MANILA, Philippines – “I have been in the military service for 30 years and never defied tactical, operational or administrative orders from my superiors until that standoff in Position 68,” Colonel Ezra “Iking” Enriquez, 50, said in a public post on Facebook on September 2, a day after the unauthorized escape of 40 Filipinos from Syrian rebels.
“I made the right decision,” added the commander of the Philippine Battalion in the Golan Heights, who is described by his mistahs in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) as decisive and dedicated but low key.
Filipinos defied the order of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singha to surrender their weapons. Singha would later call the escape “an act of cowardice.”
Enriquez’s defiance of the UNDOF commander sparked a controversy that compared the leadership of the 2 men. Syrian rebels are still holding a group of 45 Fijian peacekeepers who were taken hostage after they followed Singha’s orders to surrender their firearms.
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Fiji Army Chief Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga defended Singha’s orders but he also spoke of “problems” in the UNDOF command when Enriquez filed a courtesy resignation after the escape of the Filipinos.
“I know there is now a problem with Command in the UNDOF hierarchy because of the resignation of the Chief of Staff because he important figure in the Force hierarchy in UNDOF,” Tikoitoga was quoted in news reports as saying in Fiji.
Irish Army Brigadier General Tony Hanlon has been assigned UNDOF deputy force commander, according to a report on the Irish Times.
Enriquez was in a tight spot. He was not only the commander of the Philippine battalion, he is also the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) chief of staff. It means Singha is Number 1 and he is Number 3 in the overall command of all the peacekeepers.
“He was caught in between his two jobs as Philippine battalion commander and as UNDOF chief of staff. He made the right decision. He showed his decisiveness and stability under extreme pressure,” said Colonel Bartolome “Bob” Bacarro. Enriquez and Bacarro, a recipient of the military’s highest Medal of Valor, were classmates in the PMA Class of 1988.
To Enriquez, the country prevailed and the crisis ended in the successful escape of the Filipinos from Syrian rebels – among them members of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front – who earlier rammed the gate of their encampment and fired at them with mortars and machines guns.
Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio “Jun” Abaya was also his mistah. “I always knew him as soft spoken, dedicated, level-headed, low key, steady and snappy officer. He would crack a few jokes once in a while…. Undoubtedly, given the way I know him, he made the right decision,” Abaya said in a text message to Rappler.
Failure of command?
To former Philippine defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr, Enriquez “took command in a situation where there was a failure in command,” he posted in a comment to Enriquez’s Facebook post.
“The UN must learn from this experience and never again should it place those serving under its banner in harm’s way. If there is any institution to fault it could be UN Security Council the all powerful body that trumps even the General Assembly for not formulating a clear policy and plan of action in the area,” Teodoro said.
The troops in Golan got the full support of their commanders in Manila. Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr found the order to surrender the weapons questionable and instructed his men to defy Singha.
But giving the go signal for the escape couldn’t have been easy for Enriquez. It could have ended very differently and officers in Manila said the Filipinos were very “lucky.” The Filipinos evacuated midnight on September 1 – while the rebels were sleeping – and walked nearly 2 hours to a secure location. There was no telling if one of the about 100 rebels they engaged in a heavy firefight hours before would catch them escaping.
The Filipinos were not convinced that the rebels would not take them hostage if they surrendered their weapons. The escape mission was hatched as the Filipinos monitored the Syrian rebels regrouping after the 7-hour firefight. “They will be massacred,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was quoted as saying in Manila.
Before his deployment to Golan, Enriquez was the Deputy of the Philippine Army Personnel Management Center (APMC). He is also a former commander of the Aviation Battalion of the Light Armor Division. He holds a Master of Management in Defense Studies from University of Canberra.
Hero or coward?
As the UN scrambles for the release of the Fijian peacekeepers, the crisis has turned into a blame game. While the Filipinos are hailed as heroes back home, Singha, who has been backed by the United Nations for his “good judgment,” told media in India that it was an “act of cowardice.”
Singha accused the Filipinos of jeopardizing the safety of the Fijian peacekeepers. If the Filipinos surrendered their firearms, he said, they and the Fijian peacekeepers would have been allowed a safe passage out of the conflict zone.
In Manila, support for Enriquez continues to pour out on Facebook, especially from his mistahs or classmates in the PMA who expressed how proud they are of his leadership in Golan.
As they joyfully recollected their cadet days on Facebook, Enriquez suddenly remembered another time he defied an amusing order from a superior. “Except the order of cadet “o” to write the name of his gf (girlfriend) 1M (million) times he he.”
The world can judge if the Filipinos did the right thing, but Enriquez’s men are safe and he’s getting the support of his commanders back home. Malacañang is already talking about a “heroes’ welcome” for the peacekeepers. – Rappler.com
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