Maguindanao one year ago: Day Four

D-DAY, Nov. 26 (Thursday)
Before daybreak, without warning, government forces as planned took over and occupied the ARMM facilities in Cotabato City including other buildings and premises in Maguindanao province. Armed elements loyal to the Ampatuans were taken by surprise and gave up their firearms without resistance.

8:00AM—I had little sleep and it was already 8 o’clock but my body refused to rise immediately. I was nervous a bit but confident. The “what if” scenarios kept popping up in my mind. I motored to the 601st Brigade for the final briefings. Two military choppers from Awang, Cotabato would pick me up from there in time for the agreed 10 a.m. pickup. In between sips of coffee and some final points,   Gen Ferrer and I watched from the grounds as more newly arrived troops from Samar with armor and all were jumping off towards designated areas.

9:00AM – I was informed that something went wrong with the Huey helicopters from Cotabato. The Davao choppers were instead dispatched but would not be able to arrive by 10AM. It was a full hour flight from Davao airport to my location.  I was worried. I would not want the Ampatuans to abort the pickup and blame my failure to come at the agreed time.

9:55AM – About 5 minutes to pickup time in Shariff Aguak but my choppers from Davao had not arrived yet. But a good break came.  I got a call from Col Geslani to whom we gave the task to liaison with the Ampatuans that they were requesting for a little time as they were waiting for their lawyer who was still on the road to arrive. It was a great relief! They were the ones asking for more time.

10:45AM — The helicopters finally arrived.  We were ready to jump off but we were waiting for word from Col Geslani when to take off. We reviewed again with the helicopter crews the exit procedures and the abort or trouble scenarios,  like landing and taking off avoiding low elevation approach and departure  due to reports of possible ground  fire, etc. It would be a short 35-minute hop from the brigade to Shariff Aguak. My staff Cecil Desisto said she’s getting nervous but insisted on joining. My assistant, Yo Montenegro was busy texting, perhaps reassuring lady love Venus everything was okay.  But another problem suddenly cropped up.  As we were boarding, one the 2 PNP officers tasked to escort the suspect said they could not use the handcuff on Ampatuan as the KEY WAS MISSING!  What about the other handcuff with your buddy, I asked. “Ganon din po sir”, he replied.  I almost fell from my seat! I jumped out of the helicopter and looked for something to use to “restrain” the suspect. I found a fighting cock nearby and started removing its string – to the cock’s great resistance.   But there was no more time. We then agreed that Unsay would instead be strapped with the seat belt and the two policemen on his sides would firmly clasp the seat belt buckles to prevent any unexpected situation while airborne.

When I was asked later by reporters  why Ampatuan was not handcuffed, it would be a long story and I was too embarrassed to disclose why. But I had a ready curt answer with a straight face:  “He is adequately restrained!”  I reckoned Sec Agnes promptly responded with the same line when she was asked upon landing in Manila about the absence of handcuffs.   Of course, the critics went to town saying it was one indication that Ampatuan was getting VIP treatment. Cool!

11:20 AM — Two Hueys landed on the Maguindanao province capitol grounds. I saw that friendly troops were already in control of the area. The Huey engines were not shut off as agreed in case a sudden exit maneuver was necessary.  I waited for 20 minutes on the ground. I was getting worried. We were there in center field, Hueys’ propellers whirling noisily and a crowd watching with anxiety, most of them media crews covering and documenting every move.  Finally, I saw my staff Ollie Dagala with his thumbs up sign. Col Geslani who was with the Ampatuans in another building outside the capitol grounds signaled on his cellphone that they were on their way. Suddenly, my “what if” scare disappeared. The capitol gates opened. The Ampatuan family arrived on board vehicles from another location nearby. I stood and waited for Gov Zaldy who approached me and while clasping my hand said: “Ipanapaubaya ni amah si Datu Unsay sayo” and turned over Datu Unsay to me. I walked him towards the helicopter and then suddenly hell broke loose. Ampatuan relatives and supporters, as a parting gesture started wailing and some were clutching on Unsay seemingly preventing him from boarding the aircraft. Others tried to clamber aboard the helis.  We boarded the aircraft with Atty. Cynthia ,  insisting she had to ride with him. We had to eject my aide Nonoy Orgo and he joined another aide, Enu Domingo, in the 2nd chopper.

