Aquino and the #SAF44 families

MANILA, Philippines – It was a scene replayed 41 times with 41 families – 41 conversations of grief and pleas for assistance.

For over 12 hours on January 30, President Benigno Aquino III and members of his Cabinet met with families of 41 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers who died in a bloody clash with the Moro rebels. Two slain SAF troopers were earlier buried in Zamboanga, while the family of another chose to bring his remains to Bicol.

It was an intimate setting, a private dialogue between the powerful and the bereaved.

After the necrological service for the elite cops, the President stayed to speak to every family in Camp Bagong Diwa. He and his group left a little before 1 am. Among those with the President were Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Health Secretary Janette Garin, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Presidential Management Staff head Julia Abad, Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson, as well as officials from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, Commission on Higher Education, Department of Labor and Employment and the National Housing Authority. 

The meeting with families, the President, and Cabinet members was planned as early as Wednesday, January 28. On Thursday, Aquino received backlash for not being at the arrival honors in Villamor Airbase to welcome the bodies of the troops.

Most of the Secretaries did not expect the conversations to last until past midnight.  (READ: The women they left behind)

“[The families] were surprised that the President was giving them that much time, and that they were being attended to. They were very candid with how they felt and what they needed,” Soliman told Rappler. “The President really took time, and really listened to them. He was not rushing anyone.”

The President himself handed families a piece of paper detailing the amount of assistance the government would extend to them, and explain the amounts. Every family received P250,000 from the President's Social Fund, and varying amounts depending on the fallen cops' years of service, their pension, or their salaries.

This, in addition to whatever needs were conveyed by the families.

The questions to families were mostly the same: How many children did he have? How many family members did he support? Siblings? Parents? Do they have jobs? How can we help? What are your needs? And finally, Is there anything else the government can do for you?

The replies were just as varied. Most asked for help to put their children to school, others asked help to find jobs now that their breadwinners were gone. Still others asked for help finishing their homes, for health assistance, for social pension for the parents who were senior citizens.

By the end of the night, Cabinet secretaries and their departments had a list of names they would grant scholarships to, build homes for, give jobs to. Some Cabinet secretaries also served as translators, to encourage the families – who were more comfortable speaking in other dialects – to convey their emotions and needs to the president.

“The conversations were long because the President kept on asking families if they needed anything else. Even on their way out, they were asked if there was anything else they need, or wanted to say,” said Luistro.

Soliman said all of those who died were breadwinners, supporting siblings. Majority were leaving behind wives and young children.

'Overwhelmed'

The families were the loved ones of the 44 SAF troopers who have been hailed heroes.

On January 25, some 392 SAF commandos entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of the MILF and its breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. They were targeting two “high value targets,” one of them alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan.” The operation ended in the killing of 44 SAF troopers. (READ: Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target)

The incident occurred less than a year after the MILF signed a landmark peace deal with the Philippine government, and as lawmakers deliberate on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which seeks to create an autonomous region initially headed by the MILF.

The MILF blames the failure of the PNP-SAF team to coordinate with them for operations in known MILF territories, as provided for in a ceasefire agreement with the government.

Aquino got intense backlash for not being at the arrival honors for the fallen when the bodies landed in Manila on January 29. He was instead at the inauguration of a Mitsubishi car plant in Laguna – a decision netizens tagged as insensitive and unpresidential.

Luistro said “no family asked about the President's absence during the arrival honors" in their meetings with him.

Anger lingers

Soliman too said she did not feel any hostility, nor anger towards the President when speaking to the families. “There was anger, but it was anger at the situation. They kept repeating, ‘We want justice,’” she said.

Some families expressed appreciation for the help the government and the President extended to them, but with the pain still fresh, and questions regarding the operation still unanswered, others, even after the conversations with the President, expressed disappointment.

Erica Pabalinas, wife of police Senior Inspector Ryan Pabalinas was openly upset when interviewed the day her husband’s remains arrived home in General Santos City.

Asked about her conversation with Aquino, she said, “Walang kalaman-laman ang sinabi niya (His statements were empty).”

Others also said the money or help extended was not as important as knowing what happened during the failed mission.  (READ: Inside Mamasapano: When bullets ran out)

Soliman acknowledged there will be anger towards the government especially because “the grief is still very raw.” Luistro expressed hopes it would not last. – Rappler.com