MANILA, Philippines—At least a hundred have been killed since government troops fought members of the Moro National Liberation Front who tried to build their own independent state in Zamboanga City last Sept. 9. Although a huge portion of the fatalities were from the MNLF, 11 of these were government soldiers. The Armed Forces of the Philippines deployed thousands of its troops, but the crisis continued to its third week on Monday.
Heroism has no distinct context. The Filipino heroes are too many but all of them have made a remarkable difference, have inspiring stories of selflessness, volunteerism, passion and change. In these modern times, it could be the overseas Filipino worker, the national basketball team that
brought the country to the World Cup, or a public school teacher with a fervent passion for teaching.
Soldiery, however, remains to be one of the most ardently celebrated forms of heroism. After all, gallantry is registered in their job description being one of the few professions where one’s life is at stake.
The Army lieutenant
“[His death] hurts so much because our daughter will grow up without a father,” a teary-eyed Erlinda Rama, widow of slain Army officer First Lieutenant John Kristopher Rama, said in a television interview.
The 30-year-old lieutenant, an assault platoon leader of the Army’s First Light Reaction Company of the Special Operations Command, was killed by sniper fire last Thursday during clearing operations in Barangay (village) Sta. Barbara. He was the first officer to die in the Zamboanga siege.
In acting public affairs office chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc’s telling, Rama’s unit also participated in two successful rescue missions of hostages before he was killed.
“He helped free 108 civilians from their captors who had used them as human shields. He gave his life so others may live,” he said.
Rama’s death came five years after graduation. He had a promising career: He graduated in the top 10 of his class at the Philippine Military Academy.
He topped his Army special training courses — the Infantry Basic Officer’s Course, Counterterrorist Course, and Special Forces Operations Course. He was also assigned in Northern Mindanao on his early years as a Second Lieutenant.
The Norzagaray, Bulacan-native died on his wife’s birthday.
“The night before he died, he told me was going to take a rest because they will have an assault the next day. He waited for 12 midnight to greet me.
In the morning, he texted me ‘Good morning’ and ‘Happy birthday’,” a sobbing Erlinda said.
She said she couldn’t be any more proud of his husband who died in battle. They have a two-year-old daughter named Erin.
Other fallen heroes
Petty Officer 3 Jose Audrey Banares of Lapu-Lapu in Cebu City was the first to die in the clashes between government troops and followers of MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari on Sept. 9. His unit tried to prevent the entry of about a hundred MNLF men off Zamboanga City.
He was part of the elite Naval Special Operations Group, the US equivalent of the Navy Seals.
Fierce gunbattle between government forces and MNLF men continued for days in several coastal villages of the city. On Sept. 11, Private First Class Julmuin Abdulalahid, a Muslim soldier, was killed in Sta. Barbara.
More soldiers were killed when the military started its “calibrated” offensive against the MNLF troops. On Sept. 14, Private First Class Jeffrey Castillo of the 23rd Marine Company was killed in clashes in Kasanyangan village. A day later, Corporal Mark Herson Caranzo was also killed.
Corporal Michael Baltazar, a native of Batangas, was killed from gunshot wounds he sustained in clashes on Sept. 16. On the same day, Private First Class Albin Dayna of Zamboanga del Norte and Private Sergio Buagas of Libungan, Cotabato, were killed from an improvised explosive device explosion.
Two more deaths were recorded on Sep. 17. Corporal Allan Camerino and Private First Class Jay Olivar were killed while rescuing hostages. On Sept. 21, Staff Sergeant Joselino Servilla was killed during a house-to-house clearing operations.
“The risk is still there,” Cabunoc told INQUIRER.net when asked if additional fatalities were expected, but also said that, “hopefully [there will be] no more.”
There were also 133 soldiers wounded in action as of Sunday reports because of the fighting. From the police, three were killed and 13 were wounded. There were 99 men killed from the MNLF, while 12 other fatalities recorded were civilians.
Cabunoc assured that the military casualties will receive financial assistance from the government “in honor of their selfless service.”
On Sunday, President Benigno Aquino III said in Zamboanga City that the crisis could soon be over. He stayed there for 10 days before flying back to Manila.
The MNLF stormed Zamboanga City on Sept. 9, in an attempt to hoist their flag in the city hall to set up their independent “Bangsamoro republik,” where Misuari earlier declared himself as chief of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces. The group is reportedly opposing the newest peace pact between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The military estimated that there were up to 200 MNLF fighters that took over the villages and held about 200 hostages. They also claimed that the hostages were used as human shields. As of Sunday afternoon, about 170 hostages were either rescued, released or captured. They said that there could be about 40 MNLF fighters left, with some 20 hostages with them.
The siege caused airports, seaports and businesses to shut down. Classes were also cancelled. An estimated P344 million a day was reportedly lost in trade and commerce in the last two weeks.
On the latter part of the second week of the crisis, the airport opened for the first time to commercial flights. Businesses and banks not directly affected by the fighting also opened.
Thousands of homes, however, were burned and destroyed to gunfires and fire incidents.
Hardest hit were the civilians, with at least 100,000 of them housed in more than 50 shelters. The population of Zamboanga City is close to a million.