MARAWI CITY, Philippines – It was almost midnight on the first day of the war, May 23. First Lieutenant Geraldo Alvarez of the 4th Mechanized Brigade left the military headquarters in Marawi City with 19 men and two armored vehicles to rescue a wounded officer and bring in reinforcement troops.
“Paglabas ko doon sa brigade, nakakahinala na lahat ng paligid (As soon as I left the brigade headquarters, there was something suspicious about the surroundings),” he told Rappler in an interview.
Little did they know they were on their way to face the biggest battle of their lives. It was a 5-day battle that earned Alvarez the nomination to receive the coveted Medal for Valor, the highest and most rare combat award.
(*This video is part of Rappler’s 35-minute documentary on Marawi. Watch it here: DOCUMENTARY | Marawi: 153 days of war)
The now infamous Baloi Bridge – nicknamed “Mapandi Bridge” by locals – gave his team its first obstacle. Bullets came out flying as they approached one of 3 bridges on Agus River that separated the area controlled by local terrorist groups linked with international terrorist network Islamic State (ISIS) and the government troops.
The Maute fighters also parked a vehicle to block one end of the bridge. “Nagkataon naman na kayang-kaya naman banggain ng tangke ko. Binangga ko siya (It was okay. The armored vehicle was able to ram its way through.),” Alvarez said.
But greater danger waited for them past the bridge.
He would learn that armored vehicles can only do so much against the high-powered weapons of the enemy. The rude awakening came when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into their vehicle.
His driver frantically maneuvered away from enemy reach, but the vehicle engine soon went dead. The Maute fighters leaped out and pursued them. “Nag-set sila ng parang killing zone (We found ourselves in their killing zone),” said Alvarez.
Alvarez knew they had to get out of the vehicle before the Maute fighters fired at them again. But it was easier said than done. He asked his troops in the other vehicle to dismount first so he could check the situation of the men with him after they were hit by RPG.
“Sabi ko, ‘Dismount kayo.’ ‘Sir, hindi kami makalabas agad kasi pinapaputukuan. So ginawa nila, ‘timing, timing.’ Hanggang naka-timing sila at naka-dismount (I said, ‘Dismount.’ They said, ‘Sir, we can’t dismount because they are firing at us.’ They waited for a perfect time they could dismount.),” said Alvarez.
Two men down
When the smoke from the explosion cleared, he saw how badly his men were hurt. They were all groaning in pain.
“Hinila ko si late Private [Junie Berth] Purlas. Sinandal ko siya pero humiwalay naman yung baiwang niya noon. Idinikit ko na lang (I pulled late Private Purlas up but his waist had been separated. I tried to put it back),” he said.
“Pagtingin ko sa isang paa, akala ko kaniya. Hindi pala. Yung isang tropa ko pa. Si Private [Roel] Cabonita Jr. Nakakita ako ng tali at pansamantalang itinali ko muna (I saw a leg and I thought it was also his. It wasn’t. It belonged to Private Cabonita. I saw a rope and tied his leg into place),” he said.
The wounded men crawled and dropped themselves out of the vehicle if only so they could dismount. They applied first aid on each other while they repelled the fierce enemy attack.
Alvarez positioned men temporarily blinded by the explosion behind guns. “Si-night ko muna ang mga baril nila. Sabi ko, ‘Huwag niyo muna galawin. Kakalabitin niyo na lang. Gamitin niyo na lang sense of hearing niyo (I myself aimed their guns so they only needed to pull the triggers. I told them to use their sense of hearing),” he said.
Daylight came and they asked for rescue. But by then troops couldn’t cross Baloi Bridge anymore.
Cabonita would later die from his wounds. “Sabi niya, ‘Sir, uhaw uhaw na ako.’ Kapag masyadong wounded, hindi masyado pinapainom. Dip dip lang ng kaunti. Pagbalik ko sa kaniya, parang inayos na lang niya sarili niya hanggang sa nalagutan na siya ng hininga (He told me he was very thirsty. If you’re badly wounded like that, you are not supposed to drink. I just moistened his lips. When I got back, he had arranged himself before he took his last breath).”
