Book Review: ‘The Battle of Marawi’ takes readers into the heart of armed conflict

Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 23 2020 05:32 AM | Updated as of Sep 23 2020 03:36 PM

“The night quickly engulfed the men. Firefox called out for them. He needed to do a roll call. He couldn't see anyone. Come closer. Put your hands on my head. From his head, he counted the hands of his men, sliding his own hand down to their arms as if to make sure they were connected to bodies. One. Two. Three, Four. Five. They were all there and alive. Together they prayed quietly, this time holding each other's hand. They wept choking on their tears.”

“The Battle of Marawi” (Pawikan Press, 2020) is a vivid recounting of what transpired in the provincial capital of Lanao del Sur over six months in 2017.

The story is authored by veteran journalist Criselda Yabes, her 10th book.

If thriller is a favorite genre of yours, get a hold of the book now and brace yourself. As thrillers would go, this one takes the reader to a web of schemes and counter-espionage set in a labyrinth that is Mindanao. Except that this is not fiction; this is the real deal.

“They were blinded by a sudden attack. Firefox crawled to the back to get a spare headset he needed to give command to the troops. He heard one of them say, 'Sir may tama ako.' One of his men were seriously hit, and the others were groaning from injury, legs jerking, their bodies shaking.”

Details such as these peppered the narrative, making the reader feel like it was a script straight out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, what with curtains ripping from the volume of gunfire as the soldiers crouched behind a steadily disintegrating wall, Molotov bombs exploding and setting the house with soldiers inside on fire, and soldiers being torn in half by enemy gunfire.

Before reading this book, I always thought movie scenes of the protagonist being thrown by the impact of an explosion and yet surviving with only his clothes torn to pieces were bollocks, but in the close combat battles in Marawi it apparently happened.

Given the right producer and budget, a story about the 5 months of intense fighting in Marawi would give “Black Hawk Down,” a movie about a real-life encounter of US troops in two days in Mogadishu, a run for its money.

The book starts with a series of separate encounters, starting with the planned arrest of Isnilon Hapilon, at that time the head of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and designated emir of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in the Philippines. Hapilon occupied the highest position in the government’s most wanted list.

But the operation to capture him after intelligence placed him in Marawi on May 23 was botched. Hapilon escaped and this set off a series of unfortunate events, planned or unplanned from the rebels’ side, that would eventually become the siege of Marawi.

The book further narrates other encounters between the militant Islamic rebels and different units of the country's armed forces in the first chapters. The helter-skelter operation narrated at the start perfectly reflects the military's response to the siege at the outset -- that there was no plan.

Just like how the book points everything to one direction about a third of the way, the military's operation in the 5-month battle in Marawi finally sets a direction with the establishment by around August of Trident, a tactical grouping of all the units on the ground in Marawi.

The book eventually weaves the narrative on the plan to “envelope” the rebels, with the Maute brothers (Omarkhayam and Abdullah) and IH (Isnilon Hapilon) at the helm, from the top of the city down to the lake, with 3 main units of the armed forces flanking them from different sides -- the Army Scout Rangers, the special forces units under the Joint Special Operations Group, and the Marines.

Having personally witnessed the fighting in Marawi, but by more than a kilometer away across the river by the hillside overlooking the Main Battle Area where the media were only allowed, I thought the exchange of gunfire was happening across streets, or at least between two buildings. But as narrated by the soldiers themselves in the book, they were not. Most of the fighting was done door to door, sometimes with just a single wall separating the two sides, or sometimes even just one floor above in the same building.

“Bullets flew over their heads in a hail of gunfire. From the cackle of the radio coming from the other house, Firefox heard the private there breaking the news over the radio. His voice was filled with shock and dread. ‘There are young boys with guns. They are marching toward us. Sir do we shoot at the kids?’

“ ‘We have no choice. They will come for us’.”

The author had a good list of interviewees from almost all the fighting units and was able to get the men to tell of their most intimate stories, including their fears and insecurities as the fighting went on.

There is a scene involving a commander calling his wife to say they are in dire straits and in danger of not getting past the situation -- again scenes that you would think only happened in movies, but here the book unveiled for the reader the fragility of men.

Stories such as these should be told while they are still fresh. Credit the author’s magic wand in weaving the scenes altogether and creating for anyone professing a weak spot in his or her heart for the Filipino soldier something to read and weep about. After reading this, you will never look at the Filipino soldier the same way again.

If the book had an Achilles heel, a term also of Greek origin not entirely unfamiliar with the soldiers, it is the lack of visual aids to further draw the reader to the scenes. The book could have used a few sketches of the position of the troops in the encounters that were written in detail; or pictures of the destruction would have given the reader an ambiance of the soldiers’ situation.

Being a visual journalist who was able to visit Marawi in the course of the 5-month siege, I myself had no trouble imagining the situations the soldiers were caught in as I was able to record the destruction in the Main Battle Area and walked through the same rat holes the soldiers faithfully recounted the rebels used in wiggling out and about the battle scenes.

But this is nothing a second printing cannot remedy. And by the looks of the response to the book, a second, even a third printing, is not entirely out of the picture.