By Keith Bacongco
MARAWI CITY – The enemy hid behind walls, in which they bore holes large enough for the barrels of their sniper rifles. Inside houses, they lay in ambush behind book shelves or curtains. And they would conceal improvised explosive devices (IEDs) behind mundane materials like GI sheets or plywood boards.
These were just a few of the challenges in the urban battle that faced the elite Scout Rangers of the Philippine Army, a unit rather steeped in jungle warfare experience, when they were deployed here just days after the Islamic State (IS)-inspired Maute Group started to wreak havoc on May 23.
“We were trained for jungle warfare. This urban warfare was really new to us, we are not used to urban fighting,” Sgt. Jon, a lead scout, told The Manila Bulletin in an interview.
Before Marawi, the only other urban warfare experience they had was a three-week standoff with Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL) fighters in September, 2013, in Zamboanga City.
That was why the Scout Rangers came to this city saddled with some trepidation.
“Medyo may halong kaba dahil alam namin na urban area. Pero excited ako dahil bata pa ako naririnig ko na ang lugar na Marawi na peaceful daw (There was a mixture of emotions because we knew it was an urban area. But I was excited because I had learned, when I was still young, that Marawi is a peaceful place),” Sgt. Jon said.
They were airlifted from Jolo, Sulu on May 25, and immediately plunged into action after arriving here to back-up beleaguered troops who were already pinned down by enemy fire.
“Nag try kami na pumasok the following day pero medyo nahirapan kami dahil naka-pwesto na ang aming mga kalaban, Nasa defensive position na kasi sila (We tried to get in the following day but we found it hard to take our positions because the enemy was already well-entrenched. They were already in defensive positions,” said the battled-hardened 37-year-old from South Cotabato.
A corporal in Sgt. Jon’s team acknowledged that they learned a lot from their battle experience in the city – and nowhere was it near the lessons they had learned from engaging Abu Sayyaf bandits in the jungles of Basilan and Jolo.
“In the jungle, we could easily maneuver around. But here in the urban setting, there were instances we were pinned down. You could not just move from one building to another,” noted Jay, a corporal who has been in the regiment for seven years.
Solid concrete walls, narrow alleys, and multi-story buildings made the fighting even more difficult.
But what was striking to Rangers was that their enemy were bold enough to “engage us face-to-face, and were obviously not afraid to die.”
“Yan ang pinakamahirap na kalaban (Those are the most difficult enemies to encounter),” said Jay.
In the first few weeks, Jay said they suffered several casualties or wounded because the terrorists were in more advantageous positions.
“Mapiga talaga ang isip mo dito kung paano mo ma capture ang objective. Kasi hindi kami sanay sa urban fighting. Kung sa bundok lang ito, kaya namin tapusin ang misyon minsan hindi aabot ng isang oras, tapos na ang labanan (You really have to wrack your brains on how to capture your objective, because we were not used to fight in urban settings. If these were the mountains, we could have finished this in hours),” said a 29-year-old Scout Ranger.
But adjust, adapt, and innovate, the Scout Rangers did.
Sgt. Jon said they had to do with little sleep, with an hour’s nap considered a luxury when there was nothing but mayhem and carnage around them. They called this “tulog manok,” a state of rest that allows you to spring back into action at the slightest noise or movement around them.
He added that he and his men didn’t even have a chance to take off their shoes for a month while the encounters with the Maute razed furiously around them. There were even times that they had to eat meals with the bodies of dead terrorists beside them.
That is why the war in Marawi will be best remembered not only for the bravery of the Scout Rangers, but also for their resiliency and ability to adapt and innovate in an entirely unfamiliar territory.
“Magaling din ang tactics nila pero nagawan din namin ng paraan. Pinag-isipan namin as a unit. Hanggang sa nung nasanay na kami, parang naglalaro na lang din kami (The enemy’s tactics were good. But we were able to think them out to the point that we got used to them and it felt like we were only playing in the end),” Corporal Jay remembered.
For instance, the terrorists would bore holes in walls, just big enough to fit the barrels of their sniper rifles to take out approaching government forces one-by-one.
There, too, were instances when the Rangers would encounter enemies who were just hiding behind bookshelves.
“Kaya pagpasok mo, hindi mo na mapansin na may tao sa likod kasi di mo makita ang butas sa likod ng bookshelves. Kaya yung iba sa amin na wounded agad pagpasok pa lang (That’s why when you enter a structure, you will not notice that there’s somebody behind you, because you will not see the holes they’ve made from behind the bookshelves. That’s why many of those among us, who were wounded, were felled just as they were entering the structure),” said the lanky and bearded corporal.
But as the fighting raged, the Rangers were able to adapt and become more cautious with every structure they entered and every block they tried to re-take.
Corporal Jay also admitted that, aside from sniper fire, some of his colleagues were killed by IEDs that were cleverly concealed, many of them in plain-sight.
