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Friday, November 30, 2012

Chapter 28 - Reconnaissance

Chapter 28

     “The Major should never take any chances. Capture the enemies without firing a single shoot if need be,” recalled Taklin as he leads his men in conducting his first reconnaissance work on thick foliage of Mt. Sungcal thought to be haven of rebels. But what he did know was, the 13th Plenum would be held there..
            “Truth or consequence? Nothing there unless you underestimate intelligence network,” he revealed.
            “But that  is in San Tzu’s The Art of War only and might be irrelevant in this initial major mission in the field,” he checked himself while leading his pact of elite forces of scout rangers tasked in clearing Mt. Sungcal and ferreting out whatever vital information from the much-ballyhooed hideout this mountain purports to have.
            The slope itself is winding, its perimeter covered by thick and green forest exactly an apt cover-up of the opening of the bunker. To aggravate the problem, thousand of land mines have been buried deep into the ground manned by hundred of snipers who are cock-ready to press  their trigger to any slightest provocation from any unwanted visitors in the area. Briefing Charlie, his contact and con artist of the group, mine expert rolled into one, he finally paused from the base of the camp roughly five hundred meters away from the enemy location preparing and thinking aloud possible offensive assault later to capture the dreaded Mt. Sungcal.
            “Penetrating and pushing beyond enemy lines into their stronghold would be inviting trouble,” was his valid conclusion. It would definitely come handily having secured  vital information of the area.
            “Have a closer look on the opening, it’s half their way in towards the bunker,” he said offering the telescope to Charlie to gaze. The rest took their turn one after the other relishing on their cherished discovery of the target.
            Delineating the area then plotting and checking with compass of the exact location, he finally called it a day after putting back the binocular securely inside  an encased plastic container hanging by his neck.
            “It’s all what we need men. The rest would follow suit as soon as everything are taken into account in the war room.” Looking on his wrist watch, it’s exactly 1:45 a.m. Leaving them roughly two hours to go out from the enemy’s dangerous lair and save their lives. At least they have to beat the time while luck is still on their side. Arriving Campo Uno, their way out from Esperanza after 3:00 AM would already be the cause of suspicion among the spies along the road planted by the rebels. They did. At exactly 5 AM they were back exactly in the barracks.
. . . . . . . . . . .

            “Good. Just fine for having plotted the right target. I do hope it’s what we’re really after,” Col. Lim, the commanding officer of Alpha Battalion said to Major Taklin de la Rosa and his men recognizing their effort.
            Everybody nodded anticipating for the next move the Major would command.
            “I’d like to make this clear again to everybody. No shooting unless an order is given by me from the headquarter. I want to be sure that we are declaring this war not on empty bunker precisely I sent you all as forward observers.  Now many thanks for bringing the desired statistics – distance and degree of enemy location and all that stuff. You know what I mean. This guerilla warfare, protracted, unconventional war  whatever terms they describe for our struggle, should be an all-out war against the commies. It is indeed quiet intriguing you see learning that there exist sophisticated armory and telecommunication facilities manned by experts inside. Now it’s the time to blow them away into bits and pieces including all commies and their armed combatants in the area.
            The group just listen waiting for the ultimate command when to start the operation. Taklin is on the other hand briefed further the Commanding officer the support his men need in the operation. The dog tags and logistics for issuance their respective families would get in the event they would passed out becoming additional statistics of civil strife. They’re all essentials and like a song sang all over again echoes in the four walls of the war room.
            “Why is there anybody afraid here to die?”
            Long silence.
            “Great at least there are no cowards in our rank. Remember folks in case you forget, death is the bride of any soldier. And we will all pass on that stage. Time will only tell. I’d like to make this clear to avoid anybody being roasted and hanged by the military commission in military tribunal later. No one is allowed to withdraw without a word from the commanding officer. Remember the code of conduct we required you to religiously observe and practice? Mt. Sungcal is definitely an acid test for everybody. Don’t you worry boys Major de la Rosa is always with you. He has been through the rigors of training coupled by an actual test in much military operation. All you have to do is listen to his instructions and mind you we can conquer that critical mountain. Now are there any question?”
            Silence ensued.
