Escape Through Death’s Door

 Philippine soldiers take a breather while fighting in Marawi (Photo courtesy of Lt. Geraldo Alvarez)

Philippine soldiers take a breather while fighting in Marawi (Photo courtesy of Lt. Geraldo Alvarez)

The first days of the battle in Marawi were about to challenge the armed forces to the hilt. It was going to be a new terrain for the military, which had to blend in fast in urban warfare. This wasn’t the jungle. This was the unknown. The experience of Lt. Geraldo Alvarez and his platoon of the mechanized infantry showed just how much they had to face while they lay trapped and besieged by the Islamist fighters until rescue came. There is talk among the troops that Lt. Alvarez may receive the prestigious Medal of Valor award.

His foreboding was throbbing in his chest as he was about to cross the Mapandi bridge near midnight. The lakeside city was in darkness save a few lights flickering from houses. It was quiet too, an eerie silence had descended after the rampage earlier in the day of May 23. It was the unusual calm that made him sense it wasn’t quite over. This was going to be the start of the bigger fight for the Islamic City of Marawi.

Lt. Geraldo Alvarez of the 51st Mechanized Infantry Company was in the lead of two armored vehicles. Leaving Camp Ranao, the army brigade headquarters, after a briefing from his seniors of what he was to do, he could not have predicted the long days that were to come – that Marawi would turn into a battlefront.

 Military vehicles making way through the battered city (Photo by Bal)

Military vehicles making way through the battered city (Photo by Bal)

He had gathered the men in his platoon at the camp’s basketball court, pulling them together for a prayer. His mission was to rescue a company commander who was fatally wounded in a firefight. The detachment was somewhere in the outskirts, a few kilometers to the east, past the Agus River that was going to be a demarcation point in the fierce fight to save Marawi from violent extremism.

 Driving through areas with ISIS graffiti (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

Driving through areas with ISIS graffiti (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

But as soon as the armors were about to ramble over the bridge, a stainless steel jeep blocked them part of the way. There were bursts of random gunfire, but not enough to stop the armored vehicles from carrying on.

Further on by the other foot of the bridge, there was another vehicle, which to Lt. Alvarez was shaped like a van. It was around then that he found himself on the receiving end of fire from heavy weapons. ‘This is it, I’m in a killing zone.’

There was a hail of shots from M-203s and guns and R.P.G., the Rocket-Propelled Grenades. He heard .50-caliber bullets from a Barrett, a sniper’s deadly weapon. An improvised bomb was set off prematurely, missing him in the nick of time.

When he drove past that, with his armors unscathed, he thought it would be a breeze to collect Lt. Morales, the wounded officer of the 49th Infantry Battalion, and save his life, little knowing that this would be far from over. He radioed the battalion’s executive officer, Lt. Acosta, who told him to look out for a military truck by a sharp bend. He won’t miss it; the truck serving as his guide that would lead him to the detachment.

Lt. Alvarez was in the first of his two armored vehicles, a V-150. The other was a Simba. Each one carried ten men: seven in a dismount team of infantry soldiers, and a crew of three that included the driver, the gunner and the ammo bearer who doubles as radio operator. In total, Lt. Alvarez had two armors, “bakal” as they call it, and 20 men including himself as the platoon leader for this mission.

On his Alpine Quest, the GPS app on his smart phone, he tracked Lt. Acosta’s whereabouts being a mere 70 meters away. That was almost as good as just being around the corner.

From his viewing post to the right of his driver, he was able to make out the outline of a truck. But it wasn’t a military truck. It was a flatbed truck used for carrying lumber. Right then his V-150 took a direct hit from an R.P.G. and it shook violently. The V-150 literally jumped and landed on crude impact. There was an explosion inside and it went dark, the lights shutting off.

Lt. Alvarez yelled, “Extricate! Extricate!” His headset wasn’t working. The gunners returned fire at the enemy out there in the dark.

They were blinded by this sudden attack. Lt. Alvarez crawled to the back to get a spare headset he needed to give command to the troops in the Simba behind them. Inside the V-150, he heard one of the men say, ‘Sir, may tama ako.’ I’m wounded. And others were groaning from injury, legs jerking, their bodies shaking.

At the same time he heard cries of “Allahu Akbar!” surrounding them, getting louder, rising to a chorus. Lt. Alvarez groped for the headset and shouted without hesitation, “Return Fire! Return Fire!” Sgt. Mayo, his squad leader sitting at the rear, opened the window, sending in the harsh voices of the chanting jihadists in the dark. He saw by the left side the damage done by the enemy’s R.P.G. There they were, trapped in the armor with wounded soldiers.

