MANILA, Philippines – One afternoon, when Mohammed Bansil was very young, maybe 9, maybe 10 years old, he slipped and fell into an open manhole along a flooded Taft Avenue in Manila. He didn’t fall very far, only up to his neck, because he was holding his sister’s hand.
Linda pulled him out, picked him up and carried him. She held him on her lap all the way home in a jeep, and kept holding him while the other passengers complained about the stench.
Now Mohammed prays, and prays often. He is 35 years old, the father of 3 young children with a wife he calls B and a job as a spinner for music events.
The world paused, he says, in an instant. It stopped at 7 in the evening of Saturday, June 22.
He had been out late at a gig the night before, had slept the entirety of the next day. He woke up at 7 in the evening, was in the bathroom when his wife Saffi began banging on the door. Open, she said, open, open, open.
When he did, she said, “It’s Linda and Nadj.”
He saw it on Facebook, a report that a pair of sisters was abducted in Jolo. The women were filmmakers, and their names were published.
“I thought it was a joke,” he said.
He called his sisters. Linda first, on both numbers. The phones were dead. Then he called Nadj. The phone rang, and he was glad, assured he was right, that it was joke and nothing more. Then a man answered.
“He said his name was Yazir Rajim. That’s when he told me. He said my sisters had been abducted. He said they were taken from them. The phone was left inside the camera bag.”
Rajim was the Bansil sisters’ contact, and was one of a group of locals escorting the sisters as the pair built a documentary on the coffee farmers of Sulu.
“On Thursday,” said Rajim, “they arrived in Jolo and were hosted by the Sulu Sultanate Darul Islam. On Friday morning they went to Sinumaan, stayed overnight in the area to take some shots of the sunrise. On Saturday (June 22) they started to take off to Jolo, at about 10 am, they were kidnapped in Liang, Patikul. They were on board a jeepney and the road was blocked by armed men.”
The local police call Sinumaan an Abu Sayyaff stronghold.
We are them
Mohammed is tall and thin, a striking man with a full beard and sharp cheekbones. Some of his friends say he looks like Osama bin Laden. He prefers thinking he looks like Snoop Dog.
Mohammed wanted to be a pilot. He studied aircraft engineering and airline management. He was close to graduation when 9-11 happened, and with it his decision to give up his dreams of flying
“I knew no one would hire me with my face. If you were the owner of an airline, would you hire me?”
His face, he says, is not a good face for checkpoints. He is frisked at airports, his friends, big, hulking men, walk through without a comment.
He knows what it means to be Muslim, he understands the difference between Manila and Jolo, and the terrible poverty that is a daily reality among his Muslim brothers.
“I’m a Muslim too, we lived that life. We are them. They are us. We were just put in a different place.”
People complain in Manila, he says, even when life is much better.
“If you were there,” he says, “There’s no PhilHealth, no insurance, no SSS, no hospitals or motorcycles on installment. I don’t blame this government. The names change every 6 years, politics change, you don’t know if what you’ll get is a sitting puppet or a trained dog. What I know is that they’ve taken care of Manila. They’ve taken care of the Visayas. They haven’t taken care of Mindanao. If they were taken care of, what will they need guns for?”
He knows all this, he says, but he never thought his family would become a target. His father was a religious leader, an imam who studied for decades on scholarships and brought his family home to be with his people.
If his father were alive, he would have asked why.
Mohammed thinks about how his sisters are living. If they are allowed to change clothes. If they can sleep. If they are being hurt. If they have privacy and feminine wash and proper food. He is afraid of rape, he is afraid if they are in pain, he is afraid, mostly, because they are women. He wishes he never bought Linda’s ticket, when she called and asked for a loan to fly to Zamboanga on June 19.
Mohammed remembers his big sister Nadj, the frank one, the sharp one, the one who once embarrassed him in a cab when he threw an empty bag of chips on the floor. You’re such a big man, such a tall man, and you can’t manage to throw out your trash properly? He was embarrassed, and picked up the bag.
Linda is the sweet one, the one he told all his stories to growing up, about the girls he liked and secrets he couldn’t tell his mother.
His sisters wanted to be artists, he says. They were never forced to wear veils or behave in a manner they were unwilling to behave. The Koran, he says, demands a person’s willingness to follow tradition. His family has always been supportive of their children’s dreams.
Mohammed has stopped going to work. He cannot make himself go.
“It is not an easy time for us. There’s nothing for us to do but wait. I had to stop working, I can’t play music knowing my sisters are out there. I can’t be where everyone is having a good time, I can’t imagine going on as if it’s a normal day. You could say it’s not important to keep working, but in Manila, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
His life now is about his sisters. Everything else has stopped.
“Like my heart stopped beating. Like my life stopped moving. You know, like your life is on pause. I have to stop working. My kids, I don’t get to talk to them anymore. I can’t sleep. I sleep 3 hours, I get a text message and I jump. My mind is flying all the time. My mind is with my sisters, my heart is with them. At any moment anything can happen.”
Now he waits. He prays. He will pull his sisters out of the manhole, because they need to come home. – Rappler.com