            “Good at least I’m happy that there are young men like you willing to protect and die for democracy in this country. God bless you and your family.”
            Bidding adieu goodbye, Taklin and his men hurriedly went out heading towards the barracks. Whatever would happen, God only knows. The psychology of it all alone – killing a fellow Filipino is not peanuts sending shiver down his spine. What could he do, the country is caught in civil strife. Natural activity once you’re used to it, he was told.
            “Killing a fellow Filipino is just like eating rice you know. The hotter the tastier,” he recalls Nong Bal, a retired military officer telling him.
            “No, you’re not killing a Pinoy my dear but a commie, an insect actually. Better dead than red,” he recalled Sgt. Morales, another veteran validating the need to kill and the legality of killing.
            “Just as the commies consider military as Jap or an alien to them so too they are to us. Commies not Filipinos,” the brave Sgt. repeated.
            “You can never trust commies. They’re termites feasting on your living bodies. They deserved to be terminated by all means. That’s precisely our job. What are we in service for paid by Filipinos taxpayers if we cannot fire a single shot to them,” Lt. David’s familiar pick up lines recalled, his buddy in the PMA.
            “Isn’t it that we were sent to PMA in four years what they could   fix things up for others may for the country in a lifetime?” the thought coming back in his mind.
            Nothing indeed is worthwhile than really offering oneself for the country, he thought. Reviewing the details of his war plan, he’s optimistic that he could make it to the target that is; swarm Mt. Sungcal after the smoke cleared from the bombing by field artillery battalion from as far as sixteen kilometers away range. How could the commies survive anyway from the 80 or 91 millimeter mortar or from 185 mm diameter Howitzer artillery bore? Most unlikely, he thought. That excludes the help of military gunship 520 which could practically wipe out those that could be seen from any air attack.
            True enough, after the work well done by Staff 2 Intelligence plan of S3 and S1 Operation order and master list of personnel respectively were completed and would be enforced in due time.
Meanwhile, the rebel’s camp thrives with business as usual industry included. To a mere layman, it is the most unlikely place of the rebels but not when you come closer. Definitely, not to Lt. de la Rosa’s team of seven who cleared the area for military attack.
            His elite team of scout rangers included the lead scout, team leader, radio man, assistant radioman, contact man or an artist of the group and telescout, the eraser of footprints. The contact man does the dirtiest work of all being in charge of penetrating the target area.
            “You can even see people from all walks of life passing to and fro. Everybody is welcome whether you are a military or not as long as you don’t tucked in any side arms. When you do, you would not ever reach your destination. That would be the end of the road for you,” Ka Roy would later share to government representative visiting the area.
            Unfortunately, demarcation line is set by the rebels and no one is allowed to further encroach inside lest you would be blown to pieces away by landmines planted along the road. The area actually used to be a Resettlement area during Magsaysay’s time. Ironically, many of those resettled were members of Hukbalahaps who having seen Magsaysay’s sincerity abandoned their armed struggle and volunteered as new partners in restoring peace and order that part of the country. That was way back then characterizing the pioneer settlers who first inhabited the area. But their contemporaries proved to be different, ruthless forcing majority of settlers away from the periphery of Mt. Sungcal leaving the area for fear of being squeezed in the crossfire. Thus what once a thriving special community project with multipurpose buildings and other amenities like infrastructure projects were transformed into white elephants wasting away millions of pesos invested in the end.
            How and why it was overtaken by rebels and converted into their camp was understandable to any settler. Among others, it nestled in a very strategic place between Surigao del Sur and Bukidnon. Misamis Oriental is on the West. To the East,  is the shortest route for Davao. At the center of this is Mt. Sungcal. It is in effect, the best and strategic place they could give a run to any military attacking the area. It’s no ordinary mountain. Short of fifty feet to become 6,000 feet above sea level, it is one of the tallest mountain in the area. Words circulated around that the tunnel is so big that it could store  eight hundred tons of rice and hundred variety of supplies for yearlong consumption. In sum,  it’s a mountain any true-blooded romantic rebel could not afford to give away to any  government forces.
