IPIL, ZAMBOANGA SIBUGAY–4:30 PM, two hours before TV Patrol: Our team was still on standby at our setup in the police provincial office.
Usually by that time, we’ve begun editing our report for the newscast, which for the past 3 days had made us their top story.
But the day’s story had not yet arrived.
It was still on its way, in helicopters carrying Gov. Rommel Jalosjos and his team to the Ipil runway, or on a Navy boat of policemen sailing for the local port.
With them were the first images of the central camp occupied until the previous day by groups pursued by the government after the fighting in Basilan island that left 19 soldiers dead.
Media people were discouraged from going due to the threat of being kidnapped for ransom or as shields by bandits. We were assured cameras were brought along to document the location.
I joined our reporter Ron Gagalac and his team at the 102nd infantry brigade, a short drive from the police headquarters and the airstrip.
Ron reported the night before that armed forces had finally seized the camp up north in Labatan, Payao town after days of air strikes.
We were hoping to link up with the army photographer who was flying back, copy his shots into my laptop, and rush to our setup to go live in time for Patrol’s first gap.
5:25 p.m.: Two helicopters landed on the airstrip. The governor waved a greeting to us from the SUV that came to fetch him.
But our man, who walked to where we stood carrying a backpack, boots, and a rifle, had returned empty-handed of the shots.
He had turned over his camera to someone from the police bomb disposal unit who also went to Payao. They were coming back too, he said, but when he did not know.
On to Plan B. After a quick interview at the brigade, we drove away from the city to the pier.
We caught up with the crew of GMA 7 there, just as the final rays of sunlight were disappearing. The team stood by with their own transmission should they get any material from the arriving team.
A reporter for the local newspaper Sibugay Express was arriving with the police squad, our Zamboanga City colleagues told Ron. He told me to watch out for the man.
6:38 p.m.: A red-and-blue light drew closer as the speed boat readied to dock. Our crews welcomed the squad and soon asked the newly-arrived police provincial director Ruben Cariaga to describe the camp they came from.
There was only one way in, he said. It was by foot 20 to 30 minutes from the shore.
They saw deserted huts, makeshift bunkers, dug canals, and trees damaged by bombing.
At the camp, the soldiers found paraphernalia from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which previously encamped there: training certificates, jackets, daily schedules, and other papers.
The biggest find was a 50-caliber machine gun buried in what they thought was a grave.
The police and military authorities believe the camp was used by the group of a Waning Abdulsalam as a hideout for their kidnapping operation.
While the soldiers have overrun the camp, no one from the group was caught.
Before the interview, I cast glances over the men who dismounted and greeted one who was not wearing fatigues or a police shirt. He was our man, Paul Lontua.
“I would have come back earlier, but our only ride was with Supt. Cariaga,” he said. “We had to wait for them to finish.”
Paul still needed Cariaga’s go signal to let us and the GMA-7 team copy the video from the PNP-owned HD handicam he brought.
But the video stored internally, instead of a removable card.
Worse, after rummaging through our bags, no one had the USB cable that could make copying possible.
The PNP had the connector back at their office, our only hope. Our colleagues at GMA had to pack up.
6:50 p.m.: We raced back to the police headquarters. Paul rode along, as we asked him about the scenes he had shot. I called our team to let them know we were coming and that we would rush a live report for Patrol.
It took close to 10 minutes copying the video files. Even then, they could not be read by our video applications.
7:20 p.m.: Converting the videos to an editable format took even longer. We previewed what files were done and planned a crude edit using the photos Paul took.
The video showed many of our soldiers were already camped out there. Paul then interviewed Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, who said the military had cleared the area of bombs and land mines.
Around 11,000 people left their homes because of the offensive, but Ferrer said their bombing targeted only the areas occupied by what they called “lawless elements.”
“Eventually, we will encourage the civilians who lived here to return,” Ferrer said. “But it’s possible we will place a police detachment so that this won’t be seized again.”
7:35 p.m.: Ron got off the phone with Manila and said TV Patrol, which was ending at 7:50, could no longer accommodate our report in their lineup for lack of time.
The video we waited for nearly 3 hours aired later on Bandila, with credits to the Sibugay PNP. It was a challenge to select the best yet least-shaky cuts among the amateur-taken shots for the edit.
Ron reported Cariaga’s surmise that Abdulsalam & Co. may have escaped to as far as Lanao in the east or remain scattered here in Sibugay.
The next day, interior secretary Jesse Robredo told reporters at an evacuation center in nearby Alicia, “The game is not over.”