Thursday, March 4, 2004

Passenger 51

I shudder as I imagine Passenger 51 moments before the ill-fated SuperFerry 14 caught fire last week off the coast of Bataan. Did he or didn’t he?

With unconcealed delight, Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani announced a few days ago that his terror group, with the special participation of Passenger 51, had caused the tragedy that killed and injured more than a hundred people and left countless traumatized and bereaved. The ship, carrying 879 passengers and crew, had just left Manila on the night of Feb. 26 and was cruising Manila Bay when tragedy struck. Among the 134 still mysteriously missing are scores of high school students who had just attended a national conference in Laguna and were returning to Mindanao. The ship, though keeled to the side, did not go down. Yet only one dead body has so far been found.

Passenger 51, bearer of ticket number 24633972, was to be credited for this latest sea mishap, Janjalani crowed, and he could prove it. Passenger 51 was their own, and he had fulfilled his duty. Government investigators were quick to pooh-pooh this owning up, insisting that there was no proof of an explosion. The disaster was an accident or it could have been human error that brought that about. Any prankster could claim authorship and ride on the tragedy as a ticket to infamy.

But Janjalani waved the smoking gun. Passenger 51, the suicide bomber, Janjalani said, was Arnulfo Alvarado whose real name was Abu Muadz, a native of Pata Island in Sulu. The Abu Sayyaf chief continued to give details of those moments before Passenger 51 sealed the fate of scores of innocents including his own. Oh, but might he still be alive?

At first only Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Soliman made the announcement. Was he for real? ``We did it!’’ the Inquirer quoted him as saying. Sure, the claim could have come from the terrorists, Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo said, but only as an afterthought.

Then Janjalani emerged to bolster the claim by confirming the participation of Passenger 51 himself. Yes, he said, they plotted it, knew the details of it. And now they are reveling in it even as hundreds of families weep for the missing and the dead.

The ship owners had confirmed last year that they had received threats from the Abu Sayyaf. Janjalani said their warning letters had something to do with ``the use of our seas, taxes.’’

And so it was that Passenger 51 had to take on the task of making the threat good, for whatever purpose it may serve now. Janjalani even described the physical set up inside SuperFerry 14--from the escalator, to the deck, to the Blue Room where Passenger 51 was supposed to have placed the explosive. The two spoke to each other by cell phone. ``I’m embracing it,’’ Passenger 51 said to him, probably referring to the bomb. He was ready to go, he added. To go to heaven as a martyr.

Passenger 51, Janjalani boasted, had gone through a rigorous ``spiritual course’’ called the Amaliya Istishhadiya meant for a few volunteers seeking martyrdom.

The Abu Sayyaf claim about Passenger 51 may be true or it may all be a boast. But claiming something that has brought anguish and trauma to hundreds of innocent individuals and families, even if it was not actually the claimants’ handiwork, is almost tantamount to having done it themselves. The gleeful admission, the triumphant announcement are blood-curdling. How can one punish the innocent and claim reward in heaven?

I wish self-respecting Muslims would raise their voices to denounce the use of Islamic jargon in the terrorists’ justification of this latest attack on human beings. Do they also believe that this kind of ``martyrdom’’ is a sure way to heaven? No, I don’t think so.

The Feb. 23 issue of Newsweek carries Joanna Chen’s interview with Thauria Hamur, a 26-year-old Palestinian woman who was supposed to carry out a suicide bombing mission in Jerusalem in May 2002. Hamur was captured by Israeli forces shortly before she was going to set off the explosion. She is now in prison, serving out a six-year sentence.

When asked to pinpoint the moment she decided to volunteer for the mission, Hamur said she could give many examples of the killing of Palestinian children. Her own cousin, she said, was killed by Israeli soldiers.

Men are promised they’ll become martyrs in paradise, so what was Hamur, promised? Chen asked. Hamur answered: ``According to the Qur’an, God promised the martyrs a reward of 70 virgins, and those who die a martyr’s death will be kept alive and sustained by God. Women martyrs are promised they will become the purest and most beautiful form of angel at the highest level possible in heaven.’’

The training to explode the backpack took only half an hour, Hamur disclosed. There was a button she was supposed to push when she got into a crowded place. ``It was a pizza restaurant…I decided to go and blow myself up in the evening hours, when people were going back home from work and there would be a big crowd of people around the target area.’’

But then Hamur was captured. But she isn’t sorry. She would do it again, if she could. ``I don’t have anything against Israeli children, but I know that there is a possibility that this Israeli child will grow up and come to kill my son or my neighbor’s son. Therefore, I think he should be dead now.’’

The vicious cycle of hate, revenge and violence continues.


Bantayog ng mga Bayani, QC. Every last Saturday of the month, in the afternoon, families and friends of martyrs and heroes listed on the Wall of Remembrance who died or were born in the current month, are invited to gather, light candles, offer flowers and exchange memories in an atmosphere of peace and joy. Call 4361769 for details.