WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Blind man’s bluff. By Gail Ilagan

There continue to be sightings of high-valued ASG elements in Barangay Ipil. In recent years, the village served as a transshipment point for the Sipadan hostages and on another occasion a kidnapped missioner was recovered there. But it is more the norm for troops pursuing the ASG to come out from Barangay Ipil empty-handed.

That village would impinge upon the national consciousness every now and then with military operations geared toward neutralizing the ASG. Last Monday, for example, two soldiers were killed in Barangay Ipil while in hot pursuit of ASG elements purportedly holding Jolo businesswoman Rosalie Lao hostage.

As it is among the hottest of hotspots, soldiers who come into the village are tuned to high alert. Coming in literally in the dark at 3 am, like the soldiers did on Monday, could only exacerbate their combined stress and paranoia. It spelled the formula for impending disaster.

People in a heightened state of alert and paranoia could only be trusted to execute pre-programmed sequences of action. When placed in a situation when they just have to factor in new developments and make on the spot decisions, the weak-minded and the inexperienced would more likely crack under pressure and make terrible mistakes. The combat zone is a crucible that tests our men's ability to bear the pressure.

No matter where you view it, the death of seven residents could only result from a grievous mistake. But that it happened in Barangay Ipil and that it involved military troops raise questions on how that February 4 operation that resulted in the death of seven people – 4 children ages 4 to 17, a pregnant woman, and one soldier on home furlough – was carried out.

Barangay Ipil is so far away that what happened there the other Monday seems to pale in comparison to the unfolding drama of former Phil Forest Corp CEO Rodolfo Noel Lozada's revelations in the Senate. After all, the incident would probably be just another Muslim Mindanao story grown stale in the  telling: Of guns going off in the night, death and conflagration, human rights violation, military atrocity, and the undying cry of "Ninakawan kami!" There is no virtual reality to this drama – no live feeds of bombshells going off and unthinkable violence unfolding in living color.

I propose that we put Lozada in the back burner for the moment. Anyway, the only item he revealed that demands urgent action was his articulation of the dysfunctional procurement system in government. This is something that legislation can correct if only our legislators are not getting sidetracked at playing their weird version of blind man's bluff.

Please let's not forget the seven people who died in Barangay Ipil in Maimbung, far from the range of avid television coverage. This is a matter of urgent concern that had the Commission on Human Rights sending an investigation team. LGUs have condemned the tragedy, calling it a "massacre" and poising to mount cases against the soldiers who were responsible for the deaths. MGen. Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, had similarly been quick to convene an investigating team to look into the conduct of the engagement.

For the record, the earliest statement released by a member of the military investigating team was to deny the direct involvement of American soldiers in the Barangay Ipil operation because "it is strictly prohibited." Allaga has been repeating this refrain for some days now. It is evident that on the matter of the Barangay Ipil massacre, the nature of the American connection is more important for the military to clarify than the death of seven Filipinos.

I don't mean to be dense here, but isn't the death of seven people strictly prohibited, too? But look – they're dead anyway. Seems obvious that "strictly prohibited" doesn't mean it couldn't happen. Am I dense or am I dense?

Anyhow, it's just a play of words. What Allaga probably meant by that statement was that the indirect involvement is something else – like maybe something that falls in the general heading of "assist and advise the Filipino troop in the fight against (the) terror group." At no time has the military command denied that American troops were with the assault units early morning on February 4 in Maimbung.

Allaga and his military investigators are falling back on a rehearsed sequence of words to be said on occasions like this. And that's all we're going to keep hearing on the matter of the Maimbung massacre because that is all they allow themselves to say.

For combat soldiers, managing local populace defies being reduced to a pre-programmed sequence of actions the way their commanders can reduce explaining the presence of American troops during operations to the oft-repeated: "It is strictly prohibited."

Managing local populace calls for immediate decisions on events as they unfold, and this opens up endless opportunities for making terrible tactical errors. I would understand that "strictly prohibited" would be last on the list of someone on heightened alert and paranoia. Judgment errors could mount to grievous proportions when an individual perceives himself to be in a life-or-death situation.

Let's take for example a soldier's decision to blindfold a resident. There is no standard operating procedure – no prescribed sequence of actions – for soldiers to discriminate when or when not to blindfold a noncombatant during a military operation. It is a judgment call on the part of the personnel as it indeed is among a soldier's options and it has been known to happen.

There are compelling reasons for playing blind man's bluff at times like this. These include the suspicion that the subject is hostile and could compromise troop maneuver, equipment, mobility, and location. As judgment calls go, that one would not be too hard to fall back on at 3 am in enemy territory where loose firearms abound and under conditions of stress and paranoia. That's a life and death situation. Blindfolding an unknown subject would mean one less problem to deal with until things are under control. It is an error, yes- but, I'd concede that that error may have been made on the side of caution.

But what about the one subjected to it?

Watching Barangay Ipil witness Sandrawina Wahid talk about her ordeal on TV last Tuesday, I was moved to put a blindfold on and navigate the garage. I found that under visibility zero conditions lurks a number of perils in what I've always considered to be the safe confines of home territory. I was fortunate that the greatest danger I encountered in that experiment was Sage's cat who loves to doze on the mat outside the kitchen door.

What would it have been like for Wahid? She had barely escaped her burning house. Then she saw armed men gunning down her pleading husband. Then they put a blindfold to her eyes and dragged her away.

But however traumatic Wahid's ordeal was of having her house razed, her husband murdered, her goat and her generator set sequestered, Allaga wants Wahid first and foremost to be reassured that American troops weren't directly involved.

Monday's pre-dawn raid on Barangay Ipil raises a lot of questions. But this is not the first time that answers to questions are slow in coming, if ever they're coming at all. The Western Mindanao Command can only assure us that American troops were not directly involved. It is strictly prohibited.

That is the only answer they are willing to give. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).