Whenever news of encounters between elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and local rebels in hinterlands on the countryside reach the ears and eyes of audience, they are seldom told of the dilemmas that soldiers have to face in protecting every civilian who is caught in the crossfire.
Just last June 23, government forces and members of the New People’s Army (NPA) clashed in Camarines Norte, Bicol Region in a short firefight in near a residential area.
Our soldiers triumphed in making the enemies flee, recovering an M16 rifle and three one-way radios from the rebels without shedding blood Barangay Sta. Rosa, Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte, Lieutenant Colonel Medel M. Aguilar, acting spokesman of Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Bicol said.
Aguilar added that the Army unit, the 49th Infantry Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Michael Buhat received information about the presence of an armed group in a civilian community there which prompted them to conduct patrol over the area.
He also said that the situation was complicated by the presence of civilians within the encounter site. A scenario which had always been one of the greatest challenges that soldiers have to face.
“Our troops could not just engage them because of the presence of innocent civilians,” he said. “Our troops waited for the right time to fire back and this opportunity came when the armed men, more or less 15 of them, were already on the run.”
Human Rights Above Glory
When news of two members of New People’s Army (NPA) surrendered to Army after a firefight on May 1 in Sorsogon, people did not see the real drama behind it.
All they knew from tv and newspapers was that the rebels, Judy Torres aka Ka Roy, 33, from Barangay Dolos, Bulan, Sorsogon and Jomar Gracilla, aka Ka Marvin, 19, from Barangay Pili, Magallanes, Sorsogon, gave themselves up to military when their companions left them at the clash site in Barangay Siuton, Magallanes, Sorsogon at around 5:20 p.m.
Former 9th Infantry Division spokesman Major Angelo Guzman gave the details that told of the struggle of soldiers protecting civilians despite the fact that viewers and readers only look for body count and damages in news items like these.
The planning that Army unit leader Captain Christopher Santander and his companions under the 31st Infantry Battalion undertook in order to save three households from the firefight that lasted for ten minutes in the quaint barangay went unnoticed.
Santander, a firm believer in the respect for human rights, said that it was an easy task to separate the civilians from the rebels who were concealing themselves among the village dwellers. But, keeping them safe from gunfire was not as easy to execute as they planned.
Santander is just one of the leaders of the Army who were schooled and continually reminded of the protection of the lives and safety of the civilian during incidents like the encounter in Sorsogon.
His unit received from the residents themselves reports of the presence of the rebels. Deciding to act early, he divided his men into two groups: one to walk casually through the village while the other group is concealed nearby to watch the reactions of the people at the sight of the uniformed soldiers.
Seeing the suspicious reactions of some of the people around the three houses, Santander wasted no time and gave a signal to his troops to assume their positions to prepare for a possible firefight.
He immediately gave an express order to his men to mind the civilians over returning the gunfire. The soldiers obliged by pushing the civilians, mostly children and women, down to the ground while the rebels fired away.
Santander said that they secured the civilians at the safe portions of the village, away from the firefight before they were able to retaliate.
He said that the protection of the civilians was foremost on his mind.
The soldiers encountered more or less ten armed persons believed to be members of Front Committee 80 of NPA.
The rebels were immediately taken into custody after they raised their hands in surrender while their companions withdrew towards the southeast of Magallanes.
They were given warm food, which they ate hungrily, at the headquarters of 31st IB in Barangay Rangas in Juban, Sorsogon. They were also treated well and given time to rest under custody in accordance with the Human Rights Law of the Philippines.
Santander said that this is also because they wanted to show to the rebels that the rumors they heard regarding abuses done by the military are untrue.
He hoped that whatever good treatment that the rebels received would be enough to encourage their fellows to surrender and come back to mainstream society.