5-year-old Mardiya, basketball and a 'satanic' ambush
MANILA, Philippines – She's only 5 years old. Mardiya Isahac shouldn't be sitting on the roof of a passenger Tamaraw jeepney along with heavily-armed men.
She shouldn't be witnessing a carnage that government officials in Sulu describes as "satanic" because it killed her mother, brother, sister and 20 other civilians – the worst massacre in Sulu's recent history – and because it happened on Eid al-Fitr, the day that marks the end of fasting in the Muslim world's most holy month of Ramadan.
But her young eyes saw everything. The bullets flew from the hills as the Tamaraw jeepney was plying the town of Talipao early morning of July 28, 2014. Her father Isahac grabbed her little body and his brother Abdulrahim's and they jumped out of the vehicle as the bullets kept hitting the Tamaraw.
Rappler spoke to Mardiya's elder sister Nurisa on the phone a week after the massacre. "Nakakalungkot talaga. Kung naaala ko yun.... (It's really heartbreaking. Every time I remember it...)." The line went quiet for a few seconds before she inhaled and forced a laugh. "Basta, nakakalungkot talaga (Never mind, it's really heartbreaking)."
Mardiya survived but when she woke up in the hospital, her left arm was gone and her face was covered with bandages because of shrapnel wounds. Her father and elder brother Alnijar, 18, who both sustained minor wounds, also survived.
The rest of her family didn't. Abdulrahim, 3, died. Their mother Tayta, 40, and sister Risalyn, 7, who were seated with Alnijar inside the vehicle, also died.
The Isahac family was travelling from Lumapid, where they live, to Lower Talipao to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr with relatives. But they climbed the wrong passenger jeepney.
The targets of the ambush, members of the Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (BPAT), were in that vehicle, seated with Mardiya on the roof of the Tamaraw.
A video circulating on Facebook shows the gruesome sight that greeted responding officials after the bloodbath. Heads blown up, mutilated bodies, and scattered limbs were retrieved from the bullet-ridden vehicle.
"This is un-Islamic and very satanic, after going through the holy month of Ramadan. Even animals could hardly inflict a damage of such magnitude," said the Sulu provincial government in a statement.
The miitary tagged Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group leaders Indang Susukan and Sibih Pisih as behind the ambush. Brigadier General Martin Pinto of the Sulu-based 2nd Marine Brigade said it was an act of retaliation against the BPAT members who have been helping the military drive away terrorists away from Talipao.
But the incident appears to be more complicated than that. Several accounts point to pagbanta – the equivalent of rido or clan war in Sulu – a kind of vendetta killing that has been pervasive among Muslim communities because of the weak justice system.
Basketball game turns violent
Catholic priest Father Romeo Villanueva told Rappler that a heated argument over a basketball game seems to have sparked a series of incidents that led to the July 28 bloodbath. He said this is the result of an investigation of a "reliable NGO," which refuses to be named because of security concerns.
"Sa barangay Lumapid, may ginawa doon ang Marines na basketball court. May nag-away na 2 at yung isa connected sa BPAT. Ang isa hindi pero siguro may connection sila sa ASG. Nagkaroon ng heated ng argument at binaril noong isa yung may connection sa BPAT. Tinamaan. Hindi namatay pero wounded (The Marines built a basketball court in Barangay Lumapid. Two people fought. One is connected to the BPAT. The other is not but I guess he has connections with the Abu Sayyaf. They had a heated argument and the BPAT got shot. He did not die but he was wounded)," the priest narrated.
Reports said one of those involved in the fight is a grandchild of alleged Abu Sayyaf leader Sibih Pisih.
"Diyan nag-start ang lahat. After that, may operation ang BPAT kasama ng mga Marines sa lugar na iyan. Hindi nahuli yung bumaril pero ang BPAT nag-atake sila at nagsunog sila ng bahay. May namatay. Hindi na-recover ang body, which is very hurting sa individual. Ang nangyari, siyempre, nag-organize itong other group para makaganti (That is how it started. After that, the BPAT conducted operations with the Marines and some houses were burned. Someone died but the body was not recovered, which is very painful to the individual. The other group, of course, organized to avenge what happened)," the priest continued.
