Caught in Conflict: Golan Heights and Trapped Filipino Soldiers

Caught in Conflict: Golan Heights and Trapped Filipino Soldiers. Written by Bam Alegre and Lian Buan for SubSelfie.com

Co-written with Lian Buan

While Gilas Pilipinas is bravely representing the Philippines in the ongoing FIBA World Cup, we also have a different team of Filipinos who should make you feel proud. They are the 75 Filipino soldiers carrying the banner of the United Nations in the middle of a heated conflict in Golan Heights.

Heightened Tension

Golan Heights is a tense area between Israel and Syria.

It was formerly a Syrian territory but Israel captured it during the Middle East War in 1967. In 1974, Syria and Israel agreed to a ceasefire and signed a pact that forbids Syrian forces to enter the territory.

Golan Heights is under the protection of a peacekeeping mission from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) to avoid further violence. As part of our commitment to the United Nations, the Philippines has sent 75 soldiers to be part of the mission.

Our men and women are there to monitor the border and ensure peace in the area. They are stationed in the area of separation: a 70-kilometer strip of land from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk river frontier with Jordan.

Map of Golan Heights
Map of Golan Heights

Cornered in Confrontations 

Syrian rebels engaged our soldiers in an armed encounter yesterday (Saturday 11am, Manila time). Fortunately, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) immediately gave an assurance that all our soldiers are safe.

But our soldiers are called peacekeepers for a reason. Their primary aim is to look over the land. They are not war participants. It is not their duty to seek and defeat aggressive groups. According to the United Nations, peacekeepers only carry small firearms. They’re only allowed to use these under extreme circumstances.

But the Syrian rebels were interested in the firearms and arsenal of the peacekeepers. They detained 43 peacekeepers from Fiji and cornered Filipino soldiers in their station.

One of them was Master Sergeant Nelson Lagmay. He told my fellow GMA News reporter Ruth Cabal last Friday that the rebels have placed bombs in their station called “Position 68.”

According to M/Sgt. Lagmay, the rebels sent two of their Fijian colleagues into their station last Thursday. They initially thought the rebels were turning over the Fijians to them. But as it turned out, they made the two Fijians their messengers. Their demand: put down your arms.

AFP Spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told the press they have instructed the soldiers not to surrender. It is the mandate of our soldiers to hold their positions.

But M/Sgt. Lagmay explained another reason to defy the rebels:

“Yun nga pong kapwa kadugo nila, pinapatay nila, kami pa kaya. Kaya nag-decide kami na hindi isu-surrender ang mga baril namin.” (Even people who are related to them by blood, the rebels have killed them. What would stop them to do the same thing to us? This is why we have decided not to surrender our firearms.)

Another fellow GMA News reporter Mariz Umali talked to another Filipino soldier trapped in Position 68. His name is Corporal Allan Corpus. Explosions could be heard during their phone conversation, a clip of which aired last Friday on State of the Nation with Jessica Soho.

Corporal Corpus said they were not the target of the attacks. One possibility is that the Syrian Government were attacking the rebels. Nevertheless, whether they were the target or not, they were all in the same place:

“Ang naririnig niyo po siguro ay ‘yung pagbagsak ng artillery, siguro isang kilometro po mula sa amin. Hindi naman po sila nagpipilit, kinausap naman po sila, nakikipag-negotiate na po.” (What you are hearing are artillery rounds, about one kilometer from where we are. The rebels are not persistent. There are ongoing negotiations with them.)

View of Syria from the Israel-side of Golan Heights. Photo courtesy: photos8.com
View of Syria from the Israel-side of Golan Heights. Photo courtesy: photos8.com

The Rebels

Nusra Front is the rebel group responsible for the tension in the border. It has so far injured two Israelites: one is a soldier, another a civilian. They are the Syrian wing of the terror group Al Qaeda, the mastermind behind the deadly 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington DC, Virginia and Pennyslvania.

