SAF survivor kills unarmed rebels, civilian

Patricia Evangelista

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SAF survivor kills unarmed rebels, civilian
An MILF fighter tells Rappler that SAF commando Christopher Robert Lalan killed rebels who were asleep in a mosque the day after the January 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao

 In an interview with Rappler reporter Patricia Evangelista, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel Mama Dagadas describes a massacre inside a mosque the day after policemen from the 55th Company of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) clashed with the MILF and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on January 25.

Dagadas points to “a man from the water lilies,” a man he believes is the 55th SAF company’s single survivor that day, PO2 Christopher Robert Lalan, as responsible for the January 26 killing of 4 sleeping rebels in a Tukanalipao mosque.

Further interviews describe the alleged shooting of a 5th victim, a civilian, whose family also holds Lalan responsible. 

MAMASAPANO, Philippines – At a little past noon on January 26, 2015, behind the cornfields by the Tukanalipao bridge, Mama Dagadas, 40, a corn farmer and a member of the 105th Base Command of the MILF, stood up from his second prayer of the day, stepped out of the small woven wood mosque, took a bath in the shadow of the banana trees, and was putting on his pants when he saw a man appear from the nearby field of water lilies. 

The man was naked except for a pair of camouflage pants. He was skinny, said Dagadas, covered in mud and not particularly tall.

Dagadas thought it was a joke. He thought the man with the 45-caliber pistol was a comrade from the 105th.

The encounter between SAF commandos and MILF and BIFF troops had occurred the day before. A ceasefire had been called. Soldiers and policemen were out on the highway, waiting for the last of the bodies to be brought out. Dagadas and a number of his fellow rebels believed it was safe to come home.

“He was running,” said Dagadas. “He was there all of a sudden.”

The man began shouting. The bullets went flying. Dagadas himself was unarmed. He ran, shouting a warning to the fellow rebels he had left sleeping inside the mosque.

The man with the gun gave chase. Dagadas went deep, past the mosque, past huts, past cornfields higher than a man’s head, ran all the way to the next river until he could no longer hear the man from the water lilies.

Dagadas returned to the mosque armed, with reinforcements.

The men inside the mosque could have been asleep, if not for all the blood.

One man had an arm thrown over his eyes, as if he were still trying to shut out the sun. Another had his head on the ruffled blue pillow. A third lay on his side. The last, the fourth, had his body half in, half out of the wide door.

None of them were armed. All of them were dead from gunshot wounds to the head, except for one, who had been shot in the leg and chest.

They were shot by a pistol, Dagadas said. An armallite would leave different holes, he said.

Around Dagadas, the sunburned soldiers of the MILF, men trained to kill and to defend, began to weep.

“We knew it was the lone survivor,” Dagadas said. “But it was too late to find him.”

The 4 who died in the mosque were Omar Dagadas, Ali Esmail, Musib Hasim and Rasul Zukarnin, all men younger than Dagadas.

Story of the lone survivor

On Sunday, January 25, two units of the PNP-SAF entered the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao, with the intent to arrest top terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir (Marwan) Abdul Basit Usman. (READ: Timeline Mamasapano clash)

The official list of casualties includes 44 SAF troopers, 18 MILF rebels, and at least 3 civilians. 

There is controversy over the lack of SAF coordination with both military and the ceasefire panel, and doubts from politicians and the public as to whether the Bangsomoro Basic Law should be passed at all following the carnage.

Police Officer 2 Christopher Robert Lalan, one of 36 members of the 55th SAF company that served as the blocking force in Barangay Tukanalipao, was the lone survivor from his unit.

An ABS-CBN report described Lalan as “calm but angry” in an interview after his escape.

The painful narrative he tells details the courage of the men of the 55th SAC, pinned down from all directions while waiting for reinforcements that never came. It was Lalan who spoke of the classmate who diverted enemy fire and died to give Lalan the chance to escape, and it was Lalan who spoke of the desperate last stand of the SAF policemen. 

“Some of the others were already dead,” Lalan said. “Some had run out of bullets, were injured, were just lying there.”

It is the story of his escape from the encounter that has quickly become the stuff of legend.

How he ran, while another police officer took fire to aid his escape; how he jumped into a pond, while snipers took aim; how he wedged himself under the water lilies of Tukanalipao; how he crawled out of the water and took aim; how he managed to acquire the guns of rebels; how he took down eight men in hand-to-hand combat; how he carried a rosary; how he was blocked by ten armed men; how he listened for the sound of the road while seeking his escape; how he commandeered a bicycle from a civilian; how he finally managed to ride out to the highway to the safety of the waiting soldiers.

