The Boat from Sabah
I wrote this four years ago, while in the middle of a research project focused on trafficked labor. All these articles and opinions and strong feelings about Sabah surfacing again reminded me of that project, the people we met, the things we observed, the experiences we had, and so many more that have to be left unsaid.
Exactly three in the afternoon, the hour of great mercy, someone announced wryly, when I asked for the time. We arrived at the Zamboanga City port area in a gleaming, cream-colored, Toyota Altis, looking ridiculously conspicuous and unsure of ourselves. We told the driver to take shade, hide a little. He parked the car closest to the wall, but within full view of the area of water where the boat was supposed to dock. To our left, we could see the façade of the gothic Bureau of Customs and Immigrations building – its grand pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, large windows and elaborate tracery providing a stark contrast to the tableau of poverty in front of it. We stayed in the car, hesitant to be out in the scorching hot afternoon, hesitant to confront what we had come all the way to this dramatically stunning but perpetually troubled region for.
The boat from Sabah had not yet arrived, we were told. An opening, however, had already been cleared between a passenger vessel and a domestic cargo ship. Military jeeps, police mobiles, two ambulance units, and an International Committee of the Red Cross wagon were also already in front of the docks. Immigrations authorities in their green fatigues, and Red Cross volunteers in bright red shirts, took advantage of the shade offered by the swaying shadow of the big Basilan-bound passenger boat that was rocking softly in the waters, loading its passengers: women with their children bound to the sides of their waists, and men carrying on their shoulders colorful nylon and plastic bags fashioned into shapes of suitcases.
There was a palpable buzz. The atmosphere at the pier was almost festive. Comfortable, at the very least. There was a relaxed camaraderie and unspoken accord among the people waiting: government workers, local and international volunteers, advocacy groups, the police, the curious, and the cargadores.
Meanwhile, our guide, a young, vivacious nurse working with the Department of Health and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, gave us instructions. We were to follow her and say “From the DOH”. That was all. Nothing more.
But we had many other questions: about the boat carrying the undocumented Filipinos who had been expelled from Sabah; about that place which has rejected and ejected them but which most of these people consider as home; about these people whose notion of country and nation are unlike our own, whose allegiances are created by wherever there is for them a family and a means to live.
The boat from Sabah, our guide said, is a big one with three main sections. It regularly plies the Sabah-Zamboanga route. It is not at all like a prison boat, she said. The first two levels are occupied by paying passengers. A metal latch-door separates them from the passengers of the boat’s topmost section. This section is reserved for the Halaw – the expelled, the rejected, the ones who have been discarded – as the deportees are referred to in the local Tausug language.
Our guide told us that the number of Halaw varies, depending on the Malaysian government’s schedule of deportation. There is what is called a massive deportation, with hundreds to thousands of undocumented Filipinos shipped back to Zamboanga every week. On a regular basis, for the so-called regular deportation, the boat from Sabah comes twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the deportees number from fifty to two hundred per trip. The Malaysian government arranges and pays for the cost of deportation. She said that the people are given some food for the boat trip, too. But most of them have been in detention centers for months, if not years, that apart from their travel documents, they do not have much else – not the money they worked for, or the families they lived with and for – when they land in our shores. Some of them, because of prolonged detention, lose their minds, their memories, and their names as well. The most unfortunate ones lose their lives.
According to the government social welfare department records, there has been a rising number of deaths from among the deportees. Infants almost always do not survive the trip. Even the adults, the very sick ones, the severely malnourished, also eventually succumb to death despite efforts to treat and rehabilitate them. Ironic, our guide said, that they should survive harsh conditions in detention, in sea transport, only to die when they are freed on land.
It had been almost half an hour already, and the afternoon was getting hotter. I started seeing mirages everywhere. The glare of the sun was so fierce that the skies, the sea, everything looked white. The blaze outshone the sparkling white sand of the islands in the horizon and we could only see a wide strip of wobbly, wavering, shimmering light from across the sea. The mountains and islands of Basilan had disappeared. No approaching boats could be seen.
In a few more minutes, though, about a dozen Badjao bancas started to float into our vision. Our guide told us that the Badjao – an ethnic indigenous group of sea-dwelling, nomadic people – usually meet the big boats on their bancas. They beg for coins to be thrown into the water, and then they exhibit their magnificent diving skills to the spectator-passengers. The entourage of bancas was a sign that a big passenger boat was approaching. We then alighted from the car and told the driver to head back to the hotel and to wait for our call.
The intense heat accosted us promptly. I swayed a little and had to take deep breaths to steady myself, before I could join my friend and our guide who had started to walk ahead of us toward the docks. As we were walking, the boat from Sabah came into view, spewing out two cones of thick black smoke into the air. The entourage of Badjao bancas u-turned in what looked like a choreographed move, and then they arranged themselves with a theatrical sense of blocking along the boat’s portside. The passengers packed themselves to this side of the boat, leaning against the rails, shouting, applauding, and waving at the kids on the bancas. A few coins glimmered momentarily as these were tossed up in the air and sliced into the sea. The Badjao kids dove swiftly after the coins underwater.