By sheer instinct, Sgt. Waoy the V-150’s driver maneuvered fast, finding a space by a gasoline station, hitting a steel gate at the rear as he made for a getaway. With a quick turn, he avoided enemy fire, heading straight south, the Simba following him. Getting themselves out of there, they soon enough stalled in the neighborhood of Wawalayan Marinaut, which is closer to the lake. That was it. They couldn’t move. They were stuck.

 Armored vehicles stop at a gas station (Photo by Cris Yabes)

Armored vehicles stop at a gas station (Photo by Cris Yabes)

Dismount!

The armored vehicles were within a short distance of each other. The militant fighters were going after them, but somehow they waited it out, biding their time. The armors, the best of their kind the army could have, were prized possessions. They’d have to get the men first before they could seize the armors.

That was when Lt. Alvarez saw the casualties among his men.

“Sir, I can’t get out.,” Sgt. Mayo discovered that he had been hit by a piece of shrapnel in his groin. “No, you’d have to get out, it’s not safe for you to stay here.” So, Sgt. Mayo had to crawl out of the exit hole to the opposite of where he was, and slumped down onto the ground.

“Help me out here!” Lt. Alvarez summoned the driver Sgt. Waoy, who was unhurt. “Let’s get the men out of the V-150.”

The shrapnel had splintered around their eyes, and they were bleeding and moaning excruciatingly. One of them was quiet: Private Purlas wasn’t moving at all. Lt. Alvarez pulled him up to one side and the torso split from the waist. The soldier’s body was cut in half. It was the first time he had seen something like that happen. In the haste and shock of the moment, there was nothing he could do but to rest him against a corner, putting the body together in one piece.

He rushed to do first aid on the wounded. He saw one leg that was badly injured and feared that it was another broken piece, but it wasn’t. It belonged to Private Cabonita whose rifle he took, removing the sling for tourniquet to stem the bleeding.

One by one he had to take them out.

Private Purlas was his first Killed In Action. Private Cabonita couldn’t move much. Lt. Alvarez pulled the others down to a ditch by the side of the road, putting bandages around their eyes. He arranged them into a firing squad, their rifles ready for aiming, their fingers on the trigger. Because they could not see, they at least could hear, and if they heard the enemies coming, all they had to do was fire. ‘Kalabit ka lang pag may lumapit.’ (Just pull the trigger if someone comes near.)

In his mind, Lt. Alvarez could not afford another R.P.G. coming their way. The V-150 was badly hit but they couldn’t leave it there. You don’t abandon an armored vehicle just like that. They were trained to fight with it. The Simba, on the other hand, was in good shape. The men inside it had already dismounted, crawling out of their own accord like mice rushing out of a hole. They had no injuries. One of them was a trained medic who helped Lt. Alvarez administer first aid on the wounded from the V-150.

They held themselves there for whatever it would take. Lt. Alvarez was orienting himself with the layout of the houses. The street sign says they were on Perez St., with some lights among the houses glimmering in the dark. He heard muffled crying. There was no telling what surrounded them. When they stopped there, the lights went dead and everything seemed to have suddenly turned mute. “They know we’re here.”

 Soldiers moving inbetween houses (Photo by Bal)

Soldiers moving inbetween houses (Photo by Bal)

Don’t fire. They’ll see us.

He checked the time. It was about two o’clock in the morning, May 24. He radioed Camp Ranao, the brigade headquarters, from inside the V-150. Firefox was hit. That was his call sign. Firefox was out there in the middle of the night, stranded, under the eye of the enemies.

Reinforcement will be there, he was told by Artek, the call sign from the brigade. “I threw them my Golf Charlie” – the grid coordinates that would tell the brigade of their precise location, so all they had to do was to come and get us. But it wasn’t going to be either fast or simple. He texted his battalion commander.

Kapit lang, kapit lang,” the commander reassured him. Hang in there. Reinforcement is on its way.

The light of day came without any help. Their world shrank in that corner of Perez St., and since the day before when the Islamist rebels went on a rampage after an attempt by elite forces to arrest one of their leaders, the people of Marawi had begun leaving. They were used to rido, the clan wars, and guns were a normal fact of life. But this one, this was going to be monstrous.

Lt. Alvarez came to realize at dawn, with everything around him clear as the first rays of light, that they were in a bind. The enemies were at bay, for now, but neither was rescue near. They had to seek cover. Looking around him, he took note of houses that were two or three-stories high. He chose four that they would have to occupy, spread out into smaller groups.

 Soldiers occupying houses for cover (Photo by Bal)

Soldiers occupying houses for cover (Photo by Bal)

The houses were in four points of a quadrant, as sentinels guarding the two armored vehicles. Lt. Alvarez took the house next to where the Simba was parked, slightly up on a slope, giving him a vantage point. The V-150 was down the bend, its turret jutting out from the road perpendicular to Perez Street. Across the Simba was an open space of a dry mill, where rice husks were dried before milling. Not to be confused with a rice mill nearby, where the harrowing ordeal of the 51st Mechanized Infantry Company would come to an end three days later.

For his turf, he had to negotiate with the homeowner, a woman of comfortable means, judging from the layout of the house made of thick sturdy walls of a style imitating European taste, a balcony replicating those of opera houses. “I’m your army, you should be helping us,” Lt. Alvarez insisted. “I’ll take responsibility. Here’s my name and number, you can find me at the brigade camp when this is over.” He did not imagine what he and his men were about to experience in that house.

The move was to keep themselves safe, with the armors in their hands. Around them, people were fleeing, others running to them for safety. Not here. Go to the army camp. Go there. They had to be careful: What if the jihadists were in the crowd. “Sir, Sir!” someone yelled, “over there, parating na ISIS…

A man with a teenage boy broke away from the crowd, walking instead toward the armored vehicles. They were stopped, and then they left in a huff. The next day the soldiers were to remember their faces among the enemies that would fire the R.P.G. at them. The boy could not have been more than 18 years old.


The enemy came back with a shout, Allahu Akbar! Surrender. Surrender na kayo, they taunted the soldiers in Tagalog and Bisaya. Surrender na mo.


Lt. Alvarez heard on the military radio that Mapandi Bridge and the two other bridges, Banggolo and Bubonga, could not be crossed. The fighting there was getting intense, drawing the heat of the battle that would carry on for weeks.

For the trapped men of the mechanized platoon, an airlift was the safest bet and the dry mill was the place for it. He transmitted their Golf Charlie. He wasn’t sure he could clear the surroundings, but he was certain about the dry mill. Therefore the chopper coming to their rescue could have a safe landing. He was wrong.

Firefox, there are snipers.

The chopper couldn’t land anywhere except at the detachment where Lt. Alvarez was supposed to have rescued the wounded company commander. But it was too late for Lt. Morales; he had died. It was Lt. Alvarez’s turn to ask Lt. Acosta, the executive officer who had earlier tried to guide them, for help.

“Even if I want to sir, the enemies are coming.” Lt. Acosta was able to listen into their radio communication and he had heard that they were going after the armors. He passed on this information to the brigade headquarters.

Consolidate. It’s time to consolidate.

Lt. Alvarez went to the houses occupied by his men, inspecting their conditions to make sure they were in the right spot. In his house particularly, he had five men with him, many of them the wounded. Others had two or three. The gunners and the ammo bearers were in their respective tanks.

 Soldiers moving out (Photo by Bal)

Soldiers moving out (Photo by Bal)

He went to the V-150 to check on Private Cabonita, the one with the serious leg wound. Lt. Alvarez couldn’t give him water. It would make him bleed some more. He wet a piece of cloth and wiped his lips with it.

Sir, saan ako?” (Where should I be?)

Huwag ka ng makialam. You’ll be fine here, don’t worry about us.”

“I’m thirsty. Is the reinforcement coming soon?”

“It’s coming, it’s coming.”

How many times had he told the private that “it’s coming”? He had said it so often he would like to believe it himself. Just as Private Cabonita had asked his platoon leader where he should position himself for the fight and if reinforcements were coming – these were to be his last words.

Private Cabonita pulled himself together, as if to sit properly and comfortably, and leaned back gently. Lt. Alvarez told the gunner to keep talking to Private Cabonita, to keep him conscious. But even when the gunner did so, the private was drawing his last breaths.

Lt. Alvarez sent a text message to his battalion commander: “Sir, 2 KIA.”

Kapit lang, kapit lang. Hang in there.”

He had two men down. What could he do to get the rest of them out of there? What else could he do while waiting for reinforcement? He could probably try to make the V-150 run again. Let Sgt. Waoy the driver do the troubleshooting, but it was hopeless. The cab of the armor was totally ruined by the R.P.G. They could use a towing bar. They’ve got to find one. There must be one around here.

A strange hush fell on them. The streets turned empty and the people had fled leaving them alone on the corner of Perez St. Then came the roar of a motorcycle, the man riding it asking for his permission to get to the warehouse of the dry mill. He said he worked there. Lt. Alvarez allowed him to go, if only so that he himself could look around the warehouse for a towing bar. There was none. The motorcycle rider got some sacks of rice and provisions and then left.

Shortly after seven other men claiming to be workers at the mill went to him. Could they also go to the warehouse? Lt. Alvarez would have no more of this; he couldn’t trust the men. No, you can’t. ‘There’s no one here, can’t you all see what’s happening?’

Dusk was on the horizon, and yet none of the promised reinforcements made it. There was the chopper that came and left without even landing because of the snipers, and that was it. After the chopper was gone, he again studied their position on the Alpine Quest app, radioing to the army brigade in Camp Ranao the Golf Charlie of the house, of the armored vehicles, of the enemy’s possible entry for an attack.

