In those first days of the siege, some members of the rescue team were in slippers when the they raced to the battlefield to help trapped residents. “Our satellite office was in the warzone and our equipment was inside. We had to do what we could with what we had,” said Miko Rakin Adiong.
And at the time some had shoes and boots while others had only their slippers.
Now, Adiong and other rescuers have a standard issue orange shirt with black long sleeves shirt that identifies them as the Lanao del Sur Rescue Team. Adiong usually wears his uniform with a black vest decked with pockets; it looks like something suited for a fisherman or a journalist. Black gloves and sunglasses hang from the pockets of his vest and knee pads are strapped around his knees.
With nothing more than a white construction helmet and the small contingent of soldiers as escort and backup, the Lanao del Sur Rescue Team have gone on more than 50 missions to extract civilians hiding or trapped in the war zone. Adiong has lost count of how many they have rescued but he estimates it to be about maybe 800 people.
Philippine troops struggled to take back the Islamic City of Marawi from Isis affiliated jihadist militants.
Not bad for a ragtag group of men who had little or no rescue training prior to the siege of Marawi. All they knew on that day in May was that ISIS militants had invaded their city, driven their friends and family out of their homes and began destroying everything that made Marawi City their sanctuary of memories. They could not just stand by and watch. They had to do something to help.
They’ve been called the Suicide Squad (because some of the missions have put them directly in the line of fire) and have been compared to the White Helmets that go rushing into war zones in Syria to rescue civilians but Adiong shrugs it off. Their only protective gear is a construction helmet, but that ends the comparison.
“Of course, it’s cool to even be compared to the White Helmets, but nah, we’re just ordinary everyday people who I guess were brought together because of this calling to help,” he said.
The Lanao del Sur Rescue Team is a mix of men from different backgrounds and all walks of life. Some are government employees, others are office workers, some had odd jobs.
Adiong himself is part of a band, doing vocals and drums. Occasionally, he dabbles in photography. His grin is boyish and his frame is round making him appear younger than the 25-years that he says he is.
He wasn’t in Marawi on the day of the siege. He was in Manila with his wife who had just passed the bar exam. The couple were getting ready to celebrate when Adiong began receiving frantic SMS messages from friends. “My father is the Vice Governor and they were all asking if I could help them.”
Adiong got on the next plane back to Marawi.
Just like any other day
The air was noisier and everyone seemed to move faster because of the preparations for Ramadan, but other than that, May 23 was just like any other day in Marawi City, the only Islamic City in the Philippines and the economic hub of Lanao province.
Without warning, men in black masks unleashed pandemonium. They were a coalition of the Maute group, the Abu Sayyaf and other bandit groups that affiliated themselves with ISIS. The militants had turned the tables on the military when they turned what was supposed to be a regular military arrest of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon into a takeover of the city.
Civilians raced to get out of the city. But many others were convinced that it would last only for a few days and decided to wait it out rather than risk leaving their homes. On the third day when the government announced air strikes, civilians were left no choice but to evacuate—fast.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao—Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team (ARMM—HEART), a 24/7 rapid response team based in Cotabato was on the ground since the first days of the siege providing emergency assistance and training to Adiong and other volunteers that would later form the Lanao del Sur Rescue Team.
From their base in Cotabato, ARMM—HEART services Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and other island provinces like Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in times of armed conflict and natural disasters.
At the start of the siege, ARMM—HEART set up a command center with personnel stationed to run relief operations as almost all the provincial officials and employees had evacuated from Marawi.
“We needed to help the province and support for them, not just to empower them but also to make it appear that there’s a semblance of governance in Lanao Del Sur,” Laisa Alamia ARMM executive secretary told Esquire.
Called on to help
The command post at the Lanao del Sur Provincial Capitol Building takes calls and text messages from those trapped in the warzone. The Lanao del Sur Rescue Team will notify the military and coordinate a rescue plan.
Once cleared, the team will jump into cars and pile into the back of a pickup truck, followed by a military back up to rescue civilians who have been trapped inside their homes or retrieve cadavers so they can be properly identified, returned to their families and buried. Other times, those rescued will tell the rescuers where to find other groups that may be trapped and need help.
Adiong recalled that the basic training in ARMM-HEART gave them was enough to keep them and those they rescued alive.
“We had to do a rescue out on Mapandi Bridge—which was then controlled by ISIS. A volley of gunfire was exchanged between government and enemy forces and we were caught in the middle,” said Adiong.
From their training, he remembered what classified as “good cover” and jumped into a nearby ditch to protect themselves from getting shot.
Hundred of thousands of Marawi residents were misplaced during the five month siege. Most were living with relatives but others said in evacuation centers.
But no amount of training could prepare them for the horrors that lie in the war zone.
“I would see what I only saw on TV before. Like finding a severed hand and then the body it belonged to a few feet away,” described Adiong.
And then, there was something else. During the first two months of the siege, the rescue team was allowed almost unfettered access into the war zone to conduct rescue operations. It was during these rescue operations that Adiong came face to face with the militant jihadists and saw some of his old friends among them.
Shock was the first emotion to register. Then a profound sense of sadness. Adiong goes into a lengthy explanation when he tries to describe his feelings, like he is thinking aloud and trying to process his own conflicted emotions.
“Mixed emotions. I saw one friend from college, he was just like me, he was also into music. The last time I saw him was college and then the next time I saw him was out in the battlefield. I was shocked. I wanted to go up to him and ask him, ‘What happened to you? Why are you doing this?’”
Adiong paused briefly before continuing.
“I felt sad. A part of me also understands why they may have been moved to do this, but, no. We all read the same Quran, why do they have such a different interpretation of it? I know there is a mix of money and ideology for some but...I really don’t know.”
On October 16, Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were confirmed killed by military and President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city of Marawi liberated. It was October 23 when Esquire spoke to Adiong. It would be another few hours before Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made an official announcement ending combat operations.
The war was over.
The photos of civilians are evacuees at an evac center.
There is much work still for the Lanao del Sur Rescue Team. They have been gone through another series of trainings with NGOs and military on how to recognize unexploded ordinances and improvised explosive devices that may still be left in the war zone. This will prepare them for clearing operations and retrieval of any human remains they find under the rubble.
“I was dreaming of this day from the first day of the siege. I had imagined what victory feels like. But then you realize the military lost so many men, the civilians lost everything and have almost nothing to return to. ISIS is gone but they left behind so much destruction and suffering. In the end no one wins,” said Adiong.