THE PHILSOUTH LINE: When Numbers Matter

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/16 April) — It was on 9 April, Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) when a bloody encounter transpired between government troops and followers of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan as early as nearly 6 in the morning. At least, that was what police and soldiers from the ground shared.

The groups of Isnilon Hapilon, a pioneering ASG leader, Furuji Indama, Ben Hulmu, and Radzmil Jannatul banded together at the vicinity of Sitio Kurelem in Baguindan village, Tipo-Tipo town.  The group strength was about that of a hundred fully armed men. Four hours thereafter, Indama’s group withdrew towards Bohe Limbo, Silangkum, still in Tipo-Tipo, while the group of Hapilon reportedly withdrew towards Sitio Cuhun Tekkey and Bohe Gihian of said municipality.

The incident resulted in differing numbers in media reportage. From the ground, this writer received an initial result of only one casualty, Cpl. Rodel Perolino of the Philippine Army (PA), and 38 wounded soldiers from the 44th Infantry Battalion, two among whom are officers.  The two wounded captains were identified as Capt. Dexter Dantog (Commanding Officer of the 19th Special Forces) and Capt. Mauricio Kilbas (S1 or Administrative Officer), and another officer, 1Lt. Mark Genesis Robles.

In a later report on 10 April, I was informed that there were 34 killed in action (KIA), and over 40 wounded in action (WIA).  However, there have been five ASG members killed, including a Moroccan national, Mohammad Khattab, and Isnilon’s son, and this figure grew to 25 yesterday.  ASG’s senior leader Radzmil Jannatul alias Kubayb was critically injured, and sporadic fighting continued until Sunday dawn. Forty two of the WIA were at Camp Navarro General Hospital, and 18 were confined at Ciudad Medical Zamboanga, a private hospital.  On 11 April, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) released a listing of 18 soldiers, foremost among whom was 1Lt. Remigio Licena and 17 others, all from the 44IB.  The blow was that four soldiers were beheaded.

No less than AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Hernando Iriberri and Department of National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin arrived in Zamboanga City, conferred with Western Mindanao Command Lt. Gen. Mayoralgo Dela Cruz, and visited wounded soldiers. To this, AFP spokesperson Col. Noel Detoyato said: “Our standing order is (to have) no let-up in our combat operations so (that) we expect in the next few days, there will be many more encounters.” In simple words, the AFP which did the offensive through striker force 44IB on 9 April, was firmly declaring war.

Netizens have reacted on different accounts in social media, as they expressed their sympathies as residents, friends and relatives of the slain and wounded, posted about the conflict. There were angry comments for the ASG, and the leadership of the AFP as well. A lull in the exchange of fire seemed to follow the visit of the Commander-in-Chief, the Defense Secretary, the  AFP Chief of Staff, and all others who could not anyway bring the dead from both sides back to life.

Then the control from the stars came. The number of KIA has to be stuck to 18.  There were only 18 names. The wounded were few in the reports, but the list was 40 on the 10th. There was no mention to media on any wounded soldier at CMZ. Defense journalists were kept waiting at Camp Navarro—for facts, and if possible, for personalities. They waited for numbers. I, too, waited for the numbers given by my sources to be confirmed.

Then a bystander remarked at CMZ, why the need to count? Indeed, how relevant is the body count? First, it means much if you knew one of those bodies. Second, it indicates belongingness—a body, though lifeless, is part of the organization and the cause the org is fighting for. Third, it spells a lot of difference when your loved one is NOT counted, and you lost this one relevant person, at least for you and your children perhaps, forever. But on the other hand, and this is the Fourth, high numbers mean weak forces, and this demoralizes soldiers left behind as cries of “Allahu Akbar” from the enemy camp are heard.  Low figures do not help deliver the truth. Whatever figure the AFP decides to release to media, 18 or 19, 22 or 23, then let us add 1:  Truth. It is the first casualty in this Baguindan operation.

The psyop stories that circulated next were on the “fallen,” noble soldiers who gave up their lives and the like. Well, no doubt their lives were the “ultimate sacrifice” for the lack of planning and intelligence gathering of those who led the operations.

Numbers matter. They serve as the indelible ink to the documentation of lives lost —among those who could not decide whether it was time to go on offensive or not, whether the troops going towards or perhaps even, into the enemy camp were prepared enough or not, and whether they were rightly equipped, and fully informed on what lies ahead —landmines, terrain, foreign support, or the absence of it, and all that.

And then, there’s this thing called reward(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Frencie Carreon is a journalist based in Zamboanga City)