What the military dismisses as a spent force has struck again, this time abducting two sisters who had traveled from Jolo to Patikul in Sulu in the course of producing a documentary on the plight of impoverished Muslims in the South. From reports, the Abu Sayyaf seized independent filmmakers Nadjoua and Linda Bansil in Barangay Liang in Patikul as they were heading back to Jolo on June 22 in the company of 19 local residents. There’s a poignant detail: The sisters spent the night in Mount Sinumaan, a purported stronghold of the bandit group, to take shots of the sunrise.
The Bansils are storytellers who seek to depict in their work little-known facets of the lives of destitute tribesmen and other marginalized groups. They have made inroads in their field, and their advocacy in human rights enriches their work. It can be said that they walk their talk. Their short film “Bohe: Sons of the Waves,” about the hand-to-mouth existence of young Badjao islanders, was a nominee in the prestigious Gawad Urian; Linda wrote for Amnesty International publications in the Philippines.
But now, with the women’s abduction, the tables appear to have been turned. Their brother Medmessiah Bansil put his finger on the matter when he told The Associated Press that his sisters “have become the story.” And the narrative has been murky since Day One, suggesting that the very people who served as the women’s escorts in Patikul had a hand in their disappearance. The idea is neither new nor far-fetched. The halfway attentive observer will note that the fundamental reason the Abu Sayyaf has not been stamped out is its flexibility, its porousness: Its members come and go; they assemble for, say, a kidnap-for-ransom operation, and then by turns detach and weave seamlessly back into the community, and, when the situation requires, such as when authorities mount a manhunt, vanish into its fabric—until it’s time for another “project.” The system has worked for years, obviously with more than the actual kidnappers profiting.
In the case of the Bansils, the telltale sign came early: When a member of the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network called Nadjoua’s mobile phone after news of the sisters’ disappearance spread, the one who picked up was a Yasir Rajim who was among the locals who had accompanied the sisters to Patikul. Rajim could not explain why he was holding the phone (as well as, it was learned later, Linda’s own phone, and the sisters’ camera, gadgets, and other belongings); why, even if the sisters were among a group that included 19 locals, only they were taken by the armed men; or why the 19 could not prevent the abduction.
There has been no word from the kidnappers at this writing. Almost a week after the fact, Medmessiah Bansil was reported as saying, the family has yet to hear from even the authorities—a procedural lapse that is both grave and incomprehensible.
It’s uncertain how long this story will drag on, given that the Abu Sayyaf has been holding at least four foreigners—a Japanese treasure hunter, two European birdwatchers and a Jordanian journalist—for years. Foreigners hold a particular attraction for the bandit group because of the idea that the ransom to be paid for their freedom will necessarily be bigger—for example, the ransom paid for Australian Warren Rodwell was reportedly $2 million. (The amount of the ransom paid for the foreigners known as the Sipadan hostages is legendary. The story that the bounty was enjoyed by local officials and military men, as well as the intermediaries, refuses to go away.) But Nadjoua and Linda Bansil are not foreigners although their looks may suggest it. They were born in Algeria to an Algerian mother and a Filipino Muslim educated in the Middle East, but they were raised in the Philippines. They studied mass communication at Ateneo de Davao University. Their family is not known to be wealthy.
Predictably, it was suggested that the sisters had it coming because they ventured into reputedly dangerous territory without “coordinating” with authorities who presumably could have made security arrangements. One will be reminded of the warning to women years ago in Marikina City, in the wake of the rape-murder of a number of young women coming home from the night shift, to steer clear of the streets at night. One will be reminded as well of how women in Europe and the United States have marched for the right to move freely day or night without fear of harassment or assault. They called their movement “Take Back the Night.”