IPIL, ZAMBOANGA SIBUGAY–The arrival of flag-draped caskets did not seem to end.
Soldiers greeted them as they were unloaded from trucks at Zamboanga City’s Edwin Andrews Air Base.
The 19 coffins were flanked, three to four soldiers on each side, into a long row of blue and red, being readied for a march of farewell.
Their only identification was written on straps of packing tape: the surname and rank of the body they bore and the city they were headed for.
The coffins were led out to the waiting C-130 plane as a dirge filled the air.
A chaplain blessed the caskets. And as the grieving sobbed, all the soldiers at the tarmac raised a final salute.
Reporter Jorge Carino observed later on TV Patrol: “The return of a soldier in this way is probably the saddest of all homecomings.”
Whether the escorts knew their slain comrades or not, the remains remind them of an end they have all prepared for as they respond to duty’s call.
This is the face of war.
What at first was a dot on a map during a breaking news report only hit home when cameras met the dead and the wounded as they arrived by chopper in Zamboanga City.
The details involved a military clash with rebels in the southern island of Basilan, reports of survivors being captured and executed, missing bodies, and a death toll that grew by the hour.
After a week of reporting metro crime stories, the news cycle was riveted.
We found a story to tell among the soldiers who survived and were recuperating at the army hospital.
One relived Forrest Gump as he ran 3 kilometers carrying a dying officer to safety. Others did not forget a comrade-in-arms who stayed behind to cover them from gunfire.
The stories of heroism–such is also the face of war.
Yet the other side to this face is the loss of parents, spouses, and children.
Not even those manning our recording facility in Manila could hide their emotion seeing our transmission of Jorge’s report of the slain soldiers’ send-off.
Rea, widow of the heroic officer Pfc. Roberto Ricafranca, was showing Jorge a photo of their 2 daughters who would grow up without their father.
“Kawawa naman, ang babata pa (What a pity, they’re still very young),” the person on-duty said over the satellite.
The pursuit for the group involved in the Basilan incident led us northward to Zamboanga Sibugay.
Ron Gagalac and his team followed the burials of 2 soldiers and 2 police men who were among 7 killed in an ambush at Alicia town.
The salute of 7 guns fired 3 times met the sobs of the bereaved under the scorching sun.
Officers turned over the folded flags to the crying. A lone trumpeter blew out the mournful Taps. No one could assuage the tears or wails at the cemetery.
As they remembered their loss, the widows and mothers cried for help and for retribution.
“Napakasama nila (They’re so evil),” one wife said. “Kahit may peace talks na, ano pa rin sila, nagtatraydor (They continue to betray despite the peace talks).
“Sana wala nang peace talks. Maglaban na lang dahil hindi naman sila tumutupad sa peace talks. (Let’s do away with peace talks and fight, since they don’t keep their end anyway.)“
Another said through tears: “Wag mo munang itigil, Mr. President, ang laban… Ngayon pa, kung kailan marami nang buhay na na-waste just for peace? (Do not yet end the fight, Mr. President, especially now that many lives have been wasted just for peace.)”
More than the number of those who died, it was the moving images that pricked the nation.
And it ignited similar calls to intensify the current ceasefire into an all-out war against those responsible, recalling the campaign of former President Estrada.
But one final face of war cautions against such a stance.
Our Sagip Kapamilya team crossed the sea to bring pots of food and moments of fun to locals living in the backyard of those branded “lawless elements” (so-called due to their breakaway status from other armed groups).
While they were the first there, the team decided to go without an on-cam reporter. The threat of people being kidnapped for use as shields still loomed.
The kids of Barangay Labatan in Payao gamely joined the relays, exercises, and breath-holding contests to claps and laughs from their neighbors.
Later, the kids kept returning to the serving row for another fill of chicken porridge.
Still, the parents talked to our cameraman about hiding under their thatched homes as they saw bombers fly by.
Even without an all-out war, more than 11,000 people have already fled their homes in Zamboanga Sibugay as the military carried out selective air strikes in pursuit of these groups.
While the central camp has been seized, no one has yet been captured. Payao’s vice mayor said they feared that 300 to 400 of the group members were still scattered in their area.
The unending tension in this part of the country has brought groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Moro National Liberation Front, and the Abu Sayyaf Group into the national consciousness.
It has also taken many turns in its decades-long history that the players have been confused for each other and whatever progress made in talks is muddled by the latest clash or bomb blast.
It has also stoked assumptions that the crisis is endemic not just to this part of Mindanao, but the entire island–something residents have been quick to dispel.
This latest dispensation is no exception.
Telling the story from the crossfire has to acknowledge the many faces impacted by war:
The dead. The survivors. The grieving. The pursued. The displaced.
The faces may incite, they may enrage, but most of all they give a cold check of the tremendous human cost of conflict, beyond maps and stats.
And perhaps they may make the case to continue finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict.