Sisyphus’ Lament

Does our ignorance betray the SAF 44?

/ 12:08 AM February 02, 2015

Never before did we imagine men wearing our flag as gallant as the 44 Special Action Force policemen who made the ultimate sacrifice in Maguindanao.

Senior Insp. Max Tria, 27, was found dead with two grenades ready in hand. A survivor spoke of how his classmate intentionally stood up to distract snipers. As he crawled in escape, he saw another comrade lying mortally wounded, taking a last look at photos on his cell phone. Some casualties were sons of policemen; others were from families with as many as 10 serving members. It was impossible not to shed a tear as the enormity of their sacrifice dawned, as all 42 coffins being carried into Villamor Air Base came into view, and more so because one infers from their families’ reactions that they would only ask us to say they served their country well.


SAF officer in charge Noli Taliño’s eulogy was straightforward. The 84th company sneaked into Mamasapano to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan. SAF leaders stressed he was the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia. He was found and shot, and the report “Mike One, bingo” became our “For God and country—Geronimo.” The now suspended SAF commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, blurted, “Para sa inyo ito (This is for the country).”

Dawn broke, however, and the withdrawing troops met armed men. The 55th company covering the escape was surrounded and, after a 12-hour firefight, was left with only one survivor. Taliño affirmed that the SAF 44 would readily exchange their lives for such a notorious terrorist’s because he would have taken so many more. Tellingly, his eulogy was as much a testament to the relieved Napeñas—who, he emphasized, was a good man—as it was to the dead.


We are outraged because we ask whether the SAF 44 died in great valor or in great ignominy. The SAF did not coordinate with both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with whom the government has a ceasefire agreement, and our own military because past attempts to capture Marwan had been compromised. However, we ask how the “misencounter” lasted half a day, and why the SAF 44’s killers continued shooting at uniformed troops in broad daylight. Worse, many troops were allegedly shot in the head at close range and some were found wearing only underwear. Their bodies were stripped of personal belongings, and some spouses found out about their husbands’ fates from killers who took their phones. The MILF has denied coddling Marwan, yet suspicions remain.

Many spontaneously demanded justice for the SAF 44 and to hold their killers and Marwan’s coddlers accountable. Many recall a 2011 encounter in Al-Barka, Basilan, that left 19 Army special forces trainees dead and their bodies mutilated. Four Army officers were subjected to court-martial, and the MILF imposed undisclosed sanctions on its commander. The call for accountability is reasonable, and ordinary citizens are entitled to ask difficult questions of MILF leaders given that our own are grappling with difficult questions regarding the Bangsamoro Basic Law’s constitutionality.

Many, however, have gone well beyond asking for justice. The phrase “all-out war” has been floated once again, when we thought it would never be repeated at this advanced stage of our peace process. The responses from Mindanao are telling. Davao thought leaders from Jesuit Joel Tabora to the SunStar ask us to adhere to the peace process even as we seek justice for the SAF 44, and their tone contrasts with pundits from further north.

The MILF is not Mindanao, and many of us in Luzon are ignorant of the latter’s complex history and web of social networks. Many of us are incredibly ignorant of Mindanao’s insurgency, and how past attempts to bring overwhelming armed might against rebels resulted in communities destroyed, brave Marines beheaded, and hundreds of thousands evacuated. The most pointed individual reactions from Mindanao on social media ask what right the ignoramuses in Imperial Manila have to call for all-out war from the comfort of their laptops when they will never wonder if a son or brother will not come home, will never see tanks rolling down their streets, and will never have to endure the conditions in an evacuation center. The most alarming whispers from Muslim friends ask if the peace process is dead, and peers will feel trapped into discussing secession once again.

The SAF 44 gave their lives to eliminate a terrorist and it is an embarrassment that their courageous end has caused far more panic and fear than any terrorist. Already, the BBL has lost a majority in the Senate and congressmen may withdraw support, even as our President and bishops ask us to keep faith.

The SAF 44 did not fight Muslims; two of them were Muslims. The SAF 44 dreamed of peace; widow Erica Pabalinas affirmed: “Should I be sad that I lost my husband or should I feel happy and proud that he fought to his last breath not only for peace in Mindanao but for the entire nation? My husband gave his life to claim peace.”

On the Day of National Mourning last Friday, Jesuit Ari Dy shared: “God’s Word today: The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. Seeds have been sown, made fertile by blood. May their sacrifice expand the shade under which we can all dwell.”


The great irony is that our own ignorance is far more lethal than any bomb. If 44 of our best died willingly in exchange for one bombmaker, how many are we to barter against our own ignorance?

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React on Twitter (@oscarfbtan) and facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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