Zamboanga City—Defying an order from his leader Habier Malik, a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunman fired a shot at soldiers at the height of negotiations for a ceasefire in the village of Santa Catalina on Friday afternoon. That error resulted in a failure to free the hostages and in the loss of lives.
“This saboteur rebel fired the first shot, which made Malik mad. We were all supposed to be freed that Friday afternoon but this rebel started shooting at the soldiers,” Junior Santander Morte, 60, a lumberyard owner who escaped from his captors on Saturday, told the Inquirer.
Morte was grazed by a .50 cal. bullet on the forehead and was grazed by another bullet in the left armpit during the fighting.
Morte said that at 2 p.m. on Friday, he and more than 230 other hostages were told to form a human barricade (six lines with about 40 hostages in a line) on Lustre Street, about 100 meters from the military position.
“Soldiers on the ground and soldiers in the armored vehicles kept firing but they did not hit us,” Morte said.
“We were like waves. When the soldiers fired, we ducked one way all at the same time. When that side was hit, we ducked to the other side. When somebody said ‘sit’ or ‘hit the dirt,’ all of us followed,” he said.
As the soldiers and the rebels exchanged fire, “the women and the children cried and begged for the shooting to stop,” Morte added.
Around 3 p.m., some MNLF commanders called up their contacts in the government, asking for a ceasefire to clear the way for the release of wounded hostages, he said.
The hostages were told to continue to form a human barricade while they await the ceasefire, he said.
“But it seemed the soldiers were unaware of the negotiations because they were shooting at the barricade,” Morte said.
A teenage boy was hit in the left arm.
“The other hostages bound his wound,” Morte said.
A 2-year-old child was hit in the head.
“Poor child. The mother pleaded for a halt to the shooting so that the human barricade could leave Lustre,” Morte said.
Around 5 p.m., Malik ordered all the hostages to move back, positioning them some 170 m from the government forces.
Morte said Malik and Ismael Dasta, an MNLF commander from Basilan, resumed calling their contacts in the government to get help for the wounded hostages.
Minutes later, lights from the armored personnel carriers started to flash, giving hope to the hostages who thought they were to be freed.
Morte said Malik started to embrace the hostages, apologizing for what had happened.
Pal Aukasa, one of the MNLF rebels, also cried as he embraced the hostages his group had held since Sept. 9.
“He was crying and asking the hostages for forgiveness. He told them he would understand if they were angry with him,” Morte said.
As the hostages started to move toward the government troops, a Moro fighter fired at the soldiers.
The soldiers fired back and soon there was an intense exchange of fire. Some MNLF forces pulled back the hostages and took them to a mosque in nearby Santa Barbara village.
Morte was one of the 38 hostages held by Dasta’s group and he was among the captives taken to Santa Barbara.
In Santa Barbara, Morte saw a bigger number of Moro rebels—at least 300, including women—led by Malik.
Malik was holding at least 200 hostages, Morte said. “There were many teenagers. They were students,” Morte said.
Morte said the male students were assigned to prepare food for the hostages. The female hostages were ordered to look after the elderly, the sick and the children.
Morte said young MNLF fighters ransacked stores and shops for food, medicines and personal-care stuff.
“But those were not enough because there were so many of us,” he said.
Morte also said the MNLF fighters did not start the burning of houses.
“They’re not crazy. If they did that, the military would know our location,” he said.
But because of the burning of houses and stores, they ran short of food, he said.
“We ate rice that had been soaked in water,” he said.
After the botched release of hostages on Friday, Morte said he went to one of the houses to rest.
Perhaps due to exhaustion, he said, he slept and woke up on Saturday afternoon amid heavy fighting.
It was then that he learned that most of the MNLF rebels and their hostages had moved to Rio Hondo village.
Inside the house, he waited for the shooting to stop.
“When the shooting subsided, I ran for it, heading toward the military position,” he said.
Along the way, he saw three bodies sprawled on the street—two of the hostages and that of the MNLF fighter who defied Malik’s ceasefire order.
But Morte’s ordeal was not yet over.
“The soldiers shouted, ‘Raise your hands!’ I did. ‘Sit down!’ I sat down. ‘On the ground, one your belly!’ I obeyed. ‘Crawl!’ I crawled until I got to them. And then they stripped me,” Morte said.
“I thought I was already free, but they laughed at me. I told them I was grazed with a .50 cal. bullet on the forehead and I had another wound in my armpit. They said I should have been dead,” he said.
Instead of taking him to hospital, Morte said, he was taken to a room where he was interrogated.
He was later taken to the police contingent nearby who interrogated him.
He said neighbors and relatives vouched for him, telling the authorities that he was a resident.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said Morte’s allegations would be investigated.
“At the height of that crisis, it’s really hard to determine where the bullets were coming from. But what is important is that the safety of the civilians is the primary concern of our troops, and we never have any intention of bringing harm to innocent people,” Zagala told the Inquirer by phone.