Heroes are not born; they emerge because of certain circumstances, often through hard work and sheer courage. Fate may have chosen the brave 44 commandos of the PNP Special Action Force when they offered their lives for the country last year. But their training inside Fort Santo Domingo in Santa Rosa, Laguna has already prepared them for the worst.
Hardened by History
Built in 1877, Cuartel de Santo Domingo is a National Historical Landmark. It started as the headquarters of the Spanish guardia civil (civil guards) and eventually the Spanish Army as they clashed with the Katipunan. During World War II, it became a safe haven for the women of Laguna and became the center of commerce during the occupation of the Japanese. From 1957 to 1990, the fort belonged to the Philippine Army. In 1992, the camp became the responsibility of the Philippine National Police, particularly its elite unit — the Special Action Force.
Although the SAF troopers move with the precision of seasoned soldiers, they are not part of our Armed Forces.
The brainchild of former President Fidel V. Ramos, SAF policemen were envisioned to be the best and the brightest. Their signature black beret is a symbol of how they have moved heaven and Earth during training.
In recent years, Fort Santo Domingo became prominent as a detention facility for high profile personalities such as former President Joseph Estrada, MNLF founder Nur Misuari and pork barrel scam prime suspect Janet Lim-Napoles. As such, the camp has maintained a strict security protocol, especially after the Mamasapano clash.
However, back in March, newly appointed SAF chief Moro Lazo allowed me and my news crew to experience life inside the camp. Their morale may have taken a beating after the Mamasapano tragedy, but they said it just made them more passionate to fulfill their duty.
Coping with Commandos
Before the gallant men of the SAF 44 became martyrs in the eyes of many, they were students in this unconventional school. The SAF instructors may have given me permission to document their training but to preserve the integrity of their modules, I will not thoroughly discuss the specifics of their strategies. All you really need to know is that these aspiring commandos are in for a world of pain — blood, sweat and tears.
While it is important that the SAF troopers are in their prime when it comes to physical strength and endurance, the instructors also make sure they eat and breathe discipline, righteousness and respect in every aspect of their lives — to exorcise devils in the littlest of details, as wise men would put it. Commandos should have more brain than brawn so to speak.
The present commando course includes Internal Security Operations, Waterborne Rescue, Police Intervention, Barangay Module, Operational Testing, and Field Training Exercise. Aspirants will undergo this training for four months before accomplishing a test mission that will last for a month. The course will equip the commandos with rural and urban capabilities for crisis and emergency response.
The Legacy of SAF 44
Much has changed after the bloody encounter in Mamasapano, especially when it comes to the lesson plans for future commandos. According to an instructor, the Maguindanao clash is now an integral case study for teamwork, case scenario and field training exercises.
One would think that the deaths of the 44 commandos would have discouraged fresh recruits from joining the elite unit. But it only fueled the patriotic fire of the brave among us — including the brother of PSI Gednat Tabdi, one of the leaders of SAF 44 who also received a Medal of Valor for leading his team even though he was already bloodied. So it seems, courage runs in the blood of their family.
For those who are interested to join the ranks of our police commandos, here are the requirements from the official website of PNP-SAF:
For better or worse, the unfortunate clash in Maguindanao left a lasting imprint on the lives of those it has affected. Back in June 2015, guest blogger Karl Decena of Interaksyon.com shared his insights and observations after he visited the site where it all happened — Barangay Tukanalipao.
[Entry 119, The SubSelfie Blog]
Written by Karl Decena.
Six months after the fatal encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, I visited the exact place where the operatives of the PNP-Special Action Force stood their ground and drew their last breaths. It was almost an hour’s drive to Tukanalipao, the exact area where the bloody clash happened. While on the road, we were able to see the mansions of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao. People even lined up outside the house of the late Andal Ampatuan Sr. who died of cancer days prior.
While going to Mamasapano, it was evident that the roads leading to Tukanalipao were just newly constructed. While the encounter took many lives, it was a blessing in disguise for the locals who were showered with government projects since the incident.
