By Ben Cal

 Scary peace talks right inside rebel territory (2nd of 4 parts)

The following year in April 1977, I was assigned to cover the opening of peace negotiations between the government and MNLF in a bid to find a just and lasting solution to the armed conflict in the southern Philippines.

To show its sincerity, the government peace panel would go to MNLF areas where the talks would be held. That means government peace negotiators had to hop from one island to another to meet their MNLF counterparts.

A Philippine Navy ship was used to transport the government peace panel going to the islands and Philippine Air Force helicopters in going to far-flung areas on the main island of Mindanao.

One of the first areas visited by the government peace panel was Lamitan, a seaside town of the island province of Basilan. As we were cruising the Sulu Sea, we received a radio message from the MNLF in Basilan that they would only meet with the government peace negotiators on the condition that no security forces would tag along.

It was a harsh and one-sided take-it, leave-it condition, but to my surprise, the government peace panel composed of three generals of the Armed Forces and ranking civilian officials agreed to the condition laid out by the MNLF. When we reached the seashore, I saw armed men in fatigue uniforms and was glad that army soldiers were there as our advance security.

However, I was jolted when told by one of the MNLF rebels that the armed men in fatigue were MNLF fighters!

Fortunately, Fred Sajot, a fellow television journalist covering for Channel 13, who grew up in Basilan had a classmate, who was an MNLF fighter. Conversing in their local Tausog dialect, they recalled their good old days.

We, the members of the media were told to wait outside the makeshift house.  A briefing will be held after the talks.

As the negotiations progressed, we heard shouting inside. Immediately, Fred’s classmate told us to move to a safe area as a precaution just in case anything would happen.

He said: “Look to your left and to your right.” We saw .30 caliber machine guns manned by MNLF rebels. Fears struck me to the bone! I prayed and after a few minutes, the shouting match was drowned by laughter.

When members of both peace panels went out from the makeshift house they continued to laugh and exchanged jokes.  Our fears had vanished! We boarded our Navy ship and sailed to nearby Zamboanga City.

The local peace talks lasted for about a month going around southwestern Mindanao. Our last stop was in Davao City where we boarded seven PAF helicopters that would take us to Cagayan de Oro City in northern Mindanao on our way back to Manila. We were alerted that the take-off time was 8 p.m.

Before boarding, one of the pilots told us that we would be flying over rebel territories and warned of possible hostile ground fire while flying over Marawi City, a rebel stronghold.  As a precaution, the pilot said we would be flying at an altitude of over 9,000 feet.

As our choppers were over Marawi City, our pilot alerted us that the rebels were firing at us. I looked down and saw tracer bullets lighting the night sky, but none had found their marks because we were flying at a high altitude. The rebels had only low-caliber weapons.  However, our pilot said that had the MNLF had with them anti-aircraft guns, we would be blown up in the sky.


About the Columnist

Image of Ben Cal

He covered the defense and military beat for over 40 years. He had the privileged to have covered the Mindanao War in the 1970s and 1980s when former President Fidel V. Ramos was Constabulary Chief; later as Armed Forces Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and Defense Secretary. Ben is the longest reporter who had the privileged to cover Ramos from October 1974 until July 2023. He wrote three books about Ramos as a military officer, as President and even after his retirement from government service as he remained active in serving the country a private citizen.