by: MGEN DELFIN CASTRO (Ret), former Commander of SOUTHCOM AFP from 1980 to 1986.
Chapter 4: The Reward of Persuasion: Bloodbath in Pata
Even as the NPA was being checked along the Davao-Agusan boundary incident was shaping up in Sulu, one of that had echoes of the Patikul massacre of 10 October 1977 and that would characterize the duplicity and ferocity of the conflict in the southern islands in those years. In time, it came to be known as the Pata Massacre.
The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division had launched an operation in Pata Island on February 9, 1981 in the wake of reported landings of an undetermined number of MNLF forces somewhere at Barangay Pata Likud. The 31st Infantry Battalion was at the forefront while two other battalions were screening on the mainland side. The Brigade set up its Advance Command Post in Patian Island, the next island away from Pata. As a result, Mayor Burahan of Pata called a meeting of island leaders in Barangay Saimbangon on February 10 to assess the situation. Among those who attended were Vice-Mayor Ombra Tagid-gid, Omar Ali, Faisal, Issa, Kadaffy, Salahuddin, Moharam and CHDF Commander Unad Masillam of Pata Likud.
Barangay leaders denied presence of MNLF elements in the in their barangays. Assured that no MNLF forces had landed, the 31st IB began to pull out on February 12, leaving only the Headquarters Service Company of the battalion Commander Lt. Col. Jacinto Sardual still planned to call on Commander Unad Masillam before leaving. Earlier that morning, Unad had a meeting in his residence with Omar Ali, Faisal, Issa, Kadaffy, Salahuddin, Moharam and his son Dindiong Masillam on rumored information that their fire-arms would be confiscated by the 31st IB before it left the island. This however, looked like a calculated provocateur’s move by Unad as most of the troops had already left the island.
The meeting was going on when Sardual arrived to call on Unad before leaving with the rest of his battalion. He was accompanied by just a few men. Unad and his group accompanied Lt. Col. Sardual back to where the Headquarters Service Company was encamped. Unad then told Sardual to have the company formed and their arms stacked so they could shake hands and bid each other farewell. Why Sardual, going against all norms and tenets of combat common sense, gave the orders for such and why the company officers in turn passed the order to the men can hardly be imagined. But the order went out and the men complied, except for a few who did not join the formation. While the company stood in formation, their arms neatly stacked, over 400 armed men of Unad and his allies quietly ringed them and then let loose searing volleys of automatic fire.
With comrades shredded and falling like bowling pins around them, soldiers attempted to get to their stacked firearms, to no avail. Only the few that did not join the formation were able to return effective fire. But they were badly outnumbered and the outcome was inevitable. When the smoked cleared and the guns fell silent, 119 officers and men lay lifeless; Sardual’s body sprawled among those of his men. The headquarters service company of 31st IB had ceased to exist in a matter of minutes. Some bodies were mutilated and burned. They had been looted of uniforms, shoes, wallets, watches and other valuables. Over 120 firearms and over a million rounds of assorted ammunition fell into Unad’s hands.
The Pata massacre was classic execution of one of Misuaris’s stratagems – for certain MNLF elements to join the government and at a given opportunity, to sabotage the returnee program of the government from within. Later, Commander Unad and his son Dindiong slipped away from the island- and their reward for what they had done: important positions in the military hierarchy of the Misuari faction. A damning silence That fateful morning, I arrived in Jolo to check on the 1st Division accompanied by Lanao Sur Governor Ali Dimaporo who was scheduled to visit Sulu Governor Mus Izquierdo. After the amenities, Division Commander Brig. Gen. Emilio Luga proposed that we visit the Advance Command post of Col. Rodolfo Canieso at Patian Island.
Canieso reported an ongoing operation in Pata Island, but nothing of the tragedy that had befallen the ill-fated 31st commander and his HQ Company. I wanted to go to Pata to look things over but he dissuaded us from proceeding, saying it might interfere with operations. Instead, he proposed that we accompany him to Juambal Island, some three islands away to the west, where he was supposed to accept the surrender of a rebel group. We went, using three UH1H Huey helicopters. I asked where the rebels were and what security arrangements had been prepared for their coming out. It turned out there were none! Only a handful of Special Forces personnel had arranged the surrender and it was to be in a swamp clearing about 100 meters from where we landed.
