By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
MAGUINDANAO—The fallout of the bloody clash of police and armed groups has long since extended beyond Barangay Tuka na Lipao, this now-infamous hamlet of one of the country’s poorest provinces.
The much-depicted wooden stilt bridge and the open cornfields it connects are again quiet. About a 15-minutes’ walk from the nearest highway, the scorching sun bears down on the scene, much as it did when shots peppered the place on the morning of Jan. 25 and ended the lives of 44 elite police commandos and at least 18 Muslim fighters and 5 civilians.
The fire, smoke and ammunitions continue, this time figuratively and turned loose in Manila. There, two congressional investigations continue to uncover how a top-secret police operation went haywire and whose decisions were to blame.
Beyond Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo the incident has spun a political crisis, altered the legacy of a popular president, rewritten the fate of contenders in the next elections and stopped in its tracks a piece of legislation that would affect more than 3 million Filipinos.
Yet down south, a town, province and region’s residents continue to reel from the impact of a shattered ceasefire and now live under the specter of a full-scale conflict that could again wreck their way of life. Occasional throngs of visitors have broken the silence and braved the heat and supposed danger in the Mamasapano site. Most recent among them were human rights commissioner Etta Rosales and, on a later date, celebrities Cesar Montano and Giselle Sanchez.
The 75-year-old Rosales crossed the single-beam bridge despite needing assistance. Sanchez, a comedian, waxed emotional as she approached the site. Seeing the local children walking with their group, she appealed against waging war—now the battle cry of many as retribution for the deaths of the “Fallen 44” of the police Special Action Force or SAF.
Mamasapano Mayor Datu Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan, who often accompanies the visits, sees them as proof the area has returned to normal since the firefight. Even at the Senate, where he was invited as a resource person for their investigation, he again emphasized that normality.
Despite their distance from the cornfields and from the house where internationally wanted Marwan allegedly stayed, many residents of Tuka na Lipao have yet to return to the houses they fled from at the height of the encounter.
Puti Kusain owns part of the cornfield. She has long relied on selling corn to support her family and send 10 children to school. Now, she lamented she can no longer harvest the cobs and wonders what they would survive on.
Among the palm trees, there are vestiges of the way of life these residents have built in 4 years since they last endured a series of armed skirmishes.
Concrete and wooden houses built with the assumption of permanence. Boys playing basketball in the dirt. Men lounging at a hut to discuss the brewing controversy up north. Veiled women cooking tubloads of chicken for the community’s “kanduli”—literally a feast, but this time to honor the dead.
They all tread on a fragile peace that relies on a tentative agreement, and they hope it will not be dashed further by any violent backlash to the ill-fated encounter.
One civil society group calling itself “Tingog (Voice of) Mamasapano” has dropped by Tuka na Lipao to debrief and listen to the residents.
Mohamed, one of the children wrote during the debriefing a desire for his town: “Sana wala na ring sundalo sa aming lugar para wala na ring bakbakan, para wala nang natatakot (I also hope there will be no more soldiers in our area so that there would be no more fighting and no one would be afraid anymore).”
The 21 police officers in Mamasapano cannot afford fear. They’re already outnumbered (a policeman each for 1,000 residents) and short of firearms compared to the other groups permeating their district.
They did not have close contact with the troopers involved in “Oplan Exodus”, since these were assembled from other units in Mindanao. But the local policemen dismiss speculation that residents have lost trust in them as a result of the uncoordinated incursion by their brothers in arms.
“They have no one to run to except us,” said SPO1 Dante Jaji in Tagalog. “If we can’t perform our duty, who will they turn to?”
While civilians and uniformed men from alternate sides want to avoid war, they still have to deal with unyielding armed groups and terrorists at-large in their backyard.
They are, after all, in what has been dubbed “The Box”—an area cornered by the towns of Mamasapano, Pagatin, Salbu and Maguindanao capital Shariff Aguak. Within these confines, years of conflict had allowed various factions to hide there and spread their roots unchecked.
Even Mayor Ampatuan admitted to senators that he isn’t leader of all he surveys. He was not even able to campaign in the whole town, and neither does he know which areas these armed groups hold.
Still, the mayor wants to dispel the infamy gained by his town as a result of what some now call the Mamasapano “massacre”. It is another black eye to the province, half a decade since the massacre of 57 in Ampatuan town.
Indeed, we ought to mourn not for those who are gone, but for those who are left behind. Their fates are uncertain, but rely very much on the careful strides and statements of those who live far from the conflict zone.
Rakma Dagadas, also of Tuka na Lipao, could not keep herself from breaking down each time she remembered her husband Omar, one of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters killed in the encounter.
Omar sprung from the house that Sunday morning and never returned alive, leaving Rakma five months pregnant.
“He was excited that he would be having a son since our other two children are girls,” she said with tears.
Like the wives and mothers she saw on TV who were left behind by the 44 SAF troopers, this widow also wants the truth of what happened—from both the Philippine government and the MILF.
For now, Rakma has to contend with telling her child that his father was a hero, and trust that this future son of Mamasapano will no longer have to carry arms or flee in fear.
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*Reporting credit goes to our ABS-CBN reporters in Maguindanao: Jorge Cariño, Chiara Zambrano, Lore Mae Andong, Al-Bashir Saiden and their respective crews.
*The circumstances of the Mamasapano siege mirror another clash 4 years ago in northern Mindanao. Read the stories of the people affected by the 2011 Zamboanga conflict.