Four years ago, tragedy caused a dark cloud to hover over the entire country.
The Mendiola Massacre that took place during Corazon Aquino’s presidency was a stark contrast to the peaceful revolution that put her in power. That dark, bloody day cast a shadow over her family’s political legacy, but it was not enough to prevent her son from winning the presidency over twenty years later.
Unfortunately, the younger Aquino’s time as president became known for yet another brutal encounter that Filipinos would find difficult to forget. Known as the Mamasapano Clash, it resulted the deaths of 44 Special Action Forces commandos.
The story starts with Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian terrorist who trained as an engineer in the United States. Impressively, he could speak several languages, including Malay, Arabic, English, and even Filipino. Zulkifli, who had 10 siblings and three children, left home suddenly one day and reappeared later on as Marwan, a terrorist connected to the Jemaah Islamiyah.
The 2002 Bali bombings were attributed to his group, which cemented Marwan’s reputation as a prominent bomb maker. There were reports that he was teaching various terrorist groups in the Middle East and Asia, including Philippines’ own Abu Sayaf, how to make explosive devices. Some reports state that he had taught around 300 bomb makers from across the globe.
Needless to say, there was bounty on Marwan’s head. He was wanted in several countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, the United States, and the Philippines.
By 2002, Marwan had eight outstanding warrants of arrest. A decade later, he attempted to replicate the Bali bombings in Cagayan De Oro by planting two bombs around the city. One bomb killed two police officers and the other was found in time and was detonated in a safe place.
It was around this time that authorities began operations to capture the bomb maker. Some of the operations were named after famous movies or characters, including Wolverine, Cyclops, and Terminator. Most of these missions, however, were aborted due to various reasons, including the lack of transport or equipment breaking down.
In 2014, the Philippine National Police received “actionable intelligence” on Marwan and another terrorist called Basit Usman. The latter was linked to a bombing incident in General Santos City back in 2002, which had killed 15 people and injured 60 more.
During the third and fourth quarter of 2014, there were solid attempts to arrest Marwan and Usman. Operations were halted, however, because of an unforeseen attack on a detachment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
In January 2015, during the Pope’s visit to Manila, it was reported that Marwan and his group were involved in several plots to blow up the papal convoy. This was prevented by changing the plans of the Pope at the last minute.
It was on the 24th of January that the Special Action Forces of the PNP executed the biblically named Oplan Exodus. Ironically, the plan echoed the story after which it was named—it promised great deliverance at the cost of many lives.
Zulkifli bin Hir a.k.a. Marwan, a Malaysian terrorist who trained as an engineer in the United States. His capture was the goal of the mission.
Shortly before midnight, the SAF commandos entered a marshland in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. While there were several groups involved in the mission, two factions were assigned to be in the heat of the would-be warzone. One was the 84th SAF Company headed by Supt. Raymond Train. These groups were tasked to get Marwan. The other was the 55th SAF Company headed by Insp. Ryan Pabalinas, which served as the blocking force.
Only 41 commandos were assigned to the team that was to assault Marwan and Usman in their hideout in Barangay Pidsandwan. The blockage team, composed of 36 commandos, was in the nearby Barangay Tukanilipao. There was also a team of 300 SAF troops on standby, deployed away from the battle zone.
To get to their destination, the soldiers had to endure a two-hour walk, which included crossing a river at high tide. There are accounts that said they arrived at the location of Usman and Marwan at around 3 A.M., other say 4 A.M.
Survivor commando SPO4 Bill Fernando Jumalon, part of the assault team, later recounted that the two assault teams started attacking Marwan’s house and the other team helped in attacking nearby sentries. After a few minutes of gunfire exchange, they returned to their designated converging area and waited for the rest of the assault team to catch up.
Train revealed that they had successfully neutralized Marwan. He said they couldn’t move the body but they had taken photos and a finger for evidence.
The group had to cross a river to link up with the 55th Special Action Company and the rest of the blocking force stationed in Barangay Tukanalipao as they withdrew from the area. Jumalon recalled that Train had made several calls for support and reinforcements around this time.
After a kilometer’s walk, the group chanced upon a number of houses which served as a small camp for the rebels. They stopped to rest, and they were told that their original exit plan had changed to evade the BIFF.
After two more hours of walking, they rested and that’s when a young boy spotted the commandos and apparently alerted the rebels in the area.
“After a few seconds, firing commenced from the BIFF targeting us. Firefight lasted for almost two hours and after which one of our comrades was hit at the elbow,” Jumalon said.
“We’re already surrounded by the enemies,” Jumalon said, quoting Train, who made several frantic calls for reinforcements and extraction during this time.
Another survivor who recounted his experience during his fallen comrades’ wake, said that they had to keep still and quiet so that the enemies would think they were dead. They were, after all, pinned down by the automatic gunfire from the rebels.
By 4 p.m., the soldiers said goodbye to each other as they prepared to take their last stand against the 1,000-strong rebels. The attack was coming from all sides. The plan was to fight it out until the last bullet.
The only SAF44 survivor detailed the alleged Oplan Exodus.
Based on their accounts, the surviving commandos had to wait a total of 16 hours for rescue. In the end, SAF lost 44 of its members to the firefight against the BIFF and Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas. Eighteen rebels, and three to five civilians also perished during the fight, including an eight-year old child.
According to some reports, as early as 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., SAF Commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas sent a text message to Maj. Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, informing him of an ongoing police operation against Marwan. Napeñas did not ask for reinforcements even if Train’s calls suggested otherwise.
It was Pangilinan who sensed that the SAF commandos may have been in need of help and made several calls.