 Taking position amidst the rubble (Photo by Bal)

Taking position amidst the rubble (Photo by Bal)

Having done that, as if counting on a full day that was almost over, he brought the wounded men into the house.

Tonight he went back to the V-150 to wrap the dead with blankets. Ready for the evacuation. When it comes they would have to be quick. He radioed his men in the other houses, “Kamusta na? Dasal lang, dasal na parating na.” (How are you? Just pray that help is on its way.)

In the silence of the night, he heard dogs barking out of nowhere, a collective howl of the animals. Was that an ominous warning? It reminded him of when the enemy attacked them, just hours ago after they had crossed the Mapandi bridge -- their cries of their god being great.

He didn’t know if his prayers would be answered. He could sense movement in the shadows, along with the whining of the dogs – the enemy. Are they coming closer? Or is it my imagination? They’re here. They want the armors.

He radioed his men in their posts, in the houses they had occupied in four corners. They were positioned like a net shielding the coveted armored vehicles. Huwag dapat tayong mabutasan. “Never leave your place, no matter what. Don’t let the enemies get through.”

They were down to three hand-held radios that were working. Apart from that they had their cell phones but, each house could only use one at a time, to save on battery. If one cell phone goes dead, pull out the SIM card and use it for the next cell phone, and in this way there would only be one number for each house for a simple and clear exchange of communication.

That night they were safe. Even then he kept the engines on, the armors droning steadily throughout the night. He had to do it for easy maneuvering, whatever it would take to be prepared.

Nothing happened, and as a new day broke, Lt. Alvarez saw the apparition of an old man walking the street with a cane. Today was May 25.

The elderly man was wearing a patadyong (wraparound skirt) and pointing randomly at the warehouse of the dry mill with his cane, ignoring the presence of the armors as if they weren’t there. Lt. Alvarez had gone out of the house to check on the vehicles when he saw him coming near. He was about to approach him when a boy, also wearing a patadyong, suddenly darted out of nowhere to pull the old man out from the street, hiding him.

Lt. Alvarez saw an object swaying underneath the boy’s patadyong. It had to be a rifle. But in an instant they were gone.

He was to realize, later on, that the man was no other than the father of the Maute brothers who had planned the takeover of Marawi. Cayamora Maute, an engineer whose family touted influence in the town of Butig south of the lake, would be arrested in Davao City two weeks later. Lt. Alvarez immediately recognized him on the television news. The Maute patriarch would be flown to Manila where he would die in jail due to an illness, about three months later.

It was early in the morning, the sun peeping out. All was quiet, as it had been the night before. He had asked his men to find some rice to cook in the kitchen. They had not had any meal save some crackers to tide them over since they left the brigade camp and crossed the bridge that was to be of no return. He was still counting on a chopper lift.

No sooner had he made it to the front door to check on breakfast than a startling rain of gunfire started falling on them. He ducked on impulse, yelling at his men to seek cover. He grabbed the radio screaming, “Secure, secure, focus, focus…!”

From the window he saw the Simba jockeying, a term used for moving to and fro, to avoid being a steady target. The gunner’s view block was hit. There were snipers aiming shots.

On the radio to the brigade headquarters, he yelled again for reinforcement. Too many of them, they’re coming, surrounding us. He counted, roughly, around 50, and there would be more later on. One was running forward in kamikaze bravado hoisting an R.P.G. and yelling Allahu Akbar! coming from the same direction as where the Maute father was a few minutes ago.


Meanwhile the enemy had reached the rooftop of the house Lt. Alvarez was in, shouting Allahu Akbar! from above. Snipers were shooting at him. He had no grenade and he was almost out of bullets.

His wounded men, despite the bandage covering their eyes, opened fire with their M-16 rifles by sheer instinct, using the windows to shoot from and seeking cover below them. Bullets flew over their heads in a hail.

From the crackle of the radio coming from the other house, Lt. Alvarez heard Private Estores breaking the news. His voice was filled with shock and dread. There are young boys with arms. They’re marching towards us. Sir, do we shoot at the kids?

We have no choice. They will come for us.

He ordered the Simba to aim at the enemy snipers over at the dry mill. The V-150’s gun was working, resisting the volume of fire. The armor men in the houses were focused on the ground, fighting against the fury of enemy fire.

The clash was so unrelenting it destroyed objects in the house. The picture frames, the furniture, the décor, everything. The curtains were torn away from windows that were made a shooting gallery. There was no let up from the militants, who lobbed Molotov bombs into the house.

Fire lit up on the second floor, licking up the clothes on the bed. The owner had probably laid out her wardrobe to choose what she would bring with her in the evacuation. They sparked the flames in the bedroom, and in a matter of minutes the second floor was filled with smoke.