How could the government sustain anyway the special project  when all properties were lost to the rebels. Tractors, bulldozers, graders and other heavy equipment facilities were either razed to the ground or cannibalized. The chapel was not spared. It was converted into a farm house the rebels would use as venue for forum or negotiation when there are visiting civilians or government representatives around. It’s quiet scary but not when you learn that all these are being ob served to spare civilians from crossfire as you found unknowingly that you are within the rebels camp zone. Once or twice, surveyors from the Department of Natural Resources were all hogtied and treated to sunburns after they were caught surveying the area without any official or tacit approval from the group barring thereafter similar activity.
            “If you’re not with us you are not one with the people.  When you are a government employee chances are you are either an undercover agent sent to this place or an ordinary employee radiating dishing out social services. Therefore, you have to see us first to give you clearance of movement, a rule enforced to any visitors by the rebels,” people would learn the basic rule of the forest.
            How about the local officials? Naturally, they abide and respect the law of the rebels. Some would say they constitute  mass base. It’s either you are with us or not, he would later learn from Ka Roy. The other alternative of course is when you would entertain them during special occasion when you would force yourself to dance to the tune of staccato and rattling armalites hitting your feet, a barangay captain would later complain in jest. It’s what a media man would call as shadow revolutionary government implying among others that either all or majority of local officials are rebels or have left-leaning tendencies. Those who don’t identify their cause with them either stay away from the barrio leaving the command of responsibility to the rebels. As a result, many barangays covered by them become idle and abandoned. But the most uncomfortable of all experience is when you sleep with door and window open until daylight. What for? To allow the host to come over anytime in the evening to talk with you of your reason  visiting the area, a common practice to their held territories and a revelation to unsuspecting visitors.
            There are only few people doing business in the morning noticeably all members of the underground movement. Where are the rest? They are either in far away mountains or hills on duty and normally come back before sundown. It’s what Marcos would later claim as armed combatants in the evening and farmers in the morning. Those staying at the base of the mountain do familiar house chores. Surprisingly, the children are sporting long armed barrel and would be quick in asking credentials from the visitors. And when cleared would either ushered in or take them for a horse ride to an undisclosed places.
            To Major de la Rosa’s knowledge they go inside the bunker like a comet swallowed away by    vast universe unperceived to one’s naked eyes.
            “Others maintain their presence in any strategic houses like any ordinary dwellers only their tucking in sophisticated firearms like telescopic Armalite. So when they find you suspicious, it’s practically very easy to freeze.”
            “ From the access road along towards the base of the camp, no one passes by undetected. Thus, the best way you could do safely is negotiate the area walking without firearms. If the purpose is deliberate like wanting to have an audience with the big boss, the best remedy is to bring along anything bearing white color. A chicken or a dove brought means you are coming for peace.”
“But not coming full packed and in military uniform yet. Go and you’ll never see again daylights,” the Major ended his briefing.
              Such is the first base Taklin and company would go. It would be definitely very bad business. But what could he do. The country is on fire. To aggravate the problem, you’re waging war against an unknown enemy.
            “How could you win when you’re even fighting almost your own shadow, a veteran of military operation complained? It’s worst than the second world war because we really saw the Japanese. But not now in the hinterlands conquering the enemies seem to be shrouded in mystery,”  he would add. Unfortunately, he remains undaunted as ever.
            “That’s only true to people not really committed in eliminating the commies much less those who just enlisted themselves out of the heck of it without sufficient background in military operation such as those high school or college graduates who for economic reasons volunteered to serve the military but could not fire a single shot. Worst still, these are the same people who could easily leapfrogged to higher position at the expense of those better qualified with credible credentials,” thought Taklin.
            The more he is challenged by this development. “If there are no people in uniform like the Reform the Old Society Movement willing to take the challenge, who would care? Then, who suffers most, not the opportunist but the country,”  the head of the initiating team now makes sense to him. Such has been this sentiment and maybe would remain till he dies.
            Vividly recalling his entry in the PMA “I’ll just cross the bridge when I’m already there,” is not put in an acid test.
            True to his calling, finding himself in war zone seems to be the fulfillment of his vision only each minute appears an ordeal. Reviewing his reconnaissance work the other week, the task before him is undoubtedly tall order to accomplish invoking almost a miracle. Praxis of theory learned right now is how he puts it.
