On Tuesday, March 4, Jemson Ismael, was laid to rest in the Muslim cemetery in Barangay Mampang. Two days earlier, someone still unidentified shot him dead instantly with a single bullet in the head two night, just near his house in Barangay Arena Blanco. Because they had to wait for his mother to come from faraway Laminusa Island, his burial took place two days after his death, a break from interment within 24 hours mandated by Muslim tradition.
There is a little touch of symbolism in that break from tradition because Jemson was a Badjao, fifty-something at the time of his death, who was one of a very few from his tribe who strived to improve the lot of his normally, haplessly timid tribesmen. He had been an active member for some three years of the Inter-Religious Solidarity Movement for Peace (IRMSP), and that is how I came to know him. IRMSP, as may be obvious from its name, is a civil society group that works for peace, and some community development as well.
We two were friends, but not close. From the little that he told me about himself, I know he served in the defunct Philippine Constabulary, or was he a policeman? No matter, he was a peace officer – and then a man of peace. Because, apparently, he was not blind to the raging poverty among his fellow Badjaos – mind you, he was quite poor himself – he was one of the few Badjaos who banded themselves to form about two years ago the Samabadjao National Movement, Inc. So far as I know, the group is well-organized, had built a mosque for a Badjao community somewhere and published a Islamic prayer book, but other than those has not done any other serious project. Jemson was its vice-president.
Days before his death, Jemson invited me to come to Arena Blanco to interview their tribal organization’s president. In the interview, the president complained about the collection by barangay authorities of fees from Badjao fish vendors for the latter’s use of the community market. I wrote a short article about the situation, it was published in a local newspaper, and consequently the city mayor called the barangay officials and the Badjao leaders, himself including, for a dialogue in City Hall. He was in City Hall when he texted to inform me about it. That was his last communication to me.
His apparent murder would likely end up – like most other similar killings in this city and elsewhere in the country – as just another forgettable police statistic. What is really regrettable and ironic is that Jemson had to pay the ultimate price for standing up for peace, justice and social upliftment. The absurdist philosopher-writer Albert Camus said that people act out of an innate instinct to gain immortality. If Jemson was moved by that same passion even if he was not conscious of it, he will be immortal, but only if his death will not diminish but instead inspire others to continue his noble struggle. Life’s ultimate truth, the Zen masters swear, is in the heart of combat.