Lt. Alvarez and his men went rushing down to the first floor, watching to their horror the barrage of ammunition from M-203s and R.P.G.s.

He was able to call the Air Force before the second floor went up in flames. The chopper arrived, whirling up in the air.

Firefox, this is Firebird.

Firebird couldn’t hear Firefox on the radio.

That’s when Firefox decided to make a dash to the Simba where the radio was working. Firefox had to be heard. He’s got to tell Firebird in the chopper where they are. Under fire he rushed inside the armor and made contact with Firebird. ”With respect to the lake, you’ll see a dry mill, nandoon ang dalawang bakal. The two armors are there.”

I don’t see any armor.

 On their guard (Photo by Bal)

On their guard (Photo by Bal)

Sir, there’s a truck, there’s a school near the house, you’ll see a vehicle and we’re right there.

The chopper made a turn. Firebird saw them at last. “The enemy is moving to your north, ang dami nila, tirahin ko sila.” (They are many; I will shoot them.) But the enemy on the eastern side unleashed more volleys from M-203s, by which time Firebird had to leave. He told Firefox that he was only good for one ride. He’ll have to reload ammunition for another ride. “I’ll come back for you.”

Sige, Salamat. (Okay, thanks.)

The house was burning, the flames creeping down to the first floor. The entire house was thick with fire and smoke. The men wet the curtains in a water drum found in the bathroom and covered their faces with it, to help them breath. There was running water, thank goodness, from the water tank perched on the rooftop – but that wasn’t going to last, it was made of plastic and it would melt in the heat of the fire.

They opened fire at a thick glass window at the back to let out smoke. They crawled on the floor, hiding from the rain of bullets, to get water from the bathroom to douse the fire. They did anything they could, and used any container they could find in the kitchen, to put out the fire. Their lives depended on it.

On top of that, the Simba’s gunner had bad news for Lt. Alvarez. It was running out of ammunition. They had to get the stock from the V-150. The driver Sgt. Santos got out of the Simba. Lt. Alvarez could see from a peephole that he was slowing down, weakening from fatigue, but he went on just the same to get a box of .50-caliber ammunition from the V-150.

As he was about to get back into the Simba, a bullet hit him by the armpit. It couldn’t have been that bad, Lt. Alvarez thought, since he seemed to be able to use his remaining strength afterward to jockey the Simba which, however, was starting to go wayward, like a drunken man who couldn’t keep straight, rolling down the street and almost hitting the V-150 at the rear.

The gunner eventually broke the news: Sgt. Santos is dead. Their third Killed In Action.

The Simba’s gunner Sgt. Parel pumped out the rounds of ammunition until it was finished. It was his turn to get more again from the V-150. Sgt. Parel braved the gunfire. The ammo box was too heavy for him. He made it back to the Simba as Sgt. Santos before him had done, but he too was hit in the chest. He fell and crawled under the Simba.

Watching this happen, Lt. Alvarez had to save not just the armors but also his men. He couldn’t afford another Killed In Action.

His chance was left with the V-150. He ordered Sgt. Lumbay the gunner to save Sgt. Parel who was under the Simba. ‘I-timing mo, get Parel.’ He couldn’t tell if he was still alive. At the same time, Sgt. Lumbay should bring the ammo with him and take the place of the gunner for the Simba. The V-150 would be left alone with the ammo bearer.

In one of the houses overlooking the V-150, Private Estores was also watching the ordeal of Sgt. Santos and Sgt. Parel going from the Simba to the V-150 and back, only to be struck down. From where he was, a house that had a view of the lake on the other side, he saw outlines of men coming ashore. Black helmets. Black uniform.

Scout Rangers, he thought with relief. They’re coming to help us.

The men were on wooden boats. They landed by the mosque. He watched them file in and file out, giving him a closer look. Wait, there’s something not right. Their boots gave them away. They were not the issued boots for the soldiers. These men couldn’t be friendly forces. These men were the enemies.

He radioed Lt. Alvarez right away. “They were like ants swarming for the candy.” The candy was the Simba. The V-150 couldn’t move, but it could still fire and the ignition was fine, but it was ruined inside and one of the wheels was busted in the attack.

Bullets also rained into the house of Private Estores. The house was unfinished and it was made of cinder blocks – unlike the two-story house of Lt. Alvarez that was pure concrete, solid and fortified. Private Estores was vulnerable, in a house that was disintegrating in non-stop bombardment. He panicked and fled towards the V-150 across the street. He could take the place of the gunner – that was Sgt. Lumbay whom Lt. Alvarez had ordered to be the gunner of the Simba. Taking his position at the turret, an R.P.G. struck him. He slumped dead.

