BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi – Inside a small room at the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Station, leaders of the local anti-trafficking task force had been trying to pry information out of five women who had just been intercepted by the police getting off a boat from Zamboanga City.
Rosabella Sulani (left) and members of the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Office's Women and Children Protection Desk escort potential victims of trafficking to the ferry going to Zamboanga City. Photo by Jake Soriano/VERA Files
The five, all of them new faces in Bongao, stirred the suspicion of authorities at the port when they huddled together and made phone calls, uncomfortably waiting for someone to fetch them.
The women were a tough group to crack. Their ages ranged from mid-twenties to early thirties, and they were not at all related to each other, yet they insisted they were in Bongao for a vacation.
But Rosabella Sulani, focal person of the Bongao Inter-agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons (BIATFAT), has seen and heard it all before. Every year, the BIATFAT intercepts hundreds of potential victims of human trafficking, sometimes up to 40 persons a week, mostly undocumented ferry passengers bound for Malaysia to seek employment there.
Many of them pass through Bongao and usually have a rehearsed story, like these women who claimed to be tourists. Sulani didn’t buy it.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never known this place to be a tourist destination,” she told them.
Sulani, along with Police Inspector Elmira Relox, continued asking questions, taking note of the slightest inconsistencies.
Sulani and Relox suspected that at least one of the women was actually the recruiter or human trafficker, and was helping transport the group to Malaysia via Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost Philippine province that sits next door to the Malaysian state of Sabah.
A woman who looked like the leader and whom Sulani suspected to be the trafficker stuck to the vacation story.
“If you don’t believe us, fine. Just let us go. We have money to pay for our trip back home anyway,” the woman told Sulani and Relox.
“Sige lang. Mamaya mahuhuli ko rin kayo (We’ll wait. I’ll catch you eventually),” Sulani announced.
Then a phone rang. It belonged to one of the women and was lying on the table in the interrogation room in front of Sulani and Relox. Sulani picked it up and immediately knew her patience had finally paid off.
“Eto na (Here we go),” Sulani said, before answering the phone and pretending to be one of the women. She listened for a few seconds, analyzing the voice on the other end of the line speaking in Sinama, a Tawi-Tawi dialect Sulani speaks fluently.
When the phone call was over, Sulani had the confirmation she needed.
“You know who that was?” Sulani asked the women, who were now visibly shaken. “That was the person who was supposed to accompany you to Malaysia. He just told me everything.”
For almost 10 years now, Sulani has been involved in anti-trafficking efforts in Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi province and a human trafficking hotspot because of its geographic and cultural proximity to Malaysia.
Sulani did not start out as an anti-trafficking advocate. She was, and still is, Bongao’s municipal assessor, working more with numbers and papers than with victims.
She has an education degree from the Mindanao State University in Tawi-Tawi, but realized she did not really want to teach. So she applied for work in government, first at the local National Statistics Office and finally at the Bongao local government unit.
Rosabella Sulani at the port of Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Jake Soriano/VERA Files
In 2005, the United Nations Population Fund tapped Sulani to be part of the information drive of a project to address violence against women and children. The BIATFAT grew from this initiative.
Sulani has all the qualities necessary for an anti-trafficking champion in a dangerous place like Bongao. She knows everyone, speaks many local dialects fluently and can effortlessly shift between being tough and compassionate. She is also tireless and fearless.
“My colleagues in anti-trafficking are all doing great because they’re members of the military or the police,” she said. “All the threats are leveled at me because traffickers know I’m a civilian.”
Despite being a civilian, Sulani fights human trafficking like a soldier in battle. She might have learned well from her father, a soldier from La Union, who brought his family with him to his assignments across the country.
Sulani was born in Cagayan de Oro and grew up in Zamboanga City and in Jolo, Sulu. Her family finally settled in Tawi-Tawi in the 1970s.
“Tawi-Tawi was my father’s last assignment. It is also where he died,” Sulani said.
She was also married to a soldier whom she speaks of with admiration in her eyes. He was killed in an ambush in Jolo in August 2008, Sulani said, but he died fighting and doing his job.
Sulani said she is aware that her job is as dangerous, and any day she could die doing it. Some of the threats, sent to her through text messages, use figurative and frightening language.
“Buburahin daw ako.‘Ereson ta yan.’ Parang ganyan ang mga term na ginagamit (They are going to ‘erase’ me, they say. Those are the terms they use),” she said.
She recounted a confrontation with a police officer who was related to one of the suspects the BIATFAT had apprehended. “He went straight to my office. And he had a gun,” she recalled.
Another time, she said, a local official berated her in public. She responded by telling the person off, “Huwag mo isigaw. Isulat mo yan (Don’t scream it to me. Write it down).”
State prosecutor Darlene Pajarito, the country’s anti-trafficking czar, has worked with Sulani from 2011 to 2012 and describes her as “very active and aggressive” in her job as BIATFAT focal person.
“I’m sure she’s still very active now,” said Pajarito, who was honored by the U.S. State Department as one of its 10 global anti-trafficking heroes in 2011.
Gaudencio Basada, a missionary priest who has worked in Tawi-Tawi for years, said he admires Sulani and considers her a missionary for the poor, especially women victims of modern slavery.
“I admire her dedication, sacrifice and bravery despite the lack of government support,” Basada said. “She fights human trafficking in the face of threats against her life.”
Sulani acknowledged that running after human trafficking syndicates means going up against powerful people with ties to these crime groups, and that she is putting not just herself, but her family in danger.
“We’re a well-established family here in Bongao. My enemies know my family,” she said, meaning not only her mother and child but also the rest of her extended family. “Ang dali naming durugin (We’re very easy to crush).”
But it is no great mystery why she sticks to her job.
After interrogating the five women, with the day coming to a close, Sulani decided to send them on the night ferry back to Zamboanga City, there being no temporary shelter in Bongao for rescued victims of human trafficking.
She, along with Relox and members of the Tawi-Tawi PPO, escorted the women to the pier, all the way to a comfortable and isolated section of the ferry. She introduced them to members of the Marines who were to guard them on the trip, telling the women they would be handed over to Zamboanga City authorities for further processing.
She then called authorities in Zamboanga City and briefed them about the women, drawing attention to the suspected trafficker.
From July 2011 to January this year, the BIATFAT has referred 16 human trafficking cases to Zamboanga City for prosecution. Half of the 16 cases have been filed in court, with the remaining eight still in the investigation stage.
The next day, Sulani got a call from Zamboanga telling her the suspected woman was now facing inquest proceedings, another victory against human trafficking. Sulani beamed at the news, happy that she was once again proven right.
“I feel this immense joy every time I rescue people here,” she said. “All of my day’s work did not go to waste. That’s why I’m happy right now.”
(This story is part of VERA Files’ project Human Trafficking Casewatch supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)