Exclusive: A Visit to Commander Bravo in His Mountain Lair
Documentary filmmaker and photographer Gabriel Malvar spent time with Commander Bravo of the MILF and BIAF just before the leader left the safety of his camp in the mountains of Munai, Lanao del Norte for a date with history.
Later that week, in the halls of Malacanang, the 80-member contingent of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), which includes Bravo, was sworn in to usher in the new era of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This is Malvar's account:
H. Abdullah Macapaar, more widely known as Commander Bravo, is referred to among the Meranao as the lion of Allah. He is the commander of the North Western Mindanao Front of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the military arm of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and was also part of the contingent sent by Hashim Salamat in the early 1980s to train with Mujahedeen guerillas in Afghanistan.
When his brother was killed in 1997, Commander Bravo took over the leadership of the North Western Mindanao Front and led several battles against the AFP during President Estrada’s all-out-war against the MILF in the 2000s.
Command Bravo, the Lion of Allah
I had heard of Commander Bravo before and knew him to be one of the key figures of the MILF/BIAF but didn’t really know much about him until the Marawi siege.
AFP contacts told me Commander Bravo was being monitored very closely because they were concerned he would join the Hapilon/Maute rebels in Marawi. Bravo’s command was spread all over Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, and his involvement would complicate the crisis in Marawi, and make it much more difficult to contain.
Fortunately, Commander Bravo did not join the fray because he did not share the same aspirations of the Hapilon/Maute group. He did not believe in their cause.
From feedback of a wide range of Meranao we encountered, I was surprised to learn how popular and well-loved Commander Bravo was by his people and admired for his bravery. He had spent over 22 years in the forests and mountains of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur, remaining true to his beliefs. He was their hero, their freedom-fighter, much respected for the sacrifices he had made to advance the Bangsamoro cause.
That was a narrative I was not used to hearing about, at one point, one of the most wanted men in the Philippines. I wanted to meet him, to see that side for myself. I was intrigued.
Commmander Bravo, the Freedom Fighter
My wife Ginggay ran several GoNegosyo model farms for internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Marawi siege. Apparently, Commander Bravo learned about the livelihood programs and sent feelers through intermediaries if we could help the communities around Camp Bilal, his base in Munai, Lanao del Norte. This was before the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite and the risk for civilians like us to travel to his camp was high. We sought the advice of friends from the AFP, assessed the risk, and decided to reach out to him.
We drove to his camp in the mountains via SUV, navigating rough roads and passing military checkpoints. He welcomed us cordially. It was a quick encounter and the meeting lasted slightly more than an hour. There were agreements on how to proceed with projects going forward, but I felt it wasn’t enough time to get to know him. I resolved to return for a longer stay, to document and photograph him and a typical day in an MILF camp.
Comander Bravo, ‘Our Father and Mother’
I had wanted to visit right before the BOL plebiscite but I was advised to return only after the elections as the situation could be tense in the days running up to voting day.
I returned to Camp Bilal after the BOL had been ratified, and he was waiting for his safe conduct pass to travel to Cotabato City and join the Bangsamoro Transition Authority contingent, which would be flown to Manila by C-130. He spent the day meeting various well-wishers, commanders, and field personnel, who all came to pay respects and see him off. I stayed inconspicuously behind the scenes just observing him deal with people. He had a relaxed air about him, yet commanded respect.
The next day, I watched him lead the morning prayers from a window of the mosque. After prayers, he addressed his followers and told them to continually defend their faith and remain true to the teachings of Islam. He was a charismatic speaker, and his listeners hung on to every word he said.
I was allowed to enter his very austere room as he did last minute preparations before his departure. He packed his bags, finished writing a letter, and counted a few bills before putting them in his wallet. He donned a fedora, which he proudly declared was given to him by a general. Then, he excused himself and returned to his prayers.
At around 11 am, after the vehicles were fueled and security arrangements were ironed out, Commander Bravo was ready to go. But before he left, I caught a glimpse of the man and how much he was beloved. His followers and young fighters paid their respects in a tearful farewell, saddened by his leaving, yet optimistic with the prospects of peace. It was the first time since 1997 for him to be away from his followers and the refuge of his hideaway.
A young combatant, perhaps not more than 15 years old, told me: “Siya ang tatay at nanay namin. Hindi ko matanggap na hindi ko siya makita na kahit isang araw.