In his eulogy for the SAF’s 44 dead, PNP-SAF Officer-in-Charge Noli Taliño spoke of Lalan’s escape from certain death. “He is the lone survivor from our 55th special action company,” Taliño said. “If you will just hear his story, it’s really like the movie Lone Survivor.”

WHERE HE HID. The water lilies of Tukanalipao. Photo by Patricia Evangelista / Rappler

The man from the lilies

What is known, officially, is that Lalan, a former catechist from Ifugao province, escaped from the field into a pond of water lilies sometime in the afternoon of January 25.

It is after his leap into the water that the story diverges.

GMA Network quotes a police Board of Inquiry session, where Lalan allegedly narrated that he encountered 8 rebels who tried to wrestle away his rifle just after he surfaced, and that he had killed all of them with a knife and his special training in hand-to-hand combat.

The Philippine Star, in its story, said Lalan found his way blocked by 10 MILF guerillas and was “firing his rifle, raking its muzzle from one side to another,” leading to the death of 5 rebels and Lalan’s subsequent collection of an armful of guns.

In an interview he granted GMA Network on the evening of January 26, hours after his escape, Lalan is shirtless, drinking bottle after bottle of water. Reporter Jiggy Manicad described him as dirty, and still visibly afraid. Lalan said that he stayed under the water lilies, well aware a pair of rebels had aimed rifles in his direction.

“They sniped at me twice, but they missed. They thought I was gone.”

It is unclear what time Lalan surfaced from the water lilies. He said he was searching for a place to hide, but stumbled on a handful of rebels he said were hunting for guns. He gave chase to one.

“I chased him and chased him,” he said. “He was heading to a house like this. His companions were there, sleeping. 

“I was lucky they were sleeping deeply, so I took their…”

The last 3 or so words are barely audible. Manicad, in his report, said that Lalan had managed to steal a gun from the sleeping rebels.

‘101% sure’ it’s Lalan

Toks Upham is one of the MILF’s investigators in the joint Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) between the government and the MILF, which is tasked to monitor violations of the ceasefire pact signed by both sides.

Upham said they know it’s Lalan who killed the 4 rebels who were sleeping in the mosque on January 26.

“We know it was the lone survivor,” he said, “because of the phone call I got.” 

Upham had been assisting in arranging the extraction of bodies in Tukanalipao, and was on his way home early afternoon of January 26, when he received a phone call from an MILF commander.

“He said there was a SAF-PNP survivor who had stolen a gun and had shot all the people sleeping inside the mosque,” Upham recalled. “The men had prayed inside the mosque, and after they prayed they went to sleep, because they thought the ceasefire was in effect and no one was coming in.”

He added: “They didn’t know there was a survivor.”

Butch Malang, head of the MILF secretariat of the CCCH, also said that it was Lalan who killed the unarmed.  

“It’s true,” he told Rappler on Monday, February 23. “Without any doubt and a hundred one percent, that lone survivor killed the 4 men and the civilian,” Malang declared. “As we say in Maguindanao, Linatalah. As Allah is my witness, I am telling the truth.”

Dead in the mosque

This is the sequence of events, as told by Mama Dagadas.

On January 25, the men of the 105th Base Command of the MILF responded to fire from an unknown enemy at a cornfield at the bottom of the Tukanalipao bridge. The men are later told there is a ceasefire, and leave the area after the encounter.

The following day, Monday, January 26, a number of rebels from the 105th return. Five of them pray inside a mosque behind the encounter site. Four of them sleep. The fifth, Dagadas, finds himself being shot at with a pistol by a man who comes running from the direction of the water lilies.

Dagadas shouts, runs, and returns with a group of guerrillas to find all 4 sleeping rebels dead from gun shot wounds.

The man from the water lilies, the one they have now named “the survivor,” proceeds to cut across the fields to the Tukanalipao bridge, and on his way shoots and kills a civilian named Mohammad Ambilang.

He then makes his way to the highway, and is rescued by the military, leaving behind 5 dead bodies.

Jahara Lintangi, whose grandson owned the bicycle that Lalan rode to the main road, said she and other residents who had hidden in a few houses down the road saw Lalan – dressed in camouflage pants with a single rifle over his shoulder – pedal his way up to the cement. The bicycle had been leaning against the back of the house. 

Residents said Lalan asked them where the center was. Very few understood what he meant. Finally he went down the road in the direction of Rajahbuayan, where much further down, the military’s 45th Infantry Battalion was waiting.

In the timeline presented by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, at 2:10 in the afternoon of January 26, Bravo Company of the 4th IB picked up “One (1) survivor of the PNP-SAC.”

In a report by the Inquirer, sourced from the military, Lalan was then brought to the 45th IB headquarters to join other SAF commandos.

