Female warrior’s instinct warned her about Basilan village
ISABELA CITY, BASILAN — Her intuition told her that something was amiss when the convoy entered the village at around 9 a.m. on July 10. And she was proven right.
“We were all tired then, but I sensed something wrong when we were about to enter Ginanta. I wondered whether I was the only one who noticed how eerie the place was,” recalled Second Lieutenant Maria Rowena Muyuela, a newbie in the 1st Marine Brigade.
Muyuela, 29, had logged just two weeks on the job but she was in charge of two armored vehicles — a V150 Commando 312 and a 311 — in a military convoy when Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces engaged her group of Marines in a daylong clash in Ginanta, a barangay (village) in Albarka (formerly Tipo-tipo), on Tuesday.
There was something very strange in Ginanta, Muyuela noticed: “You know that 9 a.m. is one of the busiest times in every household. There were clothes hanging on the clothesline, but I didn’t see women or children around. There was a lone man, but he walked away quickly when he saw us passing through.”
At around 9:45 a.m. one of the vehicles got mired in mud, and the convoy had to stop.
Fifteen minutes later, the troops were attacked.
“We didn’t know where those shots and mortar fire were coming from,” said Lieutenant Colonel Felix Almadrones, commander of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 8 (MBLT8). He said his men were “rained with bullets” and “balls of fire.”
The firefight lasted until 6 p.m.
Muyuela said there were snipers everywhere.
“Throughout the engagement, I saw some of our soldiers falling down, hit by bullets,” she said.
Muyuela herself was wounded in the right ear, as were the four members of her crew — two spotters, a gunner, and a driver.
Still, she showed everyone what she was made of — tough and focused in an extreme situation.
She said she tried her best to control her emotions: “Deep inside me, I wanted to cry, I wanted to shout. But I had to be strong and firm.”
Muyuela said she turned grim when she saw more soldiers getting hit by sniper fire.
She said all she could think of then was “to focus, to make sure that I can save lives, to ensure that we’ll have fewer casualties.”
“Suddenly one of my men, the gunner (Sergeant Christopher Villarin), fell on my lap,” Muyuela said.
“His eyes, nose, and shoulder were bleeding. I told him it was okay, that he can still manage. I inspected his chest and stomach and told him he was not going to die.” (Villarin remains in serious condition at a hospital.)
By then, everyone in V150 Commando 312, including Muyuela, had been hit.
But when she saw two soldiers at the tail end of the convoy drop to the ground, “I forgot that we were wounded.”
She told the driver, Staff Sergeant Randie Villarico, to “move back and extricate the two soldiers.”
She knew that one of the two was already dead, but they forged ahead.
“My priority was to get the wounded. But it took us some time because of the muddy road, the strong rain, and the continuing fire from various directions,” she said.
After more than two hours of negotiating the bad road under sniper fire, Muyuela’s crew was able to get to the two soldiers. Sadly, “while we were trying to carry the wounded man, he expired.”
Muyuela recalled her brief friendship with radioman, Staff Sergeant Bernard Abes, whose call sign was 382.
“I communicated with him over ICOM radio. We were in tandem always. We exchanged ideas and plans on the next move,” she said.
Abes, the last radioman of the convoy, served as the troops’ eyes and ears: “He gave us instructions and directions on our operation, and we even had casual conversations over the radio. He was funny even in situations that we perceived as very hostile.”
At around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, at the height of the fighting, Muyuela finally met Abes in person.
“But it was such that we could hardly say hi. We were all so preoccupied trying to save the wounded and to get the others away from sniper fire,” she said.
Abes helped Muyuela carry the wounded inside the tank, and told her and the crew to immediately leave the site. He said he and the others would conduct a clearing operation while the convoy tried to locate a safe area.
Ramon Nuñal Jr., chair of the joint ceasefire monitoring team in Basilan, said the military sounded an “SOS call” at around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, prompting them to call on the MILF to disengage.
“But the fighting kept going. We received reports that it stopped only at around 6 p.m.,” Nuñal said.
An hour later, the Marines started evacuating the wounded and the dead.
Almadrones said nine of the wounded and four of the dead soldiers were recovered at around 7:45 p.m. The corpses were loaded on a Navy fast craft bound for Zamboanga City.
Basilan Governor Jum Akbar, wife of Basilan Representative Wahab Akbar, said that on learning of the situation, she headed to the MBLT8 headquarters at Campo Uno in Lamitan City and got there at around 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
After being briefed, she proceeded to the ambush site at around 10 p.m. to help in the recovery of the wounded.
“I didn’t know if they were soldiers or rebels. We gave priority to the wounded,” the governor told the Inquirer.
Then things went from bad to worse.
According to Almadrones, Governor Akbar’s team brought down four bodies — “all mutilated” — at about 3 a.m. on Wednesday.
At around 2 p.m. on that day, the third and last wave of the evacuation, Akbar’s team brought down six more bodies — all mutilated and beheaded, and looted of belongings.
“What happened really pains us. We knew that the soldiers were missing, but we didn’t know they had been brutally slaughtered,” Almadrones said.
Akbar recalled that during the recovery efforts, “we prioritized those still breathing, and I was informed by my staff that there were others lying there.”
“But no one told me they had been decapitated,” she said.
When the governor’s team entered the area at around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, the troops’ vehicles were intact. But when they returned at dawn on Wednesday, “the vehicles were on fire, and my staff told me that the soldiers had been beheaded,” Akbar said.
In all, 14 Marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded, and nine were wounded.
After leaving the ambush site at around 7 p.m., Muyuela waited for Abes’s call on the radio. Nothing came.
She was later told the shocking truth — that Abes was one of the soldiers found beheaded — and she wept.
“People see me as a hero, but I am not,” she said. “My heroes are all those slain soldiers who tried their best to save the rest. My appeal to our government is to bestow on them the highest awards because they deserve it more than I do.”