LAHAD DATU—She fears for her life and that of her family here in Sabah. But if she goes back to Tawi-Tawi, they will have nothing, too—not a house, not a job, perhaps not a future.
For Inda, it seems she has nowhere to go. She wonders what fate awaits her family if they leave Sabah.
But the mother of four young children now finds herself denying her own ancestry for her own safety. She feels she and her family can no longer stay here.
“I was on my way to work recently when I was accosted by a policeman. He asked me if I was an Orang Suluk. I told him I wasn’t. I said I was Visayan,” Inda, 36, told Filipino reporters here.
She asked that her real name not be published. More than being an illegal immigrant, Inda is scared because she is Tausug, or an Orang Suluk. And she and her family are under suspicion that they are “conniving” with the followers of the sultanate of Sulu who landed here, in Tanduao village, last month to reclaim Sabah from Malaysia.
The conflict has claimed the lives of dozens of people—followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Malaysian security forces, and innocent civilians.
Inda and her family left Tawi-Tawi for Sabah six years ago, after a recruiter promised her husband a supposedly well-paying job in construction in Felda, a city some 140 kilometers from central Lahad Datu.
It was an opportunity for the family because Inda had just lost her job and their family store had gone bankrupt.
When her husband arrived at Felda, there was no job and no construction site, only a palm oil plantation. He arrived through the “backdoor,” meaning he did not have a passport or any other document that would legalize his stay here.
Nonetheless, Inda followed him, along with their three older children. She gave birth to their fourth child here in Lahad Datu.
The family took a “lantsa,” or a speed boat, to Lahad Datu. And it was the same mode of transportation they used when they wanted to go on vacations in Tawi-Tawi.
Inda said those who wanted to take the motorized boat needed to make bookings. The operator would call them up if there was a scheduled trip.
“We don’t use passports. We just have to submit photo IDs. We would arrive at midnight here and a car would be waiting for us to bring us wherever we want to be dropped off,” she said.
Inda said they would have to jump off, knee deep, into the waters and wade to the shore.
Sometimes, when they were caught, the operator would bribe the authorities to let them go, as well as to ensure the illegal operation of the lantsa.
Two years ago, the family left Felda. They now live somewhere else. Inda’s husband has found a job as a construction worker. A graduate of marine biology, Inda now works as a waitress.
“This conflict has made us very scared,” Inda said.
She doesn’t allow her husband to go out after he comes home from work, fearing that he will be harassed or hurt.
They have heard of the stories that some Filipinos, mostly Tausug, who are not part of Agbimuddin’s group have been shot or detained.
“They are being hunted down. They would be running away from the police,” Inda said.
She knows of others like her who want to return to Mindanao. But going back is now a problem for all of them.
No lantsa operator is plying the route anymore. Sahabat, where they have the secret port, is heavily guarded by Malaysian forces hunting Agbimuddin and his men.
Inda and her family have no other way of leaving Sabah. “We’re illegal immigrants here. We would need a passport,” she said.
Asked if she thought Sabah belonged to Malaysia and not the Philippines, she answered, “Yes. Why would we be considered illegal immigrants here if Sabah did not belong to Malaysia?”
With no clear options left, Inda said she and her family might just have to wait for the conflict to end.