“An angry Lalan kicks one of his comrades,” says the report, “demanding to know why reinforcements never came to support the two SAF groups that went in for the operation as planned.”

The man from Libutan

The investigation of the MILF members of the CCCH did not end with the 4 sleeping in the mosque.

Both Upham and Mama Dagadas added another name to the death toll on January 26.

There is a 5th, they said. His name was Mohammad Ambilang.

“He was a civilian.”

Mohammad Ambilang’s family lives in Libutan, a village in Mamasapano, about 5 kilometers away from the encounter site.

Ambilang’s mother is angry. His wife is barely able to speak. 

On the morning of January 26, Ambilang, 33, motorcycle driver and father of two, left home with 4 other male relatives to gather an elderly aunt’s belongings from her home in Tukanalipao. The aunt had evacuated to the Ambilang home in Libutan, several villages away from the scene of the encounter.

“Here in Mindanao we’re used to war,” said Ambilang’s sister Lugaya.  “They don’t just end suddenly, sometimes it takes months. That’s why my aunt asked for help picking up her things.”

The group of men left Libutan at one in the afternoon. They took a tricycle and were at the Tukanalipao bridge when they heard shouting 

“We heard someone shout for people to be careful, that there was a surviving policeman,” said Ambilang’s 51-year-old uncle Mataya Sangki. “When we saw the policeman, we all ran. We split up. We didn’t see Mohammad.”

There were gunshots. Ambilang was the last to run, said his uncle.

“After the gunfire we couldn’t find Mohammad, so we went back to look for him. Someone went up to us and asked us if we were with Mohammad, because he was dead.”

They found a bloodied Ambilang at the bottom of the bridge. He had been shot in the back, the bullet leaving a neat hole through the bottom of his blue shirt. He was carried home, and buried the same day behind the family home.

What hero?

“We keep seeing on TV how that survivor is being called a hero,” said Lugaya. “I hope he is struck by conscience over the family my brother left behind. I hope he is haunted by his conscience.”

Mohammad Ambilang’s daughters Faridah and Al-Ranya, both toddlers, ask often where their Papa is.

FATHERLESS. Three-year-old Omulher, daughter of Omar Dagadas, one of four MILF rebels allegedly killed on January 26. Photo by Patricia Evangelista / Rappler  

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman, in his presentation to the Senate, lists 3 civilians killed as a result of the Mamasapano encounter: Sarah Pananggulon, 8;  Badruddin Langalan, 23; both killed on Sunday, January 25; and Mohammad Ambilang listed as 30 years old and killed on January 26.

 In the aftermath of the deaths at the mosque, Mama Dagadas took his family to live with cousins in the town proper. It was dangerous in Tukanalipao, he said. Who knew what men might come in?

Now he is back, wife and son tucked away in their own home. He sits under the thatched roof of a small rotunda, smoking a cigarette just a few feet from where the man from the water lilies decided to abandon his chase.

He no longer prays at the mosque, nobody does. The blue pillow printed with a pattern of smiling Hello Kitties sits abandoned, a cloudy brown stain where the head of a dead man once rested.

There is blood everywhere – spattered on the cement, smeared on the linoleum, still sticky from the boots of the men who carried out bodies that Monday in January.  

Dagadas is philosophical. Everyone dies anyway, he says. His cousin, Omar, was killed in the mosque. He only wishes the children didn’t have to go hungry.

Dagadas is not sure if his return home will be permanent. The corn must be harvested, the chickens fed. If war breaks out, he will take his family back to town. He hopes his son will never have to be a rebel. He hopes the peace process will push through. (READ: The mourners of Mamasapano)

“Nobody has come home here,” said Dagadas. “We’re the only ones who came home. My brother hasn’t come home yet. I’m the only one.”

He has few regrets. Regrets do not matter, he said, once people are dead. –

Editor’s note: In the past days, Rappler contacted CCCH head Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr, MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and PNP-SAF Officer-in-Charge Noli Taliño for comment. They did not respond to our calls or text messages. On Monday, February 23, at the resumption of the Senate probe into the clash, Galvez admitted in an ambush interview that he has “heard” of the report but “we’re still verifying.” The PNP Board of Inquiry has in its possession Lalan’s affidavit, which makes no mention of this incident, according to a senior police official. The AFP’s 6th Infantry Division spokesperson Capt. Joan Petinglay said they cannot comment in relation to the Mamasapano incident. GPH chief peace negotiator Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and GPH-CCCH secretariat head Maj. Carlos Sol both said they will await the results of the independent investigation being conducted by the International Monitoring Team.

All quotations in Filipino and Maguindanaoan have been translated into English.






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