Private Fernandez the ammo bearer below couldn’t get through to fire back. He pushed open the gun port with his M-16 and through that opening fired back, pushing back the enemies.

Lt. Alvarez didn’t know what was happening in the V-150. He and his men were desperately putting out the fire in their house, and night was about to claim what was left of the day. The house was blackened from the burning. Everything was black, and so were they. The fire subsided to embers. They were saved.

And then two choppers hovered.

Their call sign was the same: Firebird. They needed the coordinates and Lt. Alvarez had to repeat the description, like a schoolboy reciting from rote. He used the radio. “You’ll see the burning house, and you’ll see the armor outside. The enemies are coming closer and closer.”

Firefox, this is going to be a rocket.

And when Firebird dropped it on the enemy line in the east, the firing on the ground stopped. There was respite and there was awe. That was a rocket, an upgrade of firepower. Despite that the enemies persevered after a while, crawling on the ground to get to the Simba, under which Sgt. Parel lay wounded or possibly dead.

That over, Lt. Alvarez ran up to the second floor, stepping on broken tiles. He went by the side of the balcony to catch some air. He reported to his battalion commander, Sir, Parel is dead, Santos is dead. He didn’t know about Estores, who would be the fourth Killed In Action.

The night quickly engulfed the men. Lt. Alvarez called out for them. He needed to do a roll call. He couldn’t see anyone. Come closer. Put your hands on my head. From his head, he counted the hands of his men, sliding his own hand down to their arms as if to make sure they were connected to bodies. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

They were all there and alive. Together, they prayed quietly, this time holding each other’s hand. They wept, choking on their tears.

There was a lull in the evening. Maybe the rocket had muted the enemy. His ears strained for the sound of a knock against metal. The armor. Someone was trying to hitch a turn of the lock. He knew that sound. It had to come from one of the crew; nobody else would know how to unlatch the armor’s lock.

Later he would be told that it was Sgt. Parel. He was alive.

Sgt. Lumbay opened it from the inside and saw him. He immediately messaged the platoon commander the good news; at least. Sgt. Parel was helped into the Simba, whose gun was ruptured. Sgt. Lumbay had to fix it. They could not waste every second of their lives in this battle.

The enemy came back with a shout, Allahu Akbar! Surrender. Surrender na kayo, they taunted the soldiers in Tagalog and Bisaya. Surrender na mo. They wanted just the guns and the armored vehicles.

Tuyo! – hurling back at them a military lingo for disobeying an order.

We’re the army, we don’t surrender.

The enemies opened fire in sporadic bursts, and the soldiers returned fire. And then there was a break again.

 Returning fire (Photo by Bal)

Returning fire (Photo by Bal)

Into the night, Lt. Alvarez had to stay alert. There was another sound coming, and he couldn’t believe it. He radioed the headquarters.

Sir, did you send a drone?

What drone?

There’s a drone here.

We didn’t send a drone there.

It’s the enemy’s drone, a drone flying at night. What more did they have? How could they have obtained such expensive gadgets? They were not going to give up on us. They could find us in the dark with the damn drone. Gusto kaming putaktihin. (They want to sic wasps on us)

Shortly after, the headquarters sent an Augusta chopper with night-flying capabilities. It transmitted to Lt. Alvarez the locations of the enemies. Positive. They’re there. Huwag kang bibitaw, may dadating. Hang in there. We’re coming for you.

There was to be no sleep for another long night. Lt. Alvarez called his men stationed in the other houses by cell phone. Don’t leave your position, he told them. Stay put.

In the morning of May 26, the Augusta pilot was true to his word: the reinforcement had come. On his Alpine Quest app, they were three hundred meters away. It was near, and yet three hundred meters amounted to an insurmountable distance in this fight. The enemy was just as close. The soldiers were in a tight spot.

But the reinforcement was in bulk: there would be Lt. Acosta’s troops from the 49th Infantry Battalion; there would be a company each from the 15th Infantry Battalion and the 44th Infantry Battalion. And later in the day, there would be a battalion from the Scout Ranger Regiment. This time pulling them out of there would be for real.

The choppers were back too, dropping the rockets on targets to the north and east. To the west was the lake and the south was where the troop reinforcement was positioned. They had to take a detour around the bridges – which would be the frontline – to get round the location of the beleaguered mechanized platoon of Lt. Alvarez.

They were very close, roughly 50 meters. But they didn’t have a view of the houses, or of the armors, which were hidden in the density of buildings Lt. Alvarez had to put out a Far Signal, pretty much any object that could have their location sighted. They hung a helmet on the balcony, a camouflage blanket, a piece of cloth, just about anything they could wave.

We see you. We have your location.

Tropa, tropa.

Armor, armor.