First, he made orders to contact MILF’s Abdul Abad Dataya to ask his rebels to withdraw. Pangilinan then assembled a reinforcement team and called armor from the Mechanized Brigade to provide artillery support. The 300 commandos on standby were “just sitting” according to some reports.
The next big challenge was to find out the exact location of the SAF commandos. After they received the call from Train’s group, the army had tried to locate their position. It was between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. when the army who was extracting the team, received similar fire from the guerillas.
By 3 p.m., a tactical command post was set up by the army and SAF forces to coordinate communications. An army artillery also tried to enter the marshlands but failed to do so because of the narrow passages.
It was half past five when the army reinforcement team, still under heavy fire from MILF guerrillas, deployed white phosphorous to give soldiers cover. The artillery support team calculated their grid coordinates based on the white phosphorus and fired several rounds on the rebels who eventually retreated.
It was 8 p.m. when Train and his team were located and successfully extracted. The retrieval operations continued until 2 p.m. the next day. One of the last men rescued was PO2 Christopher Robert Lalan, the only survivor of the 55th Company. He found his way to a highway and was taken to the Army 45th IB headquarters to rejoin other SAF commandos. The angry commando wanted to know why reinforcements had never come to support the SAF groups that went in for the operation as planned.
SAF lost 44 of its members to the firefight against the BIFF and Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas. The rebels lost 18 of its members. Three to five civilians also perished during the fight, including an eight-year old child.
Massacre or misencounter?
The next day, a press briefing was organized. The government called the incident a “misencounter.”
On January 28, President Aquino publicly addressed the nation with the details of the event. He also declared January 30 a national day of mourning for the 44 police commandos killed in Mamasapano.
When asked whether he had given his go-signal for the operations, Aquino explained that the AFP, PNP, and NBI are not always required to obtain his approval for each and every one of their operations.
“It would be impractical for them to wait for my clearance before proceeding,” he said to the media.
The next day, there were arrival honors for the slain 44 SAF troopers. The President skipped this to attend a car plant launch. This angered Filipinos who voiced out their sentiments on social media. Sensing a public backlash, the president met with the individual families in Camp Bagong Diwa the next day.
Two months later, the PNP Board of Inquiry released results of its investigation that implicated PNP chief Alan Purisima for acting "without authority.” The report also stated that Aquino bypassed the chain of command by allowing Purisima to take part in the operation.
The Senate also released its own report, after a series of public hearings. In the report, the senators demanded that Aquino take responsibility for what happened. The also found that the “first sin” or who fired first was the MILF, which was denied later on by the group.
The Senate called it a “massacre” due to the nature of how the commandos were killed. Aside from being trapped from all sides, the autopsy reports and an unverified video also revealed the brutal ways the commandos were executed.
“As close to 30 policemen bore gunshot wounds to the head… The said firearms are so powerful that it crushed the skulls of the fallen troopers," the report stated.
"The Mamasapano incident was overkill. Labeling the tragedy as a misencounter would do injustice to the fallen 44 PNP-SAF heroes," it continued.
The Commission on Human Rights, however, begged to differ. Then Chairperson Loretta "Etta" Rosales, argued the term was “excessive.”
In a statement, she said that the Moro troops' use of high-powered firearms and mortars “does not automatically equate to cruelty,” and that after all, the SAF were armed, albeit outgunned."
"In other words, although their situation was dire, the SAF were not necessarily helpless or unresisting," she said.
The public had demanded justice. What they got instead was a series of investigations by various government agencies, which included the Department of Justice’s Special Investigation Team with members of the National Bureau of Investigation and National Prosecution Service. It also included the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the PNP Board of Inquiry, the Commission on Human Rights, and committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Almost 8 months after the clash, NBI filed criminal complaints against 90 individuals, including 26 MILF members, 12 members of the BIFF, and 52 others from various rebel groups.
In July 2015, the Ombudsman approved the recommendation to file charges against Purisima, Napeñas, Police Chief Superintendent Fernando Mendez Jr, and 8 other police officers. The Ombudsman panel, however, absolved Aquino of any criminal liability.
Two years later, on the anniversary of the incident, the Ombudsman filed criminal charges against Purisima and Napeñas with the Sandiganbayan. President Rodrigo Duterte also announced he would create another commission to re-investigate the clash and give more Medals of Valors to the fallen commandos.
The PNP also reported that the families of the fallen have received almost P70 million in benefits and pensions.
The Mamasapano Tragedy had such a huge impact that a Maalaala Mo Kaya episode was dedicated to it starring Coco Martin and Angel Locsin. ER Ejercito also produced a film dedicated to the SAF44.
The death of the 44 commandos shocked the nation but looking at the bigger picture, the clash was a grim reminder of the situation in Maguindanao.
As of March 16, 2015, about 24,714 families, or 123,537 individuals in Maguindanao have been displaced, according to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team.
There is also an estimated P600 billion in damage to property and livelihood from 1970 to 2001 in the area. While over 60 people died that day in Mamasapano, that number is small compared to the estimated 120,000 lives lost from 1970 to 1996 because of the ongoing battles.
Four years since the tragic deaths of the 44 soldiers, the palace has asked the country to continue praying for the souls of those who perished.
"As we share in the grief of their bereaved families, we urge the Office of the Ombudsman to resolve with dispatch the case filed against those who recklessly placed them in mortal peril," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
While the investigations continue, so does the fighting in Mindanao.
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Mamasapano clash: What happened according to President Aquino
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Massacre or misencounter? #SAF44 debate goes on
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