            “By foot,” he thought the best way to reach the first base. The access road is definitely passable but not when you are already negotiating the ascent of Mt. Sungcal. Once he remembers a six by six military vehicle turned upside down after passing over hundreds of raw tomatoes spread on the road. The driver unable to read between the lines just passed through only all ten tires were flat from the nails safely encased inside several tomatoes. What follows was the coup ‘d grace of those armies haplessly sandwiched inside. Not leaving any stone unturned, the rebels even burned the vehicle after killing all the armies inside.
            “At least by foot, the probability of reaching the base is great only they have to contend with hundreds of land mines buried into the ground,” his  valid contention.
Recalling Mc Arthur mines killing Capt. Estrada’s friends instantly induced him to sweat.
            “What if one among those buried is similar land mine ending the tragedy of Capt. Estrada’s exploit. And worst still, what if all buried landmines were as big or even bigger than Mc Arthur’s tank.
            “What an end it would be for his budding military career.”
            Reviewing one by one required precautions, he convinced himself they could reach the base by all means. By then he could contact Maj. Lim for both air and ground attack later from behind.
            “Don’t fire a single shot,” he remembers again the Major’s advice.
            “No short-cutting of trailers and access road, don’t chase a decoy. Don’t sit on a makeshift chairs and stalls. Don’t cook on anybody’s dirty kitchen and many other similar ‘Thou shall not precautions’ linger at the back of his mind as they were halfway of the target. And yes watch your steps on vines lying across the road, they could caught you off guard and easily hook you to death. Don’t forget too tall trees covered with shrubs, they’re homes of snipers. Every precaution was considered as if on the tip of his fingers. Now the final question is what if any of his man blunders? Then plan B follows by safely covering and fire when under attack. Survival in other words. Again even if provoked, no chasing of enemies. That’s the easiest way to fall into their trap and needs a miracle to save your neck getting out from.
            So far Taklin has no question on the conduct of the operation. They’re all basic need and indispensable. Save for one, waiting for the Commanding Officer’s advice when to fire the first shot. This is not in other words war of two different nations but rather of people of the same race, creed and color living in the same nation. Maybe the Major is kidding leaving him any initiative to exploit. What if the rebels intercept or cut their communication lines and or if fired upon by the rebels. It’s still the first shot only coming from the other party. That’s the problem with military institution, there not much room for elbowing as if the civil strife going on is theatrical presentation where the director always calls the shot.
            “That’s why I would forever stay with the RSM to help clear this nagging issue,” he kept repeating himself. For the first time, his commitment to the movement grows by leaps and bounds and declared that he would wholeheartedly submit his loyalty and commitment to the cause of the group – help wiping out the commies from the face of the country.
            “That’s why you’re in, a bonafide Wolf!” reminded himself.
            Major de la Rosa was practically engrossed in his reflection before an alert from Charlie brought him back to reality.
            “See the smoke that is visible  over there,” said Charlie to Taklin nodding.
            “Seems very suspecting from the looks of it.”
            “Wait!” Taklin commanded his men to drop on the ground as he swiftly went towards the house nearby. Getting nearer, silence was deafening save for chickens loitering around. In spur of a moment two dogs suddenly came out running towards him. He was about to shot remembering the rule given by Major. He was right, it might invite suspicion from nearby residents. Taking out his hunting knife, he lashed the bigger one slitting its neck. The thrust was fatal as the hapless canine dropped to the ground tail wagging gasping for his last breath. The other went back to the house his tail folded down in between his legs. From the window stood an old man his gray hair solidly hanging touching the back of his tattered white shirt unperturbed of the sight of his dog lying dead on the ground its blood spurting out to the hallowed ground. Taklin could only managed to swallow his saliva seeing Mang Tomas looking at him realizing the gravity of offense he committed against the old man.
            “Sorry . . . . Are you the only one in here,” Taklin said wiping the blooded hunting knife with cogon grass.
            “Yes. You must be a military,” said an old man in fine hoarse voice his receding hairline becoming pronounced.
            “Any business doing in this very remote place from the town?”
            “I’ve been farming for the past twenty long years. My wife been dead and buried here. I’ve got five children. The four living with their respective families in lowlands. The youngest Ador, in the movement. That’s what he likes. I haven’t seen him since he joined the rebels five years ago. And I don’t know either if he’s still alive or dead. I don’t care it’s his business.”