11:40AM — Helis took off. We were heading for Gen Santos City where Sec. Agnes and her crew were waiting for an inquest proceeding. The original plan was to hold the inquest in Manila but Sec. Agnes decided to do it at the Gensan airport so the complaining parties could be present in the “confrontation”.   Unsay was looking relaxed. The Huey seats were rearranged so I was facing him. As we were gaining altitude, he motioned forward towards me and to my surprise asked: “Sec Jess, saang hotel ako  e-check-in sa Manila? Para mapahabol ko pamilya ko”.  I suppressed any reaction to that question and simply told him that I had no idea where he would be eventually brought but  all I knew was that we would go to Gensan and I would turn him over to Sec. Agnes. From there, I would have no more role to play as the DOJ would take over.  But I would escort him up to Manila as I committed to his family to see to it that nothing untoward would happen to him during the trip, I assured him.

Again, something happened.     About a few minutes airborne and while still climbing and gaining altitude, I first noticed some flapping sound outside. I thought, maybe some loose parts of the chopper hitting the underbelly. The noise kept coming, intermittent. I looked down and maybe I saw flashes but I was not sure. Suddenly the Huey banked sharply to the right and simultaneously, several short bursts from our two Huey gunners at the back.  The bursts from our own gunners startled all of us. The evasive maneuver by the pilot also jarred us. Atty. Cynthia was close to hysterics.  All of us kept our heads low as the Huey steeply climbed. My staff Jerry Dureza and Col Macario who were seated beside the open Huey doors moved their bodies inward and ducked.   The soldier at the back shouted, “Ground fire, sir”. We still climbed. The flapping sound from outside could not be heard anymore.  The gunners later told me ground fire sounded like flapping from the air. At 2,000 feet safe elevation, we cruised.  That’s when I saw on the Huey floor an empty shell (not slug, as some quarters said ) from the bursts of the M-60 machinegun on board.
I picked up the empty SHELL, then pocketed it for good luck . I now recall some doubting Thomases saying my story about the aerial firing was hard to believe.  Picking up on the heli floor a SLUG from the ground fire would indeed be a tall tale.  But it was an empty shell -not a slug, not from the ground fire but from our own gunner at the back firing a few bursts to ward off hostile fire, a standard operating procedure.  On hindsight, my assessment was that it was not hostile fire from the ground. I surmised some Unsay followers fired their firearms to bid him goodbye.

We landed at the Gensan airport and I handed over Datu  Unsay to Sec. Agnes Devenadera. Another problem surfaced. The inquest could not proceed unless Atty. Fortun, the Ampatuan lawyer was present. A quick check showed that Atty Fortun was actually at Awang Airport by that time ready to fly by commercial flight from Cotabato back to Manila where he thought the proceeding would take place.  I had to ask the Air Force station chief to fly the lawyer to Gensan on board a small Layanglayang bomber plane. It was so small and “shaking all over”   that Atty. Fortun swore he would not take a similar flight ever in the future.

By sundown, we were seated aboard an Air Force plane en route to Manila with Sec. Agnes with Unsay and some companions, including some PNP officers and men who were taken into custody.

Upon disembarking at Villamor air base, media crews and reporters who were cordoned off went into action. I sported a smirk lest someone again would spot an out-of-place smile. Then I heard someone shouting out a question: “Why is he getting VIP treatment. He is not handcuffed?” I turned to Sec Agnes. She murmured something. Then and there, I could not suppress a smile. I even laughed.

From Villamor Airbase, we motored to the NBI detention area. It was there that Datu Unsay was “billeted”. Not in some hotel where he thought he would be checked in. Or to Malacanang where that bribery witness falsely accused me of promising the Ampatuans.