Holding their ground
World-class.” No, we’re not talking about that controversial building in Makati, but something more edifying: our soldiers serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Syria, whom the Israeli goverment—whose military force is among the most elite in the world—described as “world-class” for the actions they took after being surrounded and fired at by Syrian separatists in the Golan Heights.
Those actions included holding their ground and not ceding an inch, even after 45 Fijian soldiers, also UN peacekeepers, were seized by the rebels. According to reports, the 40-member Filipino contingent faced an assault from more than 100 gunmen who besieged them with mortar rounds and rammed trucks armed with antiaircraft guns into the gates of their encampment. In self-defense, the Filipinos returned fire, in keeping with their UN mandate to respond only when fired at. The standoff lasted seven hours, the Filipinos losing not one soldier. It was only when night fell that they had a chance to escape, reportedly travelling two more hours over chilly and hilly terrain before they met up with other UN forces and were guided out of harm’s way.
Their escape happened in the nick of time. “If they held their ground, they could have been massacred because they were already running low on ammunition,” revealed Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. “So we discussed with them the option of escape and evasion.”
For their daring and gallantry, the soldiers have garnered praise from local and international quarters, Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang even calling it, with more than a bit of breathlessness, as “the greatest escape” (in comparison to what, he didn’t say). One thing is clear as new details have emerged about their bold getaway: There was much more to the Filipino peacekeepers’ accomplishment than their successful physical removal of themselves from enemy sights. There was greater human drama involved, and some of it raises questions about how the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or Undof, is run.
It turns out that the Filipino soldiers’ decision to hold their ground was in contravention of an order by the UN peacekeeping commander in the Golan Heights, Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, for them to surrender their arms in exchange for the release of the 45 Fijian soldiers earlier abducted by a Syrian rebel group called the Nusra Front, allegedly affiliated with al-Qaida. Singha, an Indian national, was said to be in talks with the rebels for the release of the Fijians, on the condition that the Filipinos would surrender their position, in effect putting them in serious danger of being overrun, abducted or killed by the rebels.
Catapang, who was in communication with the Filipino troops, advised them to defy the order. The wisdom of that advice can be seen in the aftermath: All 40 Filipino soldiers were able to escape the Syrians’ dragnet, along with 32 other Filipino troops also trapped and then extracted from a nearby camp by Irish peacekeepers; the Fijians, however, are still held by the Nusra Front, which has posted statements and photos on militant websites of their captives’ military uniforms and identification cards. They were seized, according to the group, in retaliation for the UN’s inaction to help the rebels in their uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad—a bloody civil war that has torn Syria apart, caused thousands of deaths among its citizens and now threatens to embroil UN peacekeepers in the widening crossfire between the heavily armed parties in the region.
The escalation of tension and violence has led some countries to withdraw their troops from the UN peacekeeping force, which at present counts troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The Filipino forces are expected to complete their mission in the Golan Heights by October, but will not be returning following the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs department to President Aquino that the 300 Filipino peacekeepers be withdrawn given the deteriorating situation.
Let us bring our soldiers home as soon as possible, and fete them for the brave, commendable way they conducted themselves on the war front. And, next time, before they are sent out again, the government must extract concrete assurances from the UN that they will not be used as pawns, their lives and safety put potentially at risk, to save the lives of others who, like them, have volunteered for the mission of helping bring peace to troubled lands.
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