ZAMBOANGA CITY – It was Friday morning, July 31, when some 3,000 young schoolchildren marched around the city center of Lamitan, Basilan Province, to cap the Nutrition Month celebration. The children and their teachers had no idea that earlier in the day, roughly five kilometers from the parade venue, a car loaded with bombs was heading to the town center.
Many would have been maimed and killed, but four gallant militiamen and their Army commander gave their lives to prevent what would have been a bloodbath.
It was 5:15 in the morning at a checkpoint manned by a team of militiamen under the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU), when a van was flagged down for a routine inspection. The van stopped but when its driver, accompanied by a lone passenger, could not restart the engine, the militiamen pushed the van to the roadside.
The ‘Loudest’ blast
Suspicion began to arise when the driver, asked about the contents of the large drum inside the vehicle, didn’t speak any of the local dialects and instead responded in English. The driver said it contained oil—but by now the alert CAFGUs wanted to inspect the vehicle further. One of them rushed on his motorcycle to the Scout Rangers camp located 500 meters away for security assistance.
As seven Scout Rangers alighted from their truck parked 30 meters away from the van, now surrounded by the militiamen, it suddenly exploded—emitting the loudest blast ever heard yet in the island province.
Four militiamen, their Army Special Forces commander, and four civilians were killed on the spot. Six of the responding Scouts were wounded.
"Our truck momentarily jumped above the road from the force of the explosion", Scout Ranger Corporal Romeo Tabon Jr. said when interviewed at Western Mindanao Command's Camp Navarro Hospital, where he and his colleagues are being treated for wounds.
Tabon said the trees around the blast site were totally defoliated or burned, their trunks peppered with shrapnel. An electric post leaned, with its severed transmission wires tortuously hanging down. The explosion created a crater, two feet deep and three meters wide.
For the CAFGU volunteers, their years of manning the highly-critical security checkpoint paid off that morning, even if it cost the lives of five of their fellow militiamen—one of their wounded companions died in the hospital five days later.
"I instantly dropped to the ground when the van exploded," said Gregorio Inso, who survived unscathed along with his twin brother Geronimo, both of them on-duty and were in their sandbagged outpost located about 10 meters from the van. Their outpost was totally wrecked.
'He died a hero’
Gregorio was still shell-shocked days later as he tearfully recounted that his wife Rosa was near the van and was obliterated right where she stood. He pulled away his wounded Cafgu brother Gerry, the one who later died in a hospital in Zamboanga City.
"Gerry is a hero, he died to save Lamitan's children from the terror attack", Gregorio Inso said. And like Gerry, all the CAFGUs and soldiers at the incident's scene were heroes, too, of the government's anti-terrorism campaign, said Lt. Col. Jonas Templo, commander of the 74th Infantry Battalion.
Templo's battalion camp is located only about a kilometer away and his Quick Response Team was the first to arrive at the scene to rescue the wounded and maintain order. The official has put up a tarpaulin signage in front of the cratered road that in part, said: “THEIR SACRIFICES PREVENTED THE LOSS OF MORE LIVES OF LAMITENOS.”
To remember their "heroism," the military official called on the locals to remain vigilant and notify authorities "for any suspicious people or activities happening in their locality."
18 years of service
The three Inso brothers have been CAFGU members for 18 years, guarding at that Barangay Bulanting checkpoint. A nephew is also a paramilitary volunteer.
"We joined the CAFGU to protect our families and communities around this area from lawless and terrorist violence," Gregorio Inso said. Their outpost, he proudly declared, "discouraged potential attacks by the terrorists and others like them."
"The bombing of our checkpoint does not frighten us. We will continue to be there until God's will to protect our Lamitan town," he added.
In recent years, Lamitan has been subjected to bombings, mostly small in magnitude and had resulted to minimal loss of lives. The coastal city is home to a sizeable Christian population living in harmony with the Yakans and other Muslim tribes. The towns next to Lamitan teem with Abu Sayyaf Group bandits, Bangsamoro rebels, and more recently reportedly include ISIS adherents.
The ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon, who led the Marawi attack is a native of the island, the birthplace in 1992 of the ASG. Some of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attackers in the 2013 Zamboanga Siege were from Basilan, Col. Templo said, as he outlined how his Army battalion is waging a campaign against extremist violence Basilan, lying only 14 nautical miles away from the Zamboanga peninsula tip.
Five days after the deadly explosion, President Rodrigo Duterte visited the wounded and met with the relatives of the Cafgu casualties at the hospital of of Western Mindanao Command (WESMINCOM) in Zamboanga. He awarded the wounded with the Order of Lapu-Lapu, and extended to them monetary assistance, including the survivors of the civilian casualties.
"He congratulated us for our bravery," Scout Ranger Corporal Tabon said.
However, on the day of the President's visit, Gerry Inso expired in Zamboanga Ciudad Medical, where his wife who lost a hand remains there for further treatment. It is a bittersweet reminder of the challenges that Lamitan residents must endure as they look ahead to prevent a similar atrocity from taking place in their beloved city.
WESMINCOM public information officer, Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, identified the slain personnel as Special Forces Corporal Samad Jumah, a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) integree and detachment commander; CAFGU members Muid Manda, Adzlan Abdullah, Titing Omar, and Hermelito Gapo, Jr.
The dead civilians -- all relatives of the militiamen are Hadja Radia Manda, child Gary Omar, Rosa Inso, and Rosada Titing. The wounded Army Scout Ranger are 1Lt. Rojean Rodriguez, Corporal Romeo Tabon Jr., Seargent Renante Escanan, Sgt. Mike Elumba, Pfc. Jeffrey Martecio, and Pfc. Rudy Frias.
According to Col. Besana, WESMINCOM chief, Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, vowed "to exhaust every available resource under his disposal to identify the perpetrators in the soonest possible time so that the people of Basilan will have the peace they truly deserve."
Building that peace is a top priority of the 74IB, said its commander, Col. Templo, whose anti-terror campaign has enticed some 20 ASG members to surrender in the past months. Working with local civil society groups, 14 houses have been built for the surrenderers in Makalang, Tipo-Tipo town.
The returnees also received food supplies and agricultural seedlings for long-term farming. The Basilan provincial government has also given them financial relief in exchange for the firearms they turned in, Col. Templo said.
Moreover, Templo has tapped the Ulamas (Muslim clerics) to dialogue with residents-- especially the youths living in the five towns of the province--to keep them away from the deadly allure of extremism. Muslim students of madrasahs were given shoeboxes to earn money in their communities. The military has assisted in repairing mosques, and the troops also built a children's park adjacent to the 74IB camp.
With the latest attack, however, Templo could not help but express regret on the incident, saying, "Just when I thought Basilan was becoming more peaceful, the bomb attack happened."
Preserving the peace
Eleven days after the attack, the national flag still flies half mast disconsolately at the pristinely white-painted Lamitan city hall. Lamitan Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay has called the driver of the van, who the ISIS in the Middle East quickly claimed is their martyr, as nothing but a "demon."
Gerry Inso will be buried on August 16, a well-earned peace in his final resting place. Yet peace that endures for the living in Lamitan will continue to elude them as long as terrorists and bandits continue to roam around.
CAFGU Gregorio Inso, his twin brother Geronimo, and the other paramilitary volunteers in their communities vowed to continue to render their service, braving all the dangers to ward off violence, to preserve a semblance of uneasy peace.
"I am ready to die, give my life to protect the people of Lamitan," CAFGU volunteer Gregorio Inso said. (Rey Luis Banagudos/PNA)