedly took care of my children with little support from him. I was driven by the thought of becoming a woman of substance knowing the limited opportunities of middle age. Eventually, I found my way to advancing humanitarian causes and retreated to my farm.

Yusop Jikiri with son Khalil Imran and Sana-a Elizabeth

He came for the graduation of our daughter  Sana-a  in 2016. He was in Cotabato and asked Jose Iribani Lorena to accompany him to Davao but they were not able to pass through a barricade of left-leaning groups and farmers at Kidapawan. They decided to make a detour through Arakan Valley and made it to Marilog without any consideration for his personal safety. He did not make it to the graduation ceremony but hauled everybody to a family dinner at a famous seafood restaurant. He was visibly proud of his daughter but did not like her to play soccer which she plays with passion. She was part of the football team of Ateneo and Philippine Women’s College and became a varsity player at Silliman U in Dumaguete, my Alma Mater.

Our  son played soccer in Manila for Fleet Marine and he visited him at the football field of the  Philippine Marine Headquarters at Fort Bonifacio. He again watched our son play in a tournament in Davao. Kahlil made it to the national team and eventually became a varsity player of National University and saw action in the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) for two seasons. Unfortunately his Ama was ignorant of the rudiments of the game. He only knew basketball.

I would like to remember him as Chief rather than Gov or Cong. I remember him as a simple man who lived in a  hut with no tiles but only the earthen floor.

In death, we remember only the goodness of the man. Somehow  the bitterness and anger have been blown by the winds of time and forgiveness settles in. I am sure he is soaring up in the skies basking in golden light and experiencing that peace that can only come from the Divine grace of  the Almighty Allah.

The peace that proved elusive in life is now his.

(Susan Palad married Yusop Jikiri after the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between government and the Moro National Liberation Front where Jikiri was Chief of Staff of the Bangsa Moro Army. Palad was then in charge of the rebel rehabilitation program of the Southern Philippines Development Authority. She and Jikiri have two children, Sana-a Elizabeth and Kahlil Imran. She says she repeatedly explained to her children that “he does not belong to us but to his people.” Jikiri succumbed to bone cancer in Sulu at 11 p.m. on 17 October 2020)

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