What this TV reporter witnessed on Monday in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, echoes yet again the tragedy of soldiers dying in the battlefield because of the limitations of the Armed Forces itself.
It also showed that the issue, one of a number raised five years ago by renegade junior military officers in the Oakwood mutiny, remains a problem and is far from resolution.
By his account Tuesday to the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net), GMA 7 reporter Jiggy Manicad traveled with his crew to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) for a “simple coverage” of the first ever automated elections in Philippine history.
But the news team found itself trapped in heavy fighting between government troops and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels, and Manicad found himself witnessing the agony of the severely wounded Marine Cpl. Angelo Abeto, begging for a “medivac” as he lay bleeding for four long hours.
No Philippine Air Force (PAF) helicopter arrived to evacuate Abeto and three other wounded Marines and a militiaman, Manicad said.
It was a Sikorsky helicopter from the US military, which has troops in Zamboanga City, that picked up the wounded men in the afternoon.
Bled to death
“We learned that on the way to Zamboanga, Corporal Abeto died,” Manicad said on the phone from Lamitan, Basilan.
The way he saw it, the Marine, who was hit by shrapnel from mortar fire, had bled to death.
“His whole body was already pale when I saw him lying on the gurney at the Marines camp. He kept on shouting, ‘Ang sakit na ng ulo ko! Hindi ako makahinga! (I have such a headache! I can’t breathe!) Medivac! Medivac!’” Manicad recounted.
Four of Abeto’s fellow soldiers stayed by his side, rallying him to hang on and fight for his life.
Manicad said he had heard a number of Marines complain that military choppers were immediately available when generals needed them but that it was often a futile wait for wounded soldiers.
On the phone, however, Marine Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, chief of the AFP Western Mindanao Command, denied that Abeto had died from loss of blood and that the PAF had not sent choppers to Tipo-Tipo.
“[Abeto] did not die because of loss of blood. He was hit in the head and back. He was seriously wounded,” Allaga told the Inquirer. Quoting military doctors, he said Abeto would not have survived his injuries.
Allaga also said PAF choppers had arrived earlier in Tipo-Tipo than the US chopper.
Abeto was part of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 10 that engaged some 300 MILF rebels in a daylong firefight to drive away the latter, who were purportedly planning to take over the town of Tipo-Tipo in protest of the ARMM elections.
According to Manicad’s account, he and his team started their election coverage on Monday at around 6:30 a.m.
They were to document the collection and transport of ballot boxes from the municipal hall to the schools for the elections. But they were diverted when told that Cabangalan Bridge in Tipo-Tipo had been blown up by armed men believed to be MILF guerrillas.
After wrapping up a report on the bridge, Manicad, along with cameraman Gregg Gonzales, assistant cameraman Jonathan Palisoc, and driver Ding Lagoyo, returned to the municipal hall.
Manicad and his crew
At around 8:45 a.m., they were informed that some 300 MILF fighters were already at the bridge.
The Marines and the police began to prepare for a fight, and the teachers and residents of Tipo-Tipo started to flee to the nearby town of Unkaya Pukan some 30 minutes away by foot.
From a distance
Manicad continued his account thus:
At the onset of the firefight, the news team took cover in the Tipo-Tipo municipal hall but subsequently rushed to Unkaya Pukan, where even Mayor Joel Maturan had armed himself in case the fighting spilled over to his town.
Manicad and his crew covered the fighting from a safe distance.
Still, they saw some 300 MILF rebels led by four commanders spread on the other side of the highway that separated the government troops from the guerrillas who were in fatigue uniforms.
To Manicad, it appeared that the Marines were severely undermanned in the first hours of the fighting. He learned that most of the troops had been deployed for election duties in the other ARMM provinces.
“There were reinforcements, but they came really late in the day—almost at the time of clearing operations,” said Manicad, 33, who has covered the military and defense beat.
‘A lot of snipers’
The fighting lasted for 10 hours, Manicad said.
He said the Marines had mortars, M-16 rifles and .50 cal. sniper rifles, and the MILF, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and “a lot of snipers.”
“They were strong,” he said of the MILF.
Manicad said he believed that the rebels had a well-planned effort to take over Tipo-Tipo on Monday.
He said cell sites had been destroyed a day earlier, and all roads leading to other towns had been turned into ambush sites by the rebels, practically isolating Tipo-Tipo.
Reprise of kidnapping
Late Monday night, text messages that Manicad and his team could not be reached by GMA 7 headquarters in Manila made the rounds.
The team had not been able to file a report from Tipo-Tipo, raising fears of a reprise of the kidnapping of an ABS-CBN news team in Sulu two months ago.
Manicad said he had exhausted all means to contact GMA 7 headquarters but that Tipo-Tipo had effectively been isolated.
He and his team were able to leave Tipo-Tipo early Tuesday morning, and reached Lamitan at around 8:30 a.m.After phoning his bosses to inform them that he and his crew were safe, Manicad immediately went to work to tell Corporal Abeto’s story.
Nikko Dizon, Philippine DailyInquirer