            “Are you not informed that civilians are required to leave this place for the military operation going on.”
            “You’re right. Unfortunately, I don’t care being switched by the on-going war. You can do what you want. But I don’t want to leave this place. It’s been my forefathers ancestral land and I will continue protecting this till I die. Leaving this place is already tantamount to betrayal accruing us a curse from them.”
            After asking pardon, he hurriedly withdraws with his men back to their feet negotiating Mt. Sungcal.
            “Careful. The road over there is dangerous,” Mang Tomas blared.
            “You’re one of your kind and sorry for killing your dog again,” Taklin thought of Mang Tomas representing the voices of majority hungering for peace in the country.
            “You might not understand the moral persuasion of our mission but I know your children’s children will in the end. We have you see to kill to stop the killing to set peace free,” Taklin thought as he and his men swiftly moved towards their target.
             And before they knew it, hail of bullets were sprayed towards them coming from both directions of an access road killing two of his men instantly.
            “Take cover!” he shouted.
             “My God why did I not learn that Mang Tomas dogs’ bark was a potent of doom,” he realized reminding himself not to commit the same mistake again.
            “No wonder that an old man didn’t mind him killing the other dog.”
            Exchange of gunshots ensued unfortunately, the rebels already retreated from the area before Taklin and his men could consume half of their ammunitions. After the flames of smoke cleared Taklin could only whistle from the tragedy they met. From his count four were dead leaving him two supportive men – assistant radioman and telescout. It was no doubt a costly mistake specially the land mines blowing right before their faces. The time was short barely fifteen minutes but it was almost hell, a harrowing experience to boot.
            “Where did we blunder?” he said groping for an answer in the dark. Bingo, his mouth agape recalling Mang Tomas.
            “Treat every civilian as your enemy,” he uttered to himself making sure that it becomes a permanent law of his military operation from now on.
            Calling his Superior  back in the barracks he was told to proceed as planned. He would take care the casualties right away by that time they would have probably reached the base of their target.
            “By all means Major  de la Rosa proceed,” he was advised.
            “Yes I will only after I save the four fallen men carried on the stretcher back to an appropriate place their respective families would recover later. At least their families would see that their husbands really died in combat and that we have enough courtesy of bringing them home even inside their caskets for decent burial,” his subconscious was telling him.
            The ascent continued charting the unknown world of Mt. Sungcal this time doubly cautious of every move.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            Meanwhile, in the barracks Major de la Rosa prepared everything he needs for the final assault and capture of Sta. Maria. Taklin has been through several skirmishes delivering desired blows engaging in killing spree against the rebels but this one he is yet to show that he’s got another remaining ace down inside his sleeve.
            “Everybody should not leave any stones unturned. Kill all the termites. They deserve to get the necessary cure for their disease. But don’t overkill. Remember Protocol II of the Geneva Convention. We have to fight but see to it things are delivered clean. If not at least there’s semblance of order,” he would recall the final briefing of Lt. Col. Lim tasked by Malacañang to call the shots.
            In his roughly nine years in military operation, there were not much damage he could recall that did not encourage him all the more to strive just like basketball he would remember. An instance was when they were overran by battalion-size NPAs patrolling the area. It was a very gross mistake and probably luck was not on their side. So much bloodshed, too many casualties on their side in a very brutal manner yet. An NPA even shout out loud in jubilation after stabbing the face of the Commanding Officer held captive piercing repeatedly. The rebels must have been really gaining members as he was told that young boys and girls in their early teens were joining the group earlier staging that midday ambush. The rest of this experience was blurred by the excessive sufferings his men experienced. 
            “Sometimes you lose, sometimes we win. That’s all there is in war like Chinese philosophy of yin-yang.”
            “ We must win this big war this time,” he thought.
            And why not considering all the basic support extended to them from logistics to personnel and related basic needs. What could they ask for more. There is altogether reserve plane for airlifting any casualties and to deliver ammunition in the event they would run out of bullets.
. . . . . . . . .

            Events happened too swiftly. There was not much fun  in fact that airplanes swooped down for the final reconnaissance of Mt. Sungcal. Few days later Major de la Rosa and his men were on the footsteps of the mountain after penetrating unmolested surprising him and his men how the scaling was done without much effort and danger, and experience unexpected in making the climb.