He cited as an example a narrow alley that connected two buildings that were already occupied by Scout Ranger teams. The pathway was laden with GI sheets, which looked more like debris strewn about by all the fighting and bombing.
“Dinadaanan na namin yun araw-raw. Pero noong mga late July, bigla na lang may sumabog na IED. Kakapasok ko lang sa butas pero yung nakabuntot sa akin ang tinamaan sa likod ang aming sarhento (We passed by the alley for days. But in late July, an IED suddenly exploded. I was just getting into my foxhole but my sergeant, who was just behind me, got hit),” said the 27-year old Bicolano corporal.
The sergeant expired while on the way to a medic station onboard an armored personnel carrier.
The Scout Rangers later found out that their ill-fated colleague had stepped on a pressure-donated IED hidden beneath the pile of GI sheets.
Jay also said there were times when the enemy would throw Molotov cocktails at them while ascending structures they were already close to re-taking.
“Minsan kung mag clearing kami ng isang building, sinusunog ng mga kalaban. Isa yan sa mga nagpahirap sa amin. Minsan ang iba sa amin tumatalon nalang para lang hindi masunog (Sometimes, during clearing operations of buildings, the enemy would start setting them on fire. That’s what made things harder for us. Sometimes some us would just have to jump out to avoid getting burned),” said the corporal.
During these assaults on these buildings, the Scout Rangers would sometimes meet their enemies face-to-face or with just a wall separating them from each other.
“Minsan nga nag-aasaran kami, kantyawan pa. Kapag kinakatok namin ang pader, kumakatok din sila (Sometimes, we would jeer and heckle each other. And if we knock on the wall, they knock back),” Jay said, recalling the bizarre close encounter with the enemy.
It was sometime in August that the Scout Rangers started to feel that the end in the fighting was near.
“Inakyat namin yung mataas na building na nakuha namin, tiningnan namin ang lake. Nakaka-high morale nung makita namin kasi pakiramdam namin malapit na kami sa finish line (We went up a tall building we had re-captured. And from there, we saw Lake Lanao. It lifted our morale when we saw the lake because that was when we felt that the finish line was near),” Sgt. Jon said.
From the dozens of skirmishes, Sgt. Jon recalls that it was the battle for Banggolo that proved to be most formidable as it took them almost four months to prevail and be able to finally re-capture the four-lane Gomisa Avenue.
The encounters were from building-to-building as they inched their way towards the end of Gomisa, which bared the shores of Lake Lanao.
“Kahit na mahirap ang dinaanan namin dito at marami rin nalagas sa amin, proud pa rin kami sa aming accomplishment ditto (Even if we had a hard time, and many of us died, we are also proud of this achievement),” Sgt. Jon said.
As of October 22, some Ranger companies were still securing small portions of the main battle area beside the lake for some stragglers.
The five-month battle has cost the lives of at least 164 soldiers, 48 of them Scout Rangers, while hundreds were wounded.
Leave no man behind
For Sgt. Pete, a Scout Ranger who hails from Sultan Kudarat, the battle for Marawi underscored the strong bond among the soldiers.
“Dito namin lalong nakita ang kahalagahan ng bawat isa sa amin (It was here that we saw how important each one of us is),” he said.
Sgt. Pete recalled how a comrade was felled by sniper fire, and how his buddy stood by his lifeless body for over 14 hours to keep the terrorists from mutilating the fallen soldier.
“Andun lang sya nagcover, nakatayo sa pader sa tabi ng nakahandusay na buddy nya. Di sila na rescue agad dahil sa may naka-abang din na mga snipers para tirahin kung sino man lalapit (He just took cover by the wall, beside his fallen buddy. They couldn’t be rescued because there were snipers waiting for us to come in),” he added.
It took all of 14 hours before the team was able to eliminate the snipers, and got to where the stranded soldier and his dead comrade were.
“Sa aming kompanya, wala kaming patay na hindi na retrieve (In our company, no one was killed without his body being retrieved),” Sgt. Peter said.
Will to survive
After five months of fighting, Sgt. Jon, Corporal Jay, and Sgt. Peter emerged from the battle with beards, hair uncut and disheveled, their uniforms in tatters, their boots worn out.
For Sgt. Peter, the biggest prize was the elusive Isnilon Hapilon, whose death, together with Omar Maute, signaled the beginning of the end of the war.
“Natapos na rin siya dito sa Marawi (His end finally came here in Marawi),” he said, as he noted that his company had been on trying to hunt down Hapilon for months in the jungles of Basilan and Sulu.
For Sgt. Jon, he’s just happy that he survived the longest battle of his life.
“Siyempre may takot din, pero kelangan kong ma-survive, dahil nangako ako sa girlfriend ko na pakakasalan ko sya ngayong November (Of course, I was afraid. But I needed to survive. After all, I promised my girlfriend that I will marry her this November),” Sgt. Jon said with a smile.