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SAF: Rising from the fields of Mamasapano

/ 08:25 AM January 25, 2016

ZAMBOANGA CITY — Inside the quarters which PO2 Jose Buncag once shared with the troopers who died in the ill-fated Mamasapano operation, he could sometimes smell his comrades.

A year has passed since the bloody clash but the members of 55th and 84th Special Action Companies (SAC) are very much alive in the memories of their brothers in uniform, with some claiming to sense their presence.

“Minsan naamoy namin sila sa kwarto. Tatlo silang namatay sa kwarto namin. Naririnig namin… parang nagpaparamdam, may biglang nahuhulog na gamit,” Buncag told INQUIRER.net in an interview at the 55th SAC camp in Mercedes, Zamboanga City.

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BACKSTORY: Full report: The Mamasapano incident

But the thought of seeing his late comrades doesn’t scare Buncag. “Kapag nagpakita sila, sasabihin ko ang hindi ko nasabi sa kanila. Handa akong harapin sila.”

Buncag lost six of his Commando Course classmates in the raid—Police Officer 2 Richelle Baluga, PO2 Walner Danao, PO2 Noble Kiangan, PO2 Ephraim Mejia, PO2 Omar Nacionales, and PO2 Romeo Senin II. He was closest to Nacionales.

Buncag recalled that on the night of January 23 last year, they had talked for a few minutes before 36 members of the company headed to Kidapawan City to prepare for their jump off to Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

The months of training the troopers underwent didn’t give them enough confidence to carry out the high-risk mission. Both of them knew something was amiss.

“Bago ‘yung lakad, lahat ng tropa malungkot. Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Bok, palitan mo ako.’ Sabi ko, ‘palitan kita eh hindi ako nag-rehearse?’ Hindi ko pa siguro time kaya hindi ako ang pinadala,” he said.

It turns out their instincts were right. The 55th SAC lost more than half of its strength of about 70 men to the bloodbath.

mamasapano-0225a

BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF KILLING FIELD The flat cornfields of Mamasapano town in Maguindanao province, where 44 commandos of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force were pinned down and killed on Jan. 25 in clashes with Moro rebels, as seen from a hovering drone. REM ZAMORA/INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Only PO2 Christopher Lalan came back alive while the rest of his mates were pinned down in a cornfield in Barangay (village) Tukanalipao due to a heavy gunfight with members of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

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Some of the slain commandos, mostly from the 55th SAC, were mutilated, given deathblows in close range and stripped of their battle gear, firearms and clothes.

The months of training the troopers underwent didn’t give them enough confidence to carry out the high-risk mission … ‘Hindi ko pa siguro time kaya hindi ako ang pinadala,’ Buncag said.

The death of 44 elite police commandos in the “Oplan Exodus,” or the mission against international terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir or “Marwan” shocked the nation.

What was supposed to be a flawless operation turned out to be the single deadliest raid in the history of SAF and the Philippine National Police.

BACKSTORY: Marwan is dead, says FBI

White flag 

Director Moro Virgilio Lazo choked up when INQUIRER.net asked him in an interview how the Mamasapano incident affected him on a personal level.

“Just right now my voice is cracking and we’re just talking about them. I really feel sorry for them. Sana hindi ito nangyari. I still cry when I think of them,” said Lazo as he reached for tissue to wipe his eyes.

After a moment’s pause, Lazo said: “None of them raised the white flag. Pwedeng iwanan ang patay, pwede na silang umalis, pero ano ba ang usapan nila? Walang iwanan. So kahit ako able pa ‘yung body ko, magsasama tayo hanggang kamatayan.”

BACKSTORY: PNP hurting as alleged video of SAF shooting spreads online

“That’s the essence of their brotherhood and that’s what most people do not understand.”

“You saw their living conditions in the camp, right? You can’t help but tell yourself, ‘Ganito ba ang elite na SAF?’ Pero makikita mo masaya sila. How can you not sympathize with them?”

INQUIRER.net documented the lives of SAF troopers in camps in the regions of SOCCSKSARGEN and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Exceeding expectations

One year after the tragedy, the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency unit is slowly getting back on its feet.

And the incident did not discourage SAF in launching important operations. Instead, it raised its standards in fulfilling missions and strived to surpass public expectations.

READ: SAF recruits nearly triple after Mamasapano tragedy

When he assumed the SAF leadership more than a month after Mamasapano, Lazo would tell his men to emulate the heroism of their 44 comrades.

“You saw their living conditions in the camp, right? You can’t help but tell yourself, ‘Ganito ba ang elite na SAF?’ Pero makikita mo masaya sila. How can you not sympathize with them?”

He tells troopers: “Ang tao bilib na bilib satin. We should live up to that expectation. Tularan natin sila. Pero kung maiiwsan na hindi madisgrasya, iwasan natin.

“‘Wag nating tularan na namatay sila sa gyera. Tularan natin ‘yung hindi sila sumurrender until the last bullet; until the last drop of blood, hindi nila iniwan ang kasama nila.”

Lazo said the SAF remained aggressive in pursuing terrorists threatening the public, but this time it was “more cautious” in carrying out sensitive missions.

After the controversial operation, the SAF has become more meticulous in reviewing protocols and ensuring that all details essential in an operation have been taught to the troopers during their training.

But he stressed that the SAF will not let caution turn into cowardice.

“Cautious na duwag? Hindi ganon. I always tell my men na kapag nawawlaan na sila ng tapang, ay away na tayo nyan. But cautious to survive? OK ako dyan,” he said.

Ready to die 

Like what the planners of Oplan Exodus stressed, Lazo said the “SAF 44” were all ready to die for their country.

“I’m not saying na gusto namin kapag SAF ka, handa kang mamatay. No. What we are saying is, handa kang mamatay pero kung ayaw mo mamatay, tuturuan ka namin para maiwasan mo na ikaw ay mamatay,”

Even before a recruit joins the SAF, which Lazo calls the “soldiers of the police force,” he already accepts the fact that he would be offering his life for the country.

“I’m not saying na gusto namin kapag SAF ka, handa kang mamatay. No. What we are saying is, handa kang mamatay pero kung ayaw mo mamatay, tuturuan ka namin para maiwasan mo na ikaw ay mamatay,” he said.

“And so, once na naaaccept na niya ‘yung fate niya na handa siyang mamatay para sa bayan, everything else will follow, he will accept the training, the hardships in the deployment, the days na absent siya sa pamilya at loved ones niya, the comforts in life na normally gusto natin talagang nawawala,” he said.

“That’s the special attitude of a SAF trooper.”

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TAGS: Maguindanao, Mamasapano, Moro Virgilio Lazo, news, SAF 44
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