ZAMBOANGA CITY — The exotic Eleven Islands here, which was home to pirates, terrorists and smugglers, is "no man’s land" no more as former rebels and hundreds of inhabitants have started to return for good.
Situated off the east coast of this port city, Eleven Islands is called as such because of the 11 islets scattered in the area, which have been deserted since early 1970s following the declaration of martial law.
Over the years, the islands have become sanctuaries and used as jump-off points to and from Zamboanga City and the islands of Basilan and Sulu by rebels, pirates and many groups of lawless elements.
Because of the continuing conflict in the area, the islands have become famous in Zamboanga peninsula as a "no man’s land."
Bizarre as it may seem, Eleven Islands abounds with marine products and is a perfect site for diving or even a banca ride from one islet to another.
Former Southern Command deputy chief (ret.) Gen. Jose Balahadja, now Senate Chief Security who once visited Eleven Islands, once said that the place has a great potential as a tourist destination.
"These scattered islands give hope not only to people like me but to others as well because of its potential as a tourist destination," Balahadja once said during a visit in the mid-90s.
The inhabitants, who mostly belong to Muslim tribes of Yakan, Samal Bangingi (sea gypsy), and other Sama tribes, have taken refuge in Barangays Taluksangay, Dita, Curuan, Buenavista, Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon, Sangali, all in Zamboanga.
But due to economic necessity, the inhabitants clandestinely go back to the island to farm seaweeds and fish during daytime.
Community leaders, headed by Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Commander Akbari Samsom, finally decided last year to resettle in the islands and seek the assistance of the Act for Peace Programme.
That decision was affirmed when government leaders, spearheaded by Presidential Adviser of the Peace Process (OPAPP) Secretary Jesus Dureza, City Mayor Celso Lobregat, police and military commanders inaugurated some 200 core shelters for residents.
Samson recalled that during the height of hostilities in the ’70s, rebels and civilian inhabitants fought not just the military but also pirates, smugglers, and other lawless groups who turned their abode into a sanctuary of lawlessness.
Dureza said the Act for Peace selected the Eleven Islands as its beneficiary after investigation and consultations were made. He said the program provided development interventions, which include social preparation processes in coordination with the local government.
Dureza said they have validated the viability of the islands for rehabilitation, particularly in providing core shelters for the 200 families who will initially return to the island.
"The program calls for an image shift for the Eleven Islands from haven for bandits and lawless elements into peaceful community," Dureza said.
He stressed that Eleven Islands, with a wild and exotic beauty of its own kind, "has a very strong potential to become a major eco-tourism destination."
At the moment though, Dureza said they are focusing on the return of the villagers, which they believe would be a great jumpstart for the tourism program.
Lobregat, Dureza and the former rebel and civilia leaders also signed a peace covenant to pursue a lasting peace and development and free the islands with violence.