|ABS-CBN's Jorge Cariño with wounded soldiers.
First-hand accounts of the AFP-MILF/Abu Sayyaf encounter
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – While seated on the bedside, I was glued, listening and watching as Private First Class Joseph Muyco of the Army’s 19th Special Forces Company narrated the harrowing experience they had in last Tuesday’s encounter at the town of Al-Barka, Basilan.
Muyco was one of the 13 soldiers who were wounded.
Despite his young age of 24, Muyco is no stranger to combat experience, being a member of the Army’s elite unit. But for him, this is the fiercest battle he had gone through.
According to Muyco, they left Lamitan town Monday evening for a mission targeting 2 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Commanders in Al-Barka.
They were supposed to meet another team, the 13th Special Forces Company, to guide them in the area.
At 5 a.m., the troops reached the target area. “Pagdating ng mga alas 5 ng madaling-araw, doon na, nakapasok kami sa bahayan. Tapos wala namang tao. Walang ingay, walang ilaw, at wala kaming naririnig,” Muyco said.
Muyco said all they saw moving were chickens.
Troop movement continued until they reached a populated area.
Suddenly, when the last element of their group passed, gunshots broke the silence. “Nung nakalagpas na kami, saka pinaputukan ‘yung huli namin, saka nagdapaan kami lahat. Tapos in-occupy namin ‘yung high ground, hangga’t naghinto ‘yung putukan within 3 minutes, nag-observe lang kami. Tapos, itinakbo namin ‘yung high ground. Pagdating dun, may nakaabang na palang kalaban. Hangga’t di namin naaakyat, hangga’t dun lang kami mismo sa ibaba,” said Muyco.
Muyco said they immediately assumed battle position, forming a circle, to repel the overwhelming fire from their enemy. “Tapos nung patagal ng patagal, maraming motor na dumadating, marami silang reinforcement. Napaikutan na kami, wala na kaming malalabasan dun,” he said.
My right hand gripped the bed sheet, as Muyco told me about their resolve at that moment: to fight to the last man. “Kung di kami naubusan ng bala, di kami magwi-withdraw, hangga’t ano, may bala pa.”
With the increasing number of casualties by the minute and running out of ammunitions at the same time, Muyco said they eventually decided to withdraw from the fight.
But he stopped retreating when he saw an officer down, grimacing in pain with a large wound on his right arm, which almost severed the officer’s hand from his wrist.
Muyco and another soldier, who was also wounded, helped the officer and carried him on their back for about 3 kilometers.
By the seashore, Muyco waited for help.
The chopper came in 20 minutes later. “Nung dinala ko siya sa chopper, nung sinakay kami sa chopper, wala na siyang ano, patay na siya,” said Muyco, while trying to hold back the tears swelling from his eyes.
Muyco felt bad that he wasn’t able to help all of his comrades who died in the storm of bullets.
|ABS-CBN's Jorge Cariño with Private First Class Joseph Muyco.
Muyco fumbled his words, trying to control his emotion as he shared: “’Yung iba humingi ng tulong, tulungan daw kasi hindi makalakad. Pero wala kaming magawa kasi ‘yung bala umuulan talaga. Tapos makita namin ‘yung kalaban na tumatayo na nag-aasault kahit na labanan namin, parang balewala lang sa kanila ‘yung bala. Hangga’t naabutan nila ‘yung iba dun, ‘yun ‘yung finishing nila ng bala. Kahit na nagmamakaawa na, pinatay pa din nila. ‘Yung iba, pinagtaga-taga nila ng itak.”
Call for help
Private 1st Class Arnel Balili of the 14th Special Forces Company was also hit while trying to maintain radio contact to call for reinforcement. He’s also confined at Camp Navarro General Hospital with shrapnels still embedded in his right leg, left hip and right shoulder.
“Di rin sila bababa sa ano, sa 50, sa 60. Kasi nagtulungan na kasi sila, ‘pintakasi’ na ‘yung tawag dun sa kanila, M.I. (MILF) saka Abu Sayyaf. Kasi ‘yung Al-Barka, balwarte ng M.I. ‘yan sir,” said Balili.
Balili said they were able to move to higher ground, which was supposed to give them an advantage in ground combat.
But that too, didn’t work in their favor. “Ang mahirap lang dun, napa-pattern kami, kasi kabisado nila ‘yung terrain saka alam nila ‘yung lugar,” said Balili.
Balili later felt numbness of his right shoulder while trying his best to call for reinforcement. It was only then that he knew that he was already hit.
The reinforcement that he requested for never made it, because they too were met with overwhelming resistance. “Hindi nakapunta dun sa amin ‘yung reinforcement. Wala na ding mag-command sa amin, kasi ‘yung team leader namin is halos wala na, patay na ‘yung team leader namin, mga ala-1 ‘yun, alas dos,” said Balili.
The ultimate sacrifice
Courteously, I approached Private 1st Class Alex Ricafranca, a wounded soldier of the 12th Special Forces Company, whose right arm was wrapped in a cast.
His arms suffered tremendous injury from the firefight.
He smiled and nodded at me when I politely asked him if it was alright to talk to him. He was staring blankly on the wall as he told me how a comrade, who was also his cousin, gave up his life so that wounded soldiers like him can withdraw from the fight.
Ricafranca’s cousin, Private 1st Class Roberto Ricafranca, a sniper of the 12th Scout Ranger Company, was killed in action.
Ricafranca told me that when his cousin saw him bleeding, he was told to withdraw and seek cover, while his cousin provided cover. “Siya ‘yung komo-cover sa amin, lahat ng pina-withdraw nya, kino-coveran niya ng putok. Sabi niya, withdraw na kayo.”
That was the last time he saw his cousin alive.
Private 1st Class Roberto Ricafranca has 2 brothers still in the Army.
Sergeant Michael Ricafranca of the Military Intelligence Battalion said he had his last phone conversation with his brother on Sunday. They spoke about their mission in Basilan.
The sergeant said he even advised his younger brother to utilize all the skills he acquired in the training. “Para sa amin, masakit ‘yun, pero tanggapin na din ‘yun dahil buhay-sundalo kami. Alam na namin na mangyayari sa amin ‘yan kung mamalasin, OK lang ‘yan,” said Sergeant Ricafranca.
But despite the unfortunate fate, the thought of leaving the Army never crossed these soldiers’ minds. They’re just waiting for their wounds to heal.
As Private 1st Class Arnel Balili puts it, “Magpa-assign ulit ako sa Basilan.”