The boat continued to move slowly toward the docks, heavily tilted to one side. I feared it would spill the people over to the water altogether. My heart palpitated in excitement, in anticipation, in anxiety, as the boat neared the pier and its anchor was thrown to the wharf.
At the wharf, the inter-agency team that had come to meet the deportees started to move as well. They pulled themselves from what were earlier relaxed, comfortable poses – leaning against cars, crouched under the shadows – and composed themselves into bodies poised for action. They accorded us with slight disinterest, polite disregard as they took their positions. “From the DOH,” we said, even when nobody bothered to ask.
The smell, the heat, the noise that met us as soon as we stepped into the cargo section of the boat were more than sufficient warning of what we were to witness.
Immigration officers filed past us, followed by the quarantine team, and the Social Welfare Coordinator, who made their way to a room next to the captain’s cabin. All passengers had to pass and get their travel documents stamped in this room before they could be allowed to leave the boat.
I tried to catch up with everyone, slightly fearful of the estivadores who communicated mainly by shouting and routinely spewing colorful curses in Chavacano and some Bisaya, as they unloaded cargo from the ship. I tried even harder not to stare up to the passengers of the topmost section; tried to ignore the panicked, anxious look in their eyes. Their cheeks were sunken, their jaws stood out, their skin had boils and spots. They leaned over the rails, peeked through the metal latch-door, and watched us, not making any move, not making any sound. The rubber soles of my shoes kept sticking to the greasy surface of the metal floor and made embarrassing sucking noises the faster I walked.
In the holding room, a young female nurse who had escorted the deportees was already briefing the team. There were 261 deportees in all. At least eight of them were in emergency medical conditions, and should be rushed to the hospital as soon as possible. But there were also some newborns, infants, and a couple of other children who had to be loaded off the boat first. There was an outbreak of some kind of pox, too. Most of the passengers had already caught it.
After the briefing, we made our way to the topmost section of the boat. The latch-door was pulled and we climbed briskly up the metal stairs. When we were safely inside, the door was closed again behind us with a loud clang that reverberated throughout the floor of the Halaw section.
There were too many bunk beds, there was hardly any space to navigate between them. The light was blocked, the air was stale, and then some of the deportees started to smoke. The smell of tobacco blended with that of unwashed bodies, sweat trapped in blankets and sheets, food grease stuck on the steel bed frames, leftovers in the trash bins. But above all that, you could also smell the excitement, the fervor, but also the fear, the exhaustion, and the pain.
There was a slight confusion before we were able to locate the eight deportees in need of emergency medical assistance. Everybody had the same exhausted, but anxious look about them. Everybody looked in need of emergency medical attention.
And then we spotted them, the patients. Their limbs had shrunk, but their heels and feet had swollen to unimaginable shapes. This was the main, the most common complaint: They couldn’t move their legs. They couldn’t feel anything anymore. They had been sitting for too long – three-five-six weeks, months long. They were very rarely allowed to stand or to walk when they were in detention. They could only sit on their heels or lie on their backs. Two of them had tried to stand, and to stand up to the guard on duty, and they both got struck by a cane behind the knee and were forced to sit. So they did. They sat. They sat for too long.
Disuse atrophy of the most severe type, the nurses said. This occurs when there is an injury to, or disease of a nerve, or even from total lack of physical exercise, from simply not using the muscles enough. Considering that most of these people were manual laborers, the injury and utter lack of mobility they had been subjected to must have been pretty harsh, our guide said. She wasn’t sure if this would be reversed with vigorous exercise or better nutrition. She wasn’t even sure if it was just muscle atrophy that was the problem. Based on the pallor of their skin, the color of their eyes, she also suspected kidney failure, due to dehydration and a variety of insults to the body. This, she said, is fast becoming a common cause of mortality among deportees.
Six women went mad all at the same time in one cell, a young male deportee narrated. No, they didn’t go mad, their bodies were inhabited by demon spirits, gisaniban, explained another, a much older Moslem man. These women had grown so thin, had a wild look in their eyes. They howled at night, tore off their clothes, tried to attack the other women in the cell, they said. Good thing an Imam was around. He exorcised the demon spirits from the women’s bodies and insisted that the women be transferred to another room. The women’s chamber was a pretty bad section of the detention center, they all agreed. It was only when the women were transferred to another room that they went back to their normal selves, that they recovered their human bodies, the men said. They shook their heads of the memory, of the sight of those women. Pinaka-luoy gyud ang mga baye. The women really have it worst, said one of the male deportees. And then another one spoke: Luoy pud kaayo ang uban nga mga bata, kadtong gi-detain kauban sa mga tigulang. The others agreed, reminded of other cruelties: the kids, separated from their parents, detained in the same cells as the adults. The men narrated how they would take turns taking care of the young boys who wouldn’t stop crying at night, who refused to eat, who would get sick. They shook their heads again and again, trying to dispel the memory of those kids they weren’t able to save, the kids who eventually died. They related all this with such sadness, such anger, such pain. It was difficult to conceive of them as terrorists, insurgents, criminals, as they have often been referred to in the newspapers here and in Sabah.
