Waiting for the President
The boss’s schedule will always screw you. It’s early morning on the Philippine island of Basilan. I’m here at the Marine HQ, awaiting the ‘surprise’ arrival of the Philippine president, Gloria Arroyo. Her advance team, all 150 of them, are sleeping on the floor of the bamboo hut that usually acts as the tactical operations centre. There’s a humid, bug-laden, sultry atmosphere, not relieved by nervousness of the bodyguards, and the number of guns that have appeared.
You can’t blame them: this island is at the heart of an insurgency that President Arroyo has sworn to wipe out. And although the fighting has been on and off here for nearly twenty years, this month has seen it cross a line that President Arroyo seems unwilling to step back from.
On July 10th, a group of marines sent to rescue a captured Italian missionary, one Father Bossi, were ambushed by guerillas from the Abu Sayyaf Group. Long equated by the Philippines and the Americans with Al Qaeda, the ASG beheaded ten of the ambushed marines, setting off a escalation of the fighting that I’m now here to witness.
But first, the President. I arrived here yesterday afternoon, expecting to be able to pass through the island HQ, and get up the forward operating bases on the other side of the island. You approach Basilan by boat, and have to call ahead before you arrive to arrange an armed escort to the camp – the ransom on a westerner is just too tempting, and this entire area is recommended out of bounds by not just the western embassies but the Manila government as well. When I called my contact, the camp CO, yesterday, it was to find that not only had he been relieved of command, but that the President’s arrival was taking everyone’s attention. So I wait. More updates to come later today.