            “Must have been wrong target,” he thought as he start mobilizing his men.
             “But no and never,” he insisted. His intelligence network do not err at least that what he learns from the past. How could they fail in clearing the area when so far they have not experienced failure.
            “Hope this assault would be completed all the way capturing this mysterious mountain without firing any single shoot. But that is easier said than one read in Art of War,” the idea playing on his mind.
            “Are you sure we’re on the right target?” Maj. de la Rosa probed on Corporal Nestor Ravelo on his side wanting to be sure about it.
            “Unless out intelligence network erred,” the Corporal readily answered.
            “Excellent. At least our feeling is mutual. But you know it’s not bad thinking aloud. Probably we’re close on the target if not we’re into it,” The Major said.
            The  surrounding is silent save for sustained sounds of crickets providing musical background as the maneuver continues.
            “Will  conquer this mysterious mountain. I do hope we would not destroy unseen creatures,” Major de la Rosa initially said oozing with confidence.
            “We would. Why not. But later when killing starts,” Major Taklin cleared anew boosting the spirit of his men.
            Soon they started scaling the dangerous and winding curves passing through several temporary staircases.
            “That’s where we might have the real trouble we could bargain for,” Major de la Rosa thought.
            “But God forbid,” he readily invoked to avert possible disaster.
            Vigilance were all written all over the faces of each one he commanded his men to get ready in penetrating the cave.. After clearing the area by three of his men, he headed his advance party to a place of wonder sending him evoking awe and enchantment. Must have been really the place of fairies and elves. The underground river barred by thick covering tell them that they’re only up there unless they have to swim to see what is really behind. Cueing his flashlight on, it dawned to Maj. de la Rosa that they were entering dangerous place.
            “What if the rebels would overran his men outside and charge them outright against the mysterious  waters,” the notion taking him aback. A tragedy indeed. And what if hundreds of rebels would swoop over them coming out from the water. Another tragedy. Or what if they would be drown to death inside the cave.
            “Who knows really if Mt.Sungcal is powered and controlled by push buttons that one push would already means their capture and death inside the cave,” an unsolicited idea giving him chilling effect.
            And while immersed in his battle plan, Sgt. Robles fidgeted him to come nearer and get the radio.
             “Major traffic here. . . “ Sgt. Robles, his surviving telescout, invited his attention fidgeting him to get the Kenwood radio handset.
            “Someone, on the line. . . . “ the Sgt. Said.
            Hurriedly, Taklin took the receiver.
            “Major de la Rosa welcome aboard! Be my guest. . . . “
            “Enjoy and have fun with your visit here!” the voice told before he could speak.
            “ But if I were you, I would rather join our nationalist struggle for democracy. We might have not all the logistics you enjoy to survive. Guns, gold and all economic resources what have you – all yours. Unfortunately, you miss one important resource whose absence left all your resources to smithereens. People – no less, the most coveted resource and prize of this struggle. Add your Armed Forces of the Philippines gradually breaking into pieces doom to disintegrate let alone killing each other as witnessed in several coup d etat . . . .”
            “That’s what you just think,” Major de la Rosa reminded himself as the voice in the radio continues.
            “That’s what you got because of greed and hungry for power you guys securing the Grand Apo ruling over us in perpetuity. A coveted prize awaits you is in order here. That if you ended as victors not victims otherwise, the trophy would still be to us. Thanks for your courtesy coming over to receive it. We’ll make your day,” off the radio before it comes back.
            “My deal to you – take it or leave. You have one move left as we have already stalemated you.”
            “Got my message! You’re already in a fix!”
            The Major remained speechless not sure his feeling if it is usual deception to reconsider his impending military operation. But no, they are right there in their camp.
            “ If you can’t, you have still time to go back to the barracks and save yourself and your men’s lives and most importantly, your family. We advertently spare your life earlier to do that favor for them. You’re still too young to die . . . . And you could be man enough.”
            The line was instantly cut off before Taklin could answer. The message to Taklin was crystal-clear only the caller was merely a ten year old boy. And kid doesn’t lie. The heat is on!

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