Firefights and explosions have recently lorded the beautiful horizon of Golan Heights. Syrian rebels have been making violent attempts to cross the border into Israel.

UN officials used backchannel talks with the supporters of Nusra Front to secure the safety of our soldiers as well as the Fijian peacekeepers the rebels earlier seized.

Nusra Front
Nusra Front

Meeting UN Peacekeepers

The 75 Filipino soldiers locked in a standoff started their deployment last December. In 2010, when I was still a segment producer, I did a story about the earlier batch of Filipino UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights.

In 2009, the Philippines sent 350 soldiers to Golan Heights. At that time, this was one of the most successful UN missions because the last reported violence there was in 1974.

Peacekeeping has been described as a “peaceful” job. Louis Charbonneau of Reuters calls it a job which “mostly found their biggest enemy to boredom.” Among the tasks were patrolling, minesweeping and engineering. My interviewees shared how other nations enjoyed the company of Filipinos. During their time, the majority of the mission voted a Filipino as the Force Commander of the contingent.

As of now, the Philippines has three peacekeeping missions with the United Nations:

  • Golan Heights (Philippine Army)
  • Liberia (Philippine Air Force)
  • Haiti (Philippine Navy)

But the peaceful situation in Golan Heights changed in the last three years because of the Syrian Civil War.

The conflict has spilled over to Israel but the Israeli government has said, over and over again, that they have no interest in the conflict. They would only respond if attacked or if there is a need for humanitarian aid.

Back in the Philippines after months of deployment
Shot in 2010. Back in the Philippines after months of deployment

The Cost of Peace

President Noynoy Aquino sounded confident last Friday that our soldiers will come out of this crisis alive and well. The families of the Filipino soldiers are praying for their safety.

Hopefully, our troops shall return. And when they do, there is an urgent need to review our participation in the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations.

Months before the crisis in Golan Heights, President Aquino threatened to pull out our crew until “they receive anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and are protected against chemical arms.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario would eventually echo that call. He even laid out conditions for the United Nations, one of which was for our soldiers to be provided the necessary equipment for protection and defense.

Just last week, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made a startling call: pull out the soldiers immediately because they were not properly equipped for battle:

“Our soldiers are not being given proper equipment for their protection while performing peacekeeping mission. We should not put our soldiers at risk.”

This is not the first time Filipino peacekeepers have been caught in the middle of conflict in Golan Heights. In March 2013, rebels abducted 21 Filipino peacekeepers but they were released after a few days.

After two months, four more Filipino peacekeepers were seized but were also safely released. These peacekeepers went on to tell the story of how they befriended their abductors, which they think was a big factor in their release.

And here we are today; our thoughts go out to the Filipinos and Fijians in Golan Heights and their families. Thank you for your duty to our world. Please come home soon.

Mine field in Golan Heights
Mine field in Golan Heights
Road block
Road block.

[Entry 45, The SubSelfie Blog]

Editor’s Note: The Armed Forces of the Philippines has confirmed that all of our soldiers have evaded the rebels this morning (Sunday, 5am Manila time). To escape the enemies, our troops walked on foot for over an hour to reach a nearby camp. Everyone is safe. But they will not go home to the Philippines immediately. They will finish their commitment to the United Nations until October 2014.

About the Authors:

Bam Alegre.
Bam Alegre is the founder of SubSelfie.com and writes from time to time as a guest contributor. He is a News Reporter for GMA News (2012) and an Instructor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the East (2015). He was also part of the team that won GMA News the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for the news coverage of super typhoon Yolanda (2013). Previously, he worked behind the scenes as a Segment Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho and 24 Oras (2009-2012). He is also the vocalist, pianist and guitarist of the band No Parking (2005). BA Broadcast Communication 2007, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.

Lian Nami Buan.
Lian Nami Buan is the Associate Editor of SubSelfie.com. She leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She also produces special reports for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.

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