Alvarez didn’t have enough men to secure the area for a chopper to land safely and rescue them. A Philippine Air Force pilot still tried but enemy snipers fired at him, forcing him to leave.
Alvarez and his men sought cover in houses nearby. They tried to restore the other vehicle, but to no avail.
Alvarez asked for help from the 49th Infantry Battalion, the unit they were supposed to reinforce. But the enemy had concentrated between their locations.
“Sabi ko, ‘Bok, baka ako naman pwede humingi ng tulong mo. Sabi sa akin, ‘Sir, sorry. Hindi kita malapitan kasi in between sa atin marami rin. Pero may nakuha kaming radio nila na naiwan. Lahat sila mag-consolidate sa location mo (I said, ‘Mate, can we ask for your help? He told me, ‘Sir, sorry. We couldn’t get near you because there are enemies between our locations. We also recovered a radio from the enemy. They’re planning to consolidate in your location),” he said.
Alvarez ordered his men to hold the line. They were on their own for days.
Heroism in Marawi
The gunner and the driver of the remaining armored vehicle worked non-stop to repel the enemies.
“Kami ang bumabagbag hanggang napagod na ang gunner ko. ‘Yung driver, jockeying palagi yan. Atras abante. Siya bumabagbag sa snipers. Banda hapon, pagod na talaga siya (We fired back at the enemy until my gunner was exhausted. The driver was constantly jockeying to avoid enemy fire),” said Alvarez.
Later in the afternoon on the 2nd day, the armored vehicle ran out of bullets. The driver volunteered to get the ammo left from the other vehicle disabled by RPG.
He was loading bullets when he was hit on the side by an enemy sniper. He mustered enough strength to get inside the vehicle.
“Nakapasok pa siya sa loob ng vehicle. Nakapag-jockeying pa. Sabi ko, ‘Hindi masayadong malala ang tama niya.’ Kaya lang napansin namin yung jockeying niya, yung atras-abante niya, iba na. Hindi na niya sinusunod ang kalsada. Ni-radyo na nalagutan na siya ng hininga (He was hit on the side while loading bullets into the gun. He was able to go inside the vehicle and drive. I thought his wounds were not so serious. But we would later see that his driving was off. They radioed us that he died),” Alvarez said.
The bullets he retrieved killed enemies that attempted to get near them.
The enemies upped their game, throwing molotov cocktails at the house they occupied to flush them out. Alvarez lost another man to enemy sniper.
The enemies asked them to surrender. “Huwag niyo na pahirapan sarili ninyo (You don’t’ have to suffer anymore) ,” the Mautes shouted.
But soldiers do not surrender. “Hindi naman kami susuko sa ganiyan. Return fire kami. Akala nila kaunti na lang kami (We don’t surrender just like that. We returned fire. They thought there were a few of us left.)”
The enemies were silenced when a chopper arrived and launched rockets towards enemy locations.
On the 4th day, May 26, two companies came to rescue them but had to withdraw when it suffered casualties.
It would take another day for them to get out of there. Instead of waiting to be fetched, they “shared the risk” and decided to meet at a nearby ricemill where choppers could safely land.
Firefight broke out as they headed for the ricemill.
“Doon kami nagkita-kita. Halos di nila ako makilala kasi parang uling na itsura ko (That’s when we were rescued. They almost couldn’t recognize me. I was as black as charcoal).”
The soldiers hugged each other. Alvarez brought home 15 of the 19 men he had with him on May 23.
“Feeling ko tinulungan kami ng Diyos kasi kahit na yung mga bala nasa tabi lang tumatama. Parang nilayo kami sa bala (I felt that God really helped us there. We were saved from the bullets),” he said.
It would take the military two months to regain control of Baloi Bridge and another 3 months to end the war.
The bloodiest day of the war also happened in the area, on June 9, when 13 marines were killed when molotov cocktails forced them out of their defensive positions.
Alvarez stayed in Marawi throughout the war, leading his men in rescuing soldiers and bringing in reinforcement troops and supplies. – Rappler.com
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