They had an arrangement that the armor men were to start firing against the enemy, and the reinforcement troops would fire back when the enemy retaliates, allowing the armor men the chance to consolidate and get themselves out of there.

But the volume of fire from enemy met the troops’ firepower, and that was astounding. It was an eye-for-an-eye. The infantry had to “extricate,” backing away from the fight because of casualties on their side. When Lt. Alvarez checked on his phone’s app, they were far back to about two hundred meters. Back from where they started.

He messaged his men, hold on to where you are, watch the armors, they’re our life. The enemy was taunting them to surrender, as if they knew the armor men were down to their last, and they were right. Lt. Alvarez had half a magazine of ammunition left with him. He told the others to be sparing with what they’ve got.

Having almost ran out of ammunition, he asked for artillery from the brigade headquarters. Lt. Alvarez felt there was no other choice. Fired from the brigade camp across the river, the howitzer could hit a target 30 meters from the house occupied by Lt. Alvarez. That’s “danger close.”

His request was “Sent To Many” on his cell phone, giving them a linear target of two points. Everyone was in the know. This was the last recourse. The brigade wouldn’t do it, but Lt. Alvarez told them to go ahead. Ipatak na. Drop it. He says “ipatak na” as though it was merely water to be dropped, not a heavy artillery that could kill them.

Two drops from the howitzers and they survived the blasts, by a stroke of luck. The artillery landed right on the targets, scattering the enemy.

Adding to the bombs of that day, OV-10 Broncos flew in from the Visayas. Using the burnt house as a guide, the planes dropped bombs on the eastern side. The houses nearby collapsed as if from an earthquake.

That was the highlight of the day: artillery fire and bombs.

Perfect – said the Broncos.

We’re okay, Sir.

The enemy would stop but they would forge on again.

For an entire day, the infantry reinforcement on the ground couldn’t break through despite the bombs and artillery scaring away the militants.

By nighttime, again, there was a sound of repeated thuds. What was that? Lt. Alvarez listened closely: they’re tearing down the walls!

 Marawi in ruins (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

Marawi in ruins (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

One coming from the north and also another from the south. The enemy was breaking down the thick walls of the houses to get to them. Sledgehammer. They were using sledgehammer. They knew the houses. They’re making their holes to get through.

As the enemy was inching his way through the walls, Lt. Alvarez had no idea how to find their way out. Was this the end? The continuous thudding of the walls was getting closer. They had been fighting off the enemy for three days and he was coming through with sledgehammers, making a labyrinth within a labyrinth.

It was therefore such a relief when he heard a message from the Rangers. They were coming too. He knew it had to be them, because of a coded message, tatat-tatatat-tatatata-ta-tat as it went banging on the walls. The chant for Let’s Go Army hammered into them at training camps.

The Rangers too were armed with sledgehammers, boring holes through the walls from the south side. It was a battle of strength as to who would get there first.

Lt. Alvarez had to wait it out. He was the Firefox. He couldn’t sleep. He had to keep watch. He would throw something in the dark to keep himself from dozing, small objects he’d find on the floor, a piece of wood, a shard of glass, a broken piece of this or that. Hitting them against the wall, he could resist sleep. If not he’d slap himself awake.

May 27, the fourth day. This could be their fortuitous moment, if nothing else.

He was on the cell phone with the Rangers. They’ve seen the nozzle of the V-150’s gun. In fact, they were just right there. When they tap on the metal, it would be a signal for the armor troops to leave. Backed by the Rangers were reconnaissance companies. They moved forward, along with the infantry that had come earlier.

Lt. Alvarez was seeing hope and called for a celebration, which was nothing more than having their pictures taken in the burnt house. They were alive and this was going to be over.

That hope was dashed when the reinforcement troops went sliding back under a rapid hail of M-203s from the enemy.

Re-plan. Let’s try this again.

Meanwhile the enemy had reached the rooftop of the house Lt. Alvarez was in, shouting Allahu Akbar! from above. Snipers were shooting at him. He had no grenade and he was almost out of bullets.

 Almost out of bullets (Photo by Bal)

Almost out of bullets (Photo by Bal)

Sir, patakan na ang bubong ko.

He was asking the colonel of the Scout Rangers to fire mortar on his rooftop. It landed by the side of the roof. Try again.

The second one was on target and the enemy fell. He thought that was the end of it and they could leave the house.

As it turned out, another batch of the militant fighters were jumping from the roof next door, like a relay of fighters on a suicide call. ‘Ang titiis ng kalaban.’ (They are persistent.)

The Rangers had to use the mortar again. And again, they had to re-plan. ‘Hindi na kami kayang iligtas.’ We can’t be saved, he mumbled to himself.

We’re almost spent. The tanks had about two hundred rounds of ammunition left. That’s just a spurt and that would be it.