The medical team returned. There weren’t enough stretchers, it turned out. One of the patients had to be carried on the back of his brother who was only just strong enough to lift the patient, off the bunk and on to his brother’s back. The patient was too tall, his limbs fell limply along the sides of his brother’s body. His bare, swollen, heavy feet scraped the metal floor as his brother crouched low and lugged the patient’s body heavily along.
Then the boat started to move, and the men panicked. Where are we being taken? What’s going to happen to us? My heart leaped, too. I tried not to panic. Probably just positioning the boat more closely to where the ambulances are, I said. But, why is the boat moving away from the pier? Why is it leaving the dock?! Was there something wrong with our papers? And then, finally, the question was asked with much fear and trepidation: Are we being taken back to Sabah?
When the boat stopped, the deportees started moving frantically toward the door, eager to leave this section, eager to get off the boat. This created a commotion that proved difficult to control. Some of the patients had to be settled back on the bunk beds, to let the other passengers out first. Two men decided to wait it out calmly and proceeded to light cigarettes instead. They had been through this before, they said. One of them had been deported thrice already, the other twice. And then they just go back. They will always keep going back. They exit through Taw-tawi, they said. No sweat. It is very easy. In Sabah, they know someone who can produce fake IDs. You want one? They offered. So easy. Sayon ra kaayo mam. It really is very easy, ma’am. They insisted.
I decided to sit with one of the patients who had been asked to stay behind. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly alarming about his condition, although there was a gangrenous wound on his elbow, and a red band was tied tightly right above it. What caught attention was that he spoke English, and only English. His eyes darted from one corner of the boat to another. He couldn’t look straight at any one point longer than a few seconds. When his eyes rested on me, piercingly, although for only a very brief moment, my heart tightened instantly with fear. I hated myself for it. Then he looked away and offered his right hand for a handshake. It took me a while to realize that he had introduced himself. His hand was furrowed, bony, dark, and small. The back of his palm was also spotted with what looked like boils. I took his hand and shook it very lightly in mine.
I only realized that I had been holding my hand out very awkwardly in the air, like I was drying it out, when someone asked me if there was something wrong with it. I shook my head furiously, mumbled something indistinct, and hid my hand behind my back.
It took more than four hours since the boat from Sabah docked, before we finally arrived at the Center for Displaced Persons.
By eight in the evening, the deportees had been loaded off the fleet of six-wheeler trucks that had brought them to their temporary home in Zamboanga, from the pier. They had been oriented of their new status and situation, and were formally welcomed to the Philippines. They were now lining up in front of a makeshift eating area for their first hot meal, since they left Sabah. All around them, the neighborhood kids were clapping their hands, welcoming them, and cheering: Halaw! Halaw! Halaw! Shouting out that derogatory term, which everyone seemed to have embraced and turned into something endearing instead.
You are now in the Philippines, you are now free, the Center Head had told them in Chavacano, Tausug, and then in Bisaya, the default Philippine languages used during orientation. When the Head translated the same message to Bahasa Melayu, some shed tears involuntarily, but very, very quietly. When they were told that they may now stand and start making their way out of the hall and into the eating area, the silence was broken by the sighs of relief, and the shuffle of feet, of some two hundred fifty three hungry people, who had sat for far too long in a place they used to call home.
We didn’t speak to each other, my friend and I, while we were in the car, on our way back to the hotel. Zamboanga looked even more intriguing in the deep blue of a March summer evening. All around us, the city had turned on its lights, the streets were filled with cars. Everywhere, parking lots were full, side streets were blocked. It was a Saturday night, after all. And the place is known for some real good nightlife. The visiting American forces sometimes leave their camps and risk their safety for this nightlife.
We turned all our attention to the driver, as we crawled down Zamboanga’s streets, in search of some mangosteen, lanzones, and other fruits in season, to bring back to Manila the next day. We asked about his family, we joked with him, we made him laugh, and we laughed much too loudly for his comfort. But, my friend and I, we were comfortable only in this kind of gaiety, so we kept at it.
Then, we passed the boulevard, which was lined with lovers and groups of friends out for some simple, inexpensive fun. From the boulevard, we could almost see the boat, decked in lights, lolling softly in the water, waiting for passengers for the return trip to Sabah. We fell silent all the way back to the hotel.
At the hotel, we let each other take as much time as we felt we needed in the shower. When it was my turn, I turned the shower knob to full heat, and let the hot water scald my skin. I opened my palms, scrubbed soap several times on them, and held them up, to cup as much hot water as they could take until they hurt, until they seriously started to hurt.
Out in the hotel balcony, while we smoked, we could almost hear the boat’s droning call, the single continuous note, vibrating through the air. We listened in silence, both of us perhaps wondering, how many of those passengers bound for Sabah would be expelled right back to this very same place with their dreams, their spirits, and their limbs broken.