MANILA, Philippines – He was shot in the head on January 25, 2015, and lost consciousness for a good 30 seconds before jumping back into action, ordering his men to throw hand grenades as they were being assaulted by enemy fire in Barangay Pidsandawan, Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.
But there are no regrets or self-doubt when Police Chief Inspector Rix Villareal, one of the team leaders during the now-controversial “Oplan Exodus,” is asked about life in the police force.
“[Kapag] nahirapan ka, syempre natural lang na yung tao [magdadalawang-isip]. Nahihirapan ka eh. Pero nauuna pa rin yung call sa duty mo. Kaya mo ginagawa iyon. Hindi para naman sa sarili mo yun. [Ginagawa mo] para sa bayan, laging para sa bayan; para sa pamilya, para sa kaibigan mo, para sa mga tao,” Villareal told Rappler in an interview a few days shy of the first anniversary of the operation.
(When you’re having a hard time, of course it’s natural for a person to have doubts. But the call of duty comes first. That’s why you’re doing it. It’s not for you. It’s for your country, always for your country. For your family, for your friends, for people around you.)
On January 25, 2015, close to 400 troopers from the Special Action Force, the elite striking unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP), entered Mamasapano to neutralize 3 targets: Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman and Malaysian Amin Baco.
The Seaborne’s stand
Villareal, who belonged to the 84th Special Action Company (SAC) or the Seaborne, was part of the operation’s “main effort,” the team assigned to arrest or kill the targets.
The Seaborne killed Marwan but hell broke loose right after. Blasts triggered by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the exchange of gunfire between the SAF troopers, Marwan and Usman’s forces alerted armed men and groups nearby.
By noon, or almost 8 hours after they killed Marwan, the Seaborne were “hit almost every minute as they ran for cover,” according to a testimony from Superintendent Raymund Train, team leader of the main effort.
In the neighboring barangay of Tukanalipao, the 55th SAC, the Seaborne’s support effort, would be pinned down by gunfire. The Seaborne decided to reinforce their trapped comrades, even if they themselves were overwhelmed by enemy fire.
Villareal was among the troopers who sought refuge at a nipa hut in the barangay.
“He was unconscious for 30 seconds when he was hit by a bullet in the head. When he regained consciousness, he fought back despite his wound. By late afternoon, he ordered [another SAF trooper] to throw hand grandes towards the enemies’ location. They held their position until the enemy stopped approaching,” read the PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI)’s report on the exchange.
The Seaborne held their ground until evening, eventually linking up with SAF troopers from the 42nd SAC at 11:30 pm – more than 12 hours after the fighting broke out.
Nine out of the 33 Seaborne troopers were killed during the clash. All but one of the 55th SAC died. All in all, more than 60 Filipinos lost their lives – 17 of them Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and at least 3 of them civilians.
‘They simply fade away’
When remembering “Oplan Exodus,” a wave of sorrow and pride hit policemen – generals who were part of the SAF in their younger years, SAF personnel who weren’t part of the January 2015 operation, and survivors alike. (READ: Tagaligtas: Pain, pride, and the PNP SAF)
In tributes around the country, this line is often repeated when the SAF is involved: “Troopers never die, they simply fade away.” It’s a line that reverberates throughout the entire unit and the PNP.
For those who’ve donned and are donning the distinct black beret of the Special Action Force, the unit is more than just that – it’s a brotherhood, it’s family. (READ: Farewell to ‘extraordinary warriors’)
Villareal, who has been with the SAF since graduating from the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) in 2010, has since left the unit to experience another aspect of policing. Though no longer with the SAF, he said the very essence of being a policeman always remains – serving others.
“Tawag ‘yan, ‘yung pagiging pulis. Hindi mo gugustuhin ‘yan pero calling, ‘di ba? Doon kasi makikita mo purpose mo, kapag pulis ka. ‘Yun pala purpose mo… public service,” he told Rappler.
(It’s a calling, being a policeman. You don’t necessarily want it but it’s a calling, right? There you find your purpose, when you’re a cop. Public service is your purpose.)
January 25, 2016 will be a bittersweet Monday for the PNP. They are celebrating 25 years of existence and remembering the 44 of their own who died in the bloody operation a year ago.
The Mamasapano clash became controversial not only because of its high death toll but especially because of the questions raised in its aftermath.
President Benigno Aquino III was criticized for his supposed indifference towards the clash, the extent of his involvement, and for allowing his friend, then PNP chief Alan Purisima, to take part in the operation despite the latter’s suspension. Aquino’s trust and approval ratings dipped to their lowest in March 2015.
The clash also derailed what would’ve been a smooth journey for the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the result of years of negotiations between the administration and the MILF.
But it’s neither the political implications nor the sadness that lingers when Villareal looks back at the controversial operation – it’s pride in knowing that his comrades fulfilled their promise to “serve and protect.”
“Kapag naisip ko, syempre nalulungkot ako dahil syempre, kapatid na ang turing namin sa isa’t isa. Nakakalungkot na wala na sila pero at least yung pagkamatay nila, may kabuluhan. Namatay sila para sa bayan, para sa Pilipino. Naiwan nila ‘yung pamilya nila pero at least hindi sila namatay na walang dahilan,” said Villareal.
(When I think about it, of course I’m sad because we treated each other like brothers. It’s sad because they’re gone, but their deaths weren’t senseless. They died for the country, for Filipinos. They might have left their families behind, but they did not die in vain.) – Rappler.com