For the first time since he crossed the bridge for this mission, he dialed his wife’s number on his cell phone. O, Pa, kamusta na?

Lt. Alvarez swallowed his tears. Ma, nasa alanganing sitwasyon ako. Pray na lang kayo. (Ma, I’m in a tight situation. Just pray.)

She was the mother of their two children. She was far from this hell, and she told him with so much conviction, “Get a hold of yourself,” and that was all that kept him from bursting into tears. “Your troops are counting on you.” Patibayan mo ang loob mo.

Wasn’t he the one who pushed so hard to be an officer at all cost? Even after he’d been expelled from the Philippine Military Academy for hazing, still he went to the Officers’ Candidate School. He plodded on, took all the routes by hook or by crook to get himself into the corps. If he hadn’t been kicked out, he could have been a major by now.

The only thing left to do was to have all his men gather together. He decided that, later in the evening at around 23h00 they would all come to one house. They could have their last stand. To this they broke bread, so to speak. There was the burnt rice in the kitchen. It coagulated into black hard dough, but when they pried it open, they were happy to see the white core of the steamed rice. They feasted on that. And for water, they had to drink what was there in the toilet tank for flushing. It was cleaner than the water in the drum they had used to put out the fire the day before.

Lt. Alvarez had made up his mind and relayed this to all the senior officers out there in his message “Sent to Many.” They will stand together and fight together as one; and, as he calculated the odds in his mind, a text message came through: Jerry, share the risk.

Jerry. That was his nickname, a J instead of a G for Geraldo. This was personal. He wasn’t Firefox any more. The tone of the message changed. When fellow officers call him Jerry, it was a deeper call from a brother-in-arms.

Share the risk.

It was from the battalion commander of the Scout Rangers. It meant they would have to carry this out halfway. Lt. Alvarez and his men would have to come out of the houses in a daredevil run and meet them at a given place. This meant putting themselves out there as open targets. They had the rangers and the infantry forces to cover them, and a chopper to boot.

By 15h30 as given, they were to make a dash out of the killing zone. He messaged the men in the other houses. This is what we’re going to do. They should be ready. Sir, we’re ready to die.

Those stuck in the Simba were dying to get out of there. A small fire from a Molotov under the armor was cooking them in the heat. Konting tiis na lang. Just a little bit more persistence.

There was a bit of time to prepare their exit run, but damn they were running low on battery. Lt. Alvarez berated himself for the phone battery they had used up for selfies. He asked one of his men to find something. They can’t be out of reach, not now. Not when they were about to share the risk.

Private Cabanayan came back to him with a battery from a motorcycle he got from a house next door. What do we do with this? The private showed him what could be done through ingenuity and it worked.

Now execute the plan. They were all to leave the houses stealthily, if they could, and run to the rice mill. Not the dry mill. The rice mill was to the left on Perez St. from where the V-150 was, with the Simba now so close on its tail.

Lt. Alvarez’s house was farthest from the others. He would have to run a quick stretch down the road angled to Perez St. The others found their way around the houses and the rubble. They ran under sniper fire.

When at last they linked up with the rangers at the rice mill, which had a wall they could hide for cover, they were missing two. They were hardly recognizable because of the black soot that covered them from heat to foot. Their name tag couldn’t be read.

Those who had been in the V-150 carried the smell of the decaying bodies of their comrades. Lt. Alvarez came to his senses and realized he’d been wounded, only by a small piece of shrapnel in his foot; the inside of his boot wet with blood.

The brigade commander himself was there to bring them back. Fourteen alive. Wait, there were two others missing. They were lost. One of them was Sgt. Waoy, the driver of the V-150. He found a cell phone in one of the houses and sent a message later. He said they got confused about which mill and returned to the house.

Lt. Alvarez got Sgt. Waoy on the phone to be sure it was his man, not an enemy that might have got hold of the phone. What’s your serial number? What’s the name of your platoon commander? Sgt. Waoy gave the right answers, and in this exchange, they both broke down, in a reckoning of their survival.

They were retrieved the next day. Waoy, Waoy, the rangers shouted his name for the rescue. The other armor man was wounded.

All of them together at the army detachment. They had their shower and a meal. From there, a chopper lifted them out to to the army hospital in the infantry division headquarters, in Cagayan de Oro City.

 Lt. Geraldo Alvarez and fellow soldiers being airlifted out of Marawi (Photo courtesy of Lt. Geraldo Alvarez)

Lt. Geraldo Alvarez and fellow soldiers being airlifted out of Marawi (Photo courtesy of Lt. Geraldo Alvarez)

The enemy took the guns of the armored vehicles and tried to burn them, taking video shots of it that came out on the Internet. The rangers went back to tow the tanks after an air strike, retrieving the bodies of the four men of the mechanized infantry Killed In Action.


 Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.


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