It means it's not rido, or clan war, he said. "Retaliation sa ginawang pagsunog. Hindi rin intended na talagang mag-ambush. Kaya lang, noong nakita nila ang chance na maraming BPAT doon, nagkabakbakan (It's retaliation for the fire that happened. The ambush was not planned. But when they saw the BPAT members, they found an opportunity and firefight ensued)," Villanueva said.
Villanueva doesn't buy the military line that it was simply an Abu Sayyaf ambush. "The Abu Sayyaf is really running away because sugod ng sugod ang mga Marines. They cannot afford to be in one place lalo na Talipao 'yan. Maraming guwardiya ang BPAT," the priest said. (The Abu Sayyaf has been on the run. The military has been after them. And the BPAT also has many members.)
While there may still be Abu Sayyaf members among residents of Talipao, Villanueva said they have not been active lately because of the tight security situation. This, he said, has forced Abu Sayyaf members to do their kidnapping elsewhere – in Palawan and neighboring Malaysia.
The police chief confirmed that there was a heated argument over a basketball court in Lumapid, but he said this happened in 2013. He expressed doubt that it's connected to the July 28 ambush. He also denied an operation where government security forces, with the help of BPAT, burned down houses.
On Monday, August 4, a week after the massacre, police investigators are scheduled to file charges against Susukan, Pisih, and their followers for 23 counts of murder. Charges for frustrated murder and attempted murder will also be filed against them.
The police have another theory in relation to the ambush.
Talipao police chief Senior Superintendent Rudy Yusop points to a military operation on February 8, 2014, where the BPAT of Lumapid assisted the military in an attack that forced the Abu Sayyaf to flee Talipao. The residents provided intelligence information, he said.
"Doon siguro ang galit nila. Ayaw sa kanila ng residents ng Talipao. Gusto nila ng katahimikan salugar. Lahat ng 52 barangays sa amin nagtulong-tulong, lalo na itong mga LGU. Ayaw talaga namin na dito ang mga Abu Sayyaf magpugad-pugad," Yusop told Rappler in a phone interview.
(I think that's where it started. The residents of Talipao do not like them. They want peace. All 52 barangays here cooperated, especially the LGUs. We do not want the Abu Sayyaf to be camping here.)
The February 8 military offensive in Barangay Mabahay killed 6 Abu Sayyaf and wounded 6 BPAT members. This was followed by a series of fierce encounters between the military and the terrorists.
Government officials, the police and the military are concerned that the cycle of violence will continue. They have been visiting the familities of the victims to personnaly appeal to them not to exact revenge for the death of their loved ones.
The Isahac family said they're not blaming anyone for the crime.
"Mahirap ipaliwanag kung paano namin tatanggapin 'yun. Pero ang masasabi lang namin sa inyo, tanggap na namin yun (I cannot explain to you how one can accept what happened. But I will tell you, we have accepted it.)," said Nurisa.
But Nurisa has a prayer for the family. "Sana 'yung mga silang nawala ay mabuti ang kalagayan nila doon. At sana 'yung nandito ngayon sana mapabuti pa ang kalagayan namin (I hope that those who passed on are in a good place. And I hope that those of us who are still here will have better lives)," she said.
Mardiya has been quiet since she woke up in the hospital. She isn't crying. She's not complaining about her missing arm or about the bandages on her face. She isn't looking for her mother either.
"Siguro tanggap niya kasi hindi naman siya umiiyak. Hindi naman niya tinatanong kung nasaan na sila. Hindi niya binabanggit ang nangyari (I guess she has accepted it because she's not crying. She's not even asking where they are. She hasn't mentioned what happened)," Nurisa said.
Mardiya has always been a playful child. Nurisa hopes that what she witnessed will not change that. – Rappler.com