Don’t ride with armed groups and marked prey

Here are some recollections and caveats that came to mind after the Jan. 6 encounter/shootout/rubout (?) at a police checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon, that claimed the lives of 13 people, among them policemen and soldiers, who were traveling together in a convoy. Of the police officers and men, plus the backup members of the Armed Forces that lay in wait at the checkpoint that fateful night, only their leader sustained gunshot wounds.

Even after the smoke has cleared, some questions have not been fully answered. Among them, why were civilians with the armed men? For a more impartial probe the National Bureau of Investigation has been tasked to do a “CSI” (crime scene investigation), not necessarily Miami-style a la Horatio Caine and company. And the media have been on the case 24/7. The Inquirer’s headline two days ago was: “It was an overkill—NBI.”

One of the don’ts we tried to observe as journalists of the alternative press during the dark days of martial rule—and this applies even today—was:  Don’t ride with an armed group, the military, para-military or police especially, if you can help it, and with marked and hunted prey, too.

Remember the 30 plus media practitioners who died in the 2009 Maguindanao/Ampatuan massacre. Journalists as shields, but also as collateral damage.

Trying to get to the hinterlands? Hitch a ride on a carabao cart, a dump truck, a van transporting pigs or a foot-driven railroad trolley. Or walk, preferably and unobtrusively, in the company of the locals and with your press ID ready.  But in those days, this didn’t make you less suspect that you might be a subversive. A number of us would learn that after several interrogations.

The cardinal rule: Avoid riding with military convoys that carry men with high-powered arms. But there is little choice when one is traveling or camping with the other side, as I would describe later. Both warring sides are targets for attacks by their respective quarry or pursuers, and if you happen to be with any of them you are a sitting duck.

This was what happened in 1986 when army troops under Brig. Gen. Thelmo Cunanan were ambushed in Cagayan by the New People’s Army. With the army convoy were press people, among them, Vietnam war veteran photographer Willy Vicoy, Manila Bulletin correspondent Pete Mabazza and photographer Albert Garcia. Vicoy and Mabazza died while the wounded Garcia survived. Cunanan took a blast in the chest and lived.

Vicoy was a favorite photographer of Cory Aquino who had just become president at that time after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship. As an Associated Press photographer, Vicoy, who had been a Pulitzer nominee, showed the world the ugliness of war. He survived Vietnam and even while saving someone in a fire, but not the Cagayan ambush. I was in tears as I went about inside his humble home to get some stuff for a magazine story on him.

All we could regretfully ask ourselves at that time of loss was: Aren’t we supposed to avoid hitching rides with armed groups? But that is easier said than done.

Several times in the past I, along with several media practitioners, had gone with armed men and women into the mountain fastness in pursuit of a story.

This one was in 1986. From Tacloban airport we headed to a wharf, rode a motorized boat toward Samar and into a river that winded through the jungle. We were escorted by New People’s Army fighters, fully armed and with walkie-talkies. It felt like a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

I thought then: What if the military ambushed us? We would all be dead in the water.

It had been carefully and secretly arranged, we were told, and not to worry. Finally we stopped at a river bend and from there we walked through the rain forest until we reached the rebel camp. Still no ambush.

At the camp we always had someone watching over us. When we (Sheila Coronel and I) took a bath in a river under a bower of branches, or were sleeping, there was an armed sentry to make sure we would be the first to be evacuated to safety in case of a military attack. Well, there was never an attack but we barely survived going back to civilization because it rained heavily while we traversed the jungle, and our bare feet kept on slipping on mud and the mossy roots of huge trees.

We almost missed the last flight from Tacloban, and with muddy feet and wet pants we boarded the plane to Manila. I still have my photos of men, women and young boys bristling with arms (my story and photos came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine). After that I would keep seeing on TV the footage shot by the cameraman of Channel 7’s Jun Bautista, now deceased.

There were other forays before and after that but as I said, keeping out of danger is better said than done. Many journalists now join raids and ambushes. (My friend Rochit Tanedo won an Emmy for a TV docu on an ambush. A photographer who was there developed post-traumatic stress disorder.)

Once while doing interviews for an investigative series on a Makati ambush that targeted drug suspects who turned out to be Army officers, the leader of that ambush had to ride in my car because he was taking me to an interviewee. I was driving very slowly when a guy crossed my path. I expected bullets to rain on my windshield.

Remember the ambush on Bernabe Buscayno (Commander Dante) shortly after he was released? Two men who hitched a ride with him were killed while Buscayno survived. This flashed in my mind while I was walking with the wanted communist firebrand Popoy Lagman (he had a .45) and his female aide way after midnight in the deserted Makati commercial center. He would be gunned down by his own comrades not long after.

Well, as they say, no guts no story.

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