Worth P940 million, these projects are lined up to improve infrastructure in Tukanalipao. It includes the construction of new farm-to-market roads, school buildings, irrigation systems and bridges. The infamous wooden bridge in the village will be replaced by a new steel bridge just a few meters beside it.
The new bridge and other projects are a big help for the residents of Tukanalipao especially corn farmers who won’t have difficulty selling their produce anymore. As one colleague put it, the Mamasapano clash turned to be bittersweet for the humble village. After all, it wouldn’t have been given such number of projects if the place had not been put into the spotlight by the incident.
After the trip to Mamasapano, our group had a quick stop at the Masjid Dimaukom, more known as the Pink Mosque, in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. The mayor of the town, Samsodin Dimaukon, reportedly funded the mosque from his own pocket. It is also one of the many structures in the area painted in pink: the municipal hall also has the same color.
We then proceeded to Camp Darapanan, a fortress of the MILF in Sultan Kudarat. For almost two hours, journalists asked questions to MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in an open forum. Even if the BBL is not passed, the MILF said it will still work on promoting peace and not resort to armed struggle again. “We’ll continue to demand the peace process,” Ebrahim said.
The MILF said that it is “ideal” that BBL be passed under the term of President Benigno Aquino III, as it is afraid that the next president may not support it. The MILF may or may not field candidates in the 2016 elections. Its political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, has already applied for accreditation from the COMELEC. With the presidential elections coming, the MILF has yet to know which candidate it will support.
A Climate of Anger
In another forum, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo minced no words calling out Manila journalists for their coverage of the Mamasapano clash and its aftermath, blaming them for creating a “climate of anger” towards the Moros since the incident.
The bloody incident left members of the PNP-Special Action Force and Moro Islamic Liberation Front dead after an operation to hunt terrorists Marwan and Basit Usman. “Media dished out one-sided arguments about the BBL,” Cardinal Quevedo said, mostly addressing journalists from Manila. “The Mamasapano tragedy suddenly exposed the entrenched biases and prejudices of the Filipinos especially media,” he added.
“Truth is not served by distorting information or disregarding context,” said Cardinal Quevedo, reminding us that while there were 44 SAF commandos hailed as heroes, there were also MILF members who were left dead — a fact that was allegedly widely unreported because of the “anti-Moro sentiment” of the Manila-based media.
Some of my colleagues from Mindanao whom I talked to also agreed with Cardinal Quevedo. One even expressed frustration that even when they do “unbiased” reporting, it would be drowned out by their Manila counterparts who are the ones heard and the ones who ultimately affect policy.
It is the aim of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the new Bangsamoro government to develop the poor provinces under ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) which will be abolished once the measure is passed. The BBL is the result of 17 years of negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF. But they expressed concern about the modifications lawmakers have made. While ideally the BBL will help delineate powers to the new Bangsamoro government for the quicker delivery of services, they said that definitions of the central government’s reserve powers and the exclusive powers of the Bangsamoro have been blurred in the current bill sitting at the House of Representatives.
They said that a “watered down” version of the original BBL would result to a Bangsamoro government even weaker than the ARMM that is criticized for having “defects” that have contributed to the underdevelopment of the region. “We support the passage of the (Bangsamoro Basic Law). While corruption issues can be resolved, good governance measures can be implemented… there are structural defects within the ARMM that can be resolved through the passage of the BBL especially peace. The BBL will not solve all problems but it is a good step,” ARMM executive secretary Laisa Alamia said.
A few days may not be enough for a sports journalist like me to appreciate all there is to appreciate about Mindanao and their battle for peace. But I have come to conclude for myself a simple insight about the South. After years of conflict and thousands of lives that have perished, bloodshed won’t solve anything. It’s about time for people in Mindanao to finally enjoy peace.
[Entry 97, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Authors:
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.
Karl Decena is a sports writer for Interaksyon.com of TV5. He was sent to Maguindanao last June for a conference on the ongoing peace process.