MANILA – Outnumbered, but not outfought.
This was the life-and-death situation then Philippine Army commander and now Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito E. Sobejana faced when he led a 16-man Scout Ranger team, including two members of the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) during a five-hour close-quarter gun battle with some 120 Abu Sayyaf members in the hinterland of Matarling, Basilan on that fateful Friday the 13th of January 1995, killing 42 terrorists.
Forty-two terrorists, five Scout Rangers, and the two CAFGUs were killed during the firefight that uncovered for the first time the existence of the clandestine terrorist group hiding in Basilan since 1989.
In an exclusive interview with this writer on Wednesday, Sobejana said the encounter with the Abu Sayyaf led by Abudarjak Janjalani was completely by chance when a trembling 9-year-old boy went to his unit in Maluso, Basilan to report the presence of over 100 armed men unloading supplies two kilometers away.
Sobejana, who was resting was jolted from his hammock and immediately talked to the boy, who related what he saw.
The location of the Abu Sayyaf was at Sitio Sweet Jackal.
Without wasting time, Sobejana told his men to move quickly towards the area where the gunmen were spotted by the boy, who was tending a carabao of his father at that time.
The boy said he hid behind tall grasses to avoid being seen by the armed men.
Before going to the area, Sobejana made a plan and told his men to prepare for a surprise attack, and quickly withdrew after inflicting heavy casualties.
He radioed the Army’s 101st Infantry Brigade to ask permission to mount an attack. His request was granted as the brigade also positioned two to three tubes of 105mm howitzers ready to fire if needed.
When the Scout Rangers arrived in Sitio Sweet Jackal, they saw the heavily armed men as narrated by the boy.
Occupying a strategic position, Sobejana ordered his men to fire simultaneously, catching the Abu Sayyaf by surprise. It was close-quarter fighting with only two coconut trees dividing between the two forces.
At the start of the firefight, five Rangers were killed, leaving only nine of the soldiers standing their ground.
“At the height of the battle, I was slightly hit in the face. I glanced at my watch it was 2:30 p.m. My men and I continued fighting and firing at the enemy. I was again hit. This time, it was my right arm. The bullet from an M14 assault rifle shattered the bones. It was hit so badly, only the skin prevented it from falling off,” Sobejana recalled. “I stretched my left hand to hold and save my right hand. The pain was excruciating. As I did this, I could hear bullets buzzing just a few inches from where I was lying down. Mortar shells and rockets fell all over.”
Using his left hand, Sobejana applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
“I saw one of my men hit in the abdomen. His intestines came out and we bandaged him,” he added.
As the fighting raged, his machine gunner armed with M60 was wounded, but only slightly.
However, the soldier handling the more powerful 90mm Recoilless Rifle (RR) was fatally hit.
Worse, the 90RR flew overhead and landed on the Abu Sayyaf side.
“The terrorists tried to retrieve the weapon, but we fired at them. But when the Rangers also tried to retrieve it, the Abu Sayyaf opened fire at us, and vice versa for several times,” he said.
After hours of fighting, Sobejana and his men were running low in ammunition. They fired only when necessary.
Sobejana fired using his left arm.
During the fighting, Sobejana put his trust in God to spare them from being killed as he was determined to fight to his last breath as a pledge he made as a soldier to defend freedom and democracy.
His prayers were answered, though he was seriously wounded.
Reinforcement from the Philippine Army’s 1st Armour Battalion under Col. Resty Aguila arrived and brought them to their headquarters before Sobejana and eight of the Scout Rangers were airlifted to the Southern Command in Zamboanga City for treatment.
For his exceptional bravery, Sobejana was awarded the Medal of Valor, the highest award by the AFP for gallantry in combat.
Then-President Fidel V. Ramos handed the medal to Sobejana during the 98th AFP anniversary held in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Dec. 21, 1996.
Not many people are aware of it but Sobejana is the only person who does the left-handed salute in the military.
After the 1995 encounter in Basilan, his right hand lost its motor capabilities. He underwent nine surgical procedures in the United States for two years.
Sobejana requested the doctor not to amputate his right arm because he wanted to continue in serving the country.
"We will continue to fight insurgency to win peace for the country. I had several gunshot wounds, and I turned those wounds into wisdom rather than anger,” he said.
Last week, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte appointed Sobejana as the 55th AFP chief, replacing Gen. Gilbert Gapay, who mandatorily retired from the service on Feb. 4. (with Priam Nepomuceno/PNA)