Provide your email for confirmation

Tell us a bit about yourself

country *
province *

why we ask about location

Please provide your email address

Login

To share your thoughts

Don't have an account?

Login with email

Check your inbox

We just sent a link to your inbox. Click the link to continue signing in. Can’t find it? Check your spam & junk mail.

Didn't get a link?

Sign up

Ready to get started

Already have an account?

Sign up with email

By signing up you agree to Rappler’s Terms and Conditions and Privacy

Check your inbox

We just sent a link to your inbox. Click the link to continue registering. Can’t find it? Check your spam & junk mail.

Didn't get a link?

Join Rappler+

How often would you like to pay?

Monthly Subscription

Your payment was interrupted

Exiting the registration flow at this point will mean you will loose your progress

Your payment didn’t go through

Exiting the registration flow at this point will mean you will loose your progress

Mamasapano: Sleepy town roused by SAF-MILF clash

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Although considered as a swampy area, the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao offers arable land for rice and corn.

Close to 5,000 families reside in this mix of plain lands and swamps, patiently tilling the land to bring food to their tables.

Aside from the fruits of the land, the town is also rich in freshwater resources including mudfish, catfish, and prawns.

Connected to other towns through streams and rivers, being close to the Liguasan Marsh, residents often travel using dugouts – boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks.

Because of its topography, the town of Mamasapano is easily flooded during the rainy season. This has greatly affected residents most especially with the recent increase in weather disturbances in Mindanao.

For decades, this sleepy town has been roused constantly by armed conflict, a quiet witness to battles between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and private armies.

Located 66 kilometers away from Cotabato City and about 1,682 kilometers from Manila, the town of Mamasapano has been deprived of many basic social services for years, worsened by decades of rule by political clans in the province.

Military sources say the complex maze of streams leading to the Liguasan Marsh and the lack of law enforcement has made the area a favorable ground for recruitment and training of rebel fighters and even a hideout for suspected terrorists.

After it broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front, the MILF maximized use of this marshland, including the town of Mamasapano, as their hideout, their “highway” to reach targets, and even as escape route.

In several instances, military sources said, rebel units easily disappeared in these areas – without leaving any trace – after launching attacks.  

The area, along with the nearby towns in the province and several areas in North Cotabato, have become the territory of the 105th Base Command, 106th Base Command, and the 118th Base Command.

The hunt for Marwan and Usman

Even before the operation launched by elite commandos from the Special Action Force on January 25, in pursuit of suspected Malaysian bomber Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and Abdul Basit Usman, Mamasapano had been the focus of special law enforcement and military operations over the past few years.

REINFORCEMENT. Government troops arrive in Mamasapano, Maguindanao after dozens of elite policemen under PNP-SAF were killed following a clash with Moro rebels on January 25, 2015. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem

REINFORCEMENT. Government troops arrive in Mamasapano, Maguindanao after dozens of elite policemen under PNP-SAF were killed following a clash with Moro rebels on January 25, 2015.

Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem

In October 2014, authorities arrested suspected bomber Abi Salman alias Sauman Usman in Barangay Tuka for multiple murder, multiple frustrated and attempted murder charges that were filed in Kidapawan City in 2009.

Salman, who was a P1.3 million bounty, was wounded after he tried to grab an M16 rifle from one of the arresting officers.

On June 10, 2014, an operation was launched in Barangay Libutan to capture the suspected bomber that detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) in Datu Unsay Ampatuan 4 days earlier. It killed a soldier and injured 3 others.

A firefight broke out during the operation, which began at 5:40 am and lasted for about two hours. The military reported that two suspects were killed, while 4 others were arrested.

A .50-caliber sniper rifle, IEDs, and a van were recovered from the suspects, former 6th Infantry Division spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso said.

It was later divulged that the target in the operation was Usman and that among those who were arrested was his wife. Usman was hurt but was able to escape, Hermoso said.

A few weeks after the operation, Rappler obained a cellphone video showing a hogtied man, face on the ground, surrounded by about 20 armed men believed to be soldiers. (READ: Caught on video: 'Soldiers' shoot man in cold blood)

They took turns hitting and kicking the man before they shot him repeatedly, emptying the magazines in their rifles. All in all, at least 50 gunshots were fired in the incident, as shown by the videe which clocked 4 minutes and 8 seconds. 

The Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the military arm of the MILF, identified the hogtied man as Muslimin Talib, the uncle of Usman’s wife. The incident happened in Barangay Libutan in the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao on June 10, 2014, the MILF said.

The military denied the allegations, asserting that it might be an old video.

At present, the status and location of Usman’s wife and the other suspects are unknown.

Feuds and smaller conflicts

The clashes in Mamasapano are not limited to government forces and rebel groups.

On June 9, 2014, a group of BIFF rebels jumped off from Mamasapano and launched simultaneous attacks against a military detachment and an MILF unit.

Much earlier, in October 2012, at least two people were killed and 4 others hurt after MILF and BIFF units clashed in the town. 

Von Al Haq, MILF vice chair for military affairs, however, explained that the incident was not connected to the disagreements of the group in the direction of the Bangsamoro struggle, but was a result of an unresolved family feud involving land disputes.

“This is a case of smaller units from the BIAF and the BIFM who have a family feud that was not settled,” Al Haq said.

The Ampatuans

The town has also been one of the “playgrounds” of the Ampatuan clan, which has reigned over the province for years.

In August 2013, a cache containing weapons and ammunition were dug up and recovered by the military in Barangay Manungkaling.

Colonel Prudencio Asto of the 6th ID believes that Andal Ampatuan Sr owns the stash of weapons.

In December 2012, lawyer Harry Roque, private prosecutor in the Maguindanao case, disclosed that they have been informed that massacre suspect Bahnarin “Datu Ban” Ampatuan is taking shelter inside the territory of the MILF's 106th Base Command, in a community near the Kabulnan River.

But Al-Haq said there is no way that local MILF units would protect suspects of the massacre. 

“These suspects are native inhabitants of Maguindanao and it so happened that it is an MILF-dominated area. But it would not mean that the suspects are mingling with us,” Al-Haq explained. 

'Dual citizens'

What’s more interesting in the area, a military official commented, is the presence of “dual citizens” who are flexible in terms of identity – whether they are MILF or BIFF.

Led by former MILF 105th Base Commander Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF splintered from the MILF over serious disagreements on the conduct of the peace negotiations with the government. He reportedly has the respect and loyalty of many of the sub-commanders and members of the unit.

After the split, Kato's former deputy commander and confidant Zakariah Goma assumed the post of 105th base commander.

Such dynamics were highlighted again after speculations surfaced that the MILF and the BIFF operated together during the January 25 Mamasapano clash.

BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama explained there was no tactical cooperation between two fronts at the time, but he said that in the communities, the labels "MILF" and "BIFF" are only letters.

"In the communities, we are friends and relatives. When we pass by each other, we embrace and wish everyone. 'Salam.' There are no other identities on the ground except that we are all family," Mama said.

Mama explained that there is nothing political in the community dynamics; it is understandable for them to defend their own kin.

"I do not see it as a betrayal to their original organization. It is about protecting the welfare of your family. If someone in your family is being hurt, it is only normal for you to come and defend him regardless of your beliefs," Mama said.

For Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chair for political affairs, the Central Committee sees no political and military gain in cooperating with the BIFF.

"The 105th Base Command will not cooperate with the BIFF because in the first place, the BIFF does not like us. Second, we also do not agree with the activities of the BIFF. And third, the 105th Base Command and the entire MILF would not do anything that would violate any provisions of the peace process," Jaafar said.

With these dynamics ruling over the town for years, the residents are already veterans in swiftly packing their belongings and fleeing to safety whenever a firefight erupts.

WAITING. Children affected by the conflict in the village of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao are seen with their parents waiting for the distribution of relief assistance. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem

WAITING. Children affected by the conflict in the village of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao are seen with their parents waiting for the distribution of relief assistance.

Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem

For now, hundreds of residents are anxious, fearing that the hostilities would escalate after the botched operation in their town.

All aspects of their life are affected, including their source of food and water, education, and livelihood activities.

With reports of dead commandos falling into the river, residents now cannot even catch fish for their families.

But they will patiently wait until it is safe to go back home. – Rappler.com