Idyllic village life marred by violence

SEMPORNA: Signs of the shootout were obvious in a now lifeless part of this sea village off Sabah's east coast, once home to hundreds of Bajau and Suluk folk.

As I teetered on the narrow, rickety walkway above the water, Ramlee Marahaban, the village chief, pointed out blood stains and bullet holes on the walkway planks and walls of houses.

They were the only signs of the March 2 dusk police hunt for Sulu militants in Simunul Village in Semporna, that turned into an ambush that left six policemen and six militants dead.

"It was a bad spot for the police because they weren't familiar with this place," Chief Ramlee told me with a shrug.

I was born and raised in Kota Kinabalu, an hour's flight and 600km away. This was my first visit to Semporna, to this blood-splattered village.

Some 50 elite cops had come into the village looking for suspects linked to Sulu militants who had taken over a village in Felda Sahabat, four hours away by road. The militants had come from the sea to "reclaim" Sabah for their Sulu "Sultan".

Semporna is the gateway for tourists heading to the world-famous Sipadan island, a diving haven, and other beautiful holiday spots like the Mabul and Kapalai islands.

But the part I visited that day is locally called a "kawasan hitam", a black area, a place of thieves and thugs.

"I dare not drive past it. The looks they give you isn't... nice," Dino Evero, 38, a tough-looking oil palm estate manager born in Semporna, told me outside of town.

Such "black areas" are fairly common in my home state of Sabah. They are usually settlements of immigrants from the Philippines or Indonesia.

Whether or not they have legal papers to be in Malaysia, is the subject of an ongoing royal inquiry.

BDC village near Sandakan town is another such settlement. A police officer chasing a suspect who flees into the maze-like warren of dimly-lit wooden shacks will think twice about continuing his pursuit.

Ten minutes by boat from my hometown of Kota Kinabalu, there's Gaya island, home to hundreds of Filipino immigrants, legal or not, in a place called Pondo village.

Growing up, family and friends told me, "don't go near those places. They're black areas."

Like dwellings of bogeymen that would kidnap you if you misbehaved.

It was the same kind of talk I heard when I told locals I was heading to Simunul village.

I drove my borrowed Nissan pick-up from Lahad Datu, two hours' drive away.

My apprehension about my safety did not last. The villagers did not hesitate to show me around and contrary to popular belief, did not beg. They refused the Marlboros I proffered, opting instead for their sweet-smelling clove 'rollies'.

Simunul village was settled as Hallow village in 1932, its name from a Bajau word meaning an area with pools of uneven depths, for the marshy land around.

"But in Malay, 'Hallow' sounds like 'to expel or chase away' so they changed the name," said chief Ramlee.

The water village's name was changed to Simunul in 1968, after the tribe of Bajau people who first lived here as fishermen and farmers.

Before the gunmen showed up, about 1,800 people lived in the particular section of Simunul that Mr Ramlee had jurisdiction over. Among them were 300 Suluks, a Filipino ethnic group related to the Sulu militants.

Walking on those noisy planks, five feet above the water, I knew even trained Special Actions Unit police, with all their urban combat prowess, could not have possibly walked without tipping off the militants to their approach.

On March 2, Mr Ramlee said, they entered after 6pm, after sundown. It was pitch black with no street lamps, not even torches outside of the huts that hemmed you in tight on both sides of those planks.

You had to walk single file on the planks that the locals - but not the police - knew by heart.

"At 6.30pm, my heart jumped when I heard 'tak, tak' and then, loud rapid fire shots for several minutes," said Mr Ramlee. He tried to enter the area but wasblocked by dozens of policemen.

I met Madam Sutera Abdul Rahman, who showed me where bullets had penetrated her 23-year-old shack at the scene of the gunfight.

Like her neighbours, she had fled, but came back to collect some personal items from her house during my visit last Sunday (mar 10).

She said she'd just returned from work with her daughter Darma. They were relaxing on her doorstep when three policemen arrived urgently looking for "the new people" meaning strangers who had arrived recently.

"I said to the man I know as Corporal Juhalip - 'It's dark, I cannot see,'" she remembered.

Gunfire and shouts from houses mere feet away rang out next. She shoved her daughter into the house and fell backwards into her house, instinctively pulling two stumbling officers inside and locking up. Another police officer was already inside.

"Two nights and two days I was trapped in my house with my daughter and the three policemen, silent like mice," the 54-year-old Suluk sundry trader told me.

They huddled on the floor in the bedroom, surviving on dry instant noodles. Next door, militants were believed to be hiding.

Madam Sutera, her husband Majid Sabaani, 60, and their nine children had been living in a motel 15 kilometres from town for a week now for fear that the militants would return.

"I still cannot sleep properly. These invaders are animals," she said. She refused to have her photo taken in case the militants recognise her and retaliate.

When I asked her how she felt about the militants being from the same ethnic group as her, she said: "We cannot choose our race. These are just troublemakers."

The other houses at the scene of the gunfight are empty, their original residents' whereabouts unknown, said Mr Ramlee.

Showing me the house where the six dead policemen's bodies were reportedly mutilated, he just shook his head.

"They said they (the militants) are Muslims but proper Muslims do not cut out dead people's hearts and livers in revenge."

Many fear that the gunmen will return, even after the operation in Lahad Datu to flush them out is over.

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