We were supposed to enter this swamp area to accept the surrender. I took Brig. Gen. Luga aside, whispering that we were not to enter the swamp and to prepare to leave the area as quickly and as quietly as possible. I then spoke to the lead helicopter pilot, telling him that I would cross a small water channel and once I started crossing back, to get the huey’s blades whirling and ready for immediate take-off. We did just that. I told Col. Canieso and the surrender coordinator we would come back later as the ceremonies might take some time and that Governors Izquierdo and Dimaporo were expecting us at a coordination meeting. We left Jumabal Island quickly behind and returned to Patian Island to drop off Col. Canieso who insisted on our having lunch there. Up to this time, Canieso kept a tight lip on events at Pata. I even accepted the surrender of some 60 rebels with Sulu Gov. Izquierdo, Lanao Sur Gov. Dimaporo, Sulu Vice-Governor Tupay Loong 1st Division Commander Brig. Gen. Emilio Luga, Jr. witnessing the ceremony. Later, Brig. Gen Luga brought me to Taglibi to see the progress of the BLISS housing project of the Ministry of Human Settlements.
From Jolo, we proceeded to Manila where that evening, while attending an Airforce function, an urgent call from President Marcos about the incident in Pata took all the luster of my evening away. I had to tell the President I was near Pata that morning but had been kept in the dark about the gravity of the situation. The President informed me he had directed the Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy to send available ships to cruise the waters around Pata and neighboring islands and to support the landing of additional troops.
There were no recriminations but the urgency of the Presidents tone spoke volumes. We had to do something about the incident. Very early next morning, Brig. Gen. Luga and I returned to Zamboanga, then Jolo.
Earlier, I had ordered a SOUTHCOM reserve, the 39th IB under Col. Ramberto Saavedra, to be placed under the operational control of the 1st Division for employment in Pata. Then we went to work.
The Pata Island operation using six batallions lasted 49 days. Pata, almost circular, with a diameter of ten kilometers was divided into six battalion sections around the base. As the rebels took advantage of the very narrow section boundaries going to the top of the island, the sections were reshaped with the 39th IB controlling the ventral elevations. Pata was then blockaded by the navy and supporting seaborne units. The main source of water for Pata, neighboring Daungdong Island, was controlled.
Rebels caught in the vise attempted to escape individually using single bamboo floats, empty gasoline or water drums, and or small paddle bancas. Most of them failed. The Regional Government under Ulbert Ulama Tugong used a government vessel to ferry relief goods to the island in coordination with Sulu Vice-Governor Tupay Loong. This was discouraged, however, and relief goods were funneled though Gov. Izquierdo and Pata Mayor Burahan. I was later accused of human rights violations over media by some sectors who believed I caused the “disappearance” of some residents.
Accusations of my being a “hawk” resurfaced. However, it turned out the desaparecidos were people taken from the operations area whom I put on board helicopters upon returning from inspection in Pata, people whom I brought to Jolo and delivered to Gov. Izquierdo for identification. Ahmad Bagis, the Customs Collector of Jolo who saw these Pata residents taken to Jolo and entrusted to the care of the Governor testified before media that the accusations against me were baseless.
The Pata massacre was a big boost to the sagging image of the MNLF Misuari faction. The casualties incurred by the AFP were by far the biggest incurred in a single incident since the start of the conflict in Mindanao. It also had the dubious distinction of achieving the biggest losses in AFP firearms and equipment in a single incident.
The outcome of the Pata massacre was pure and prime grist for the MNLF propaganda mill especially abroad to generate more support for the MNLF and play the incident up before the holding of the 12th Islamic Foreign Minister Conference scheduled in Baghdad, Iraq in June 1981 following many complaints of alleged human rights violations in Pata after the incident. Brig. Gen. Luga was transferred to the 4th Infantry Division in Cagayan de Oro and Brig. Gen. Angelo Quedding took his place as commander of the 1st Infantry Division.
The bitter pills
A case was filed in court against Commander Unad Masillam and 298 companions, 200 of them simply “John Does”. Pata was a bitter pill to swallow for the AFP. But as in most cases, bitter pills often brought swifter cures. For the AFP, the stigma of Pata was a priceless source of valuable lessons. And it learned fast. What did we learn?
- First, to always remember that the MNLF had given instructions to some of its units to surrender to the government and given the opportunity, to sabotage the returnee program from within. Any dealings with returnees deserve more than the usual amount of wariness and care. While the majority of returnee units sincerely came out to join the government, some measures have to be devised to determine which units may have come out with MNLF leadership blessings and, of course, the ulterior motive.
- Second, to ensure that battalion commanders are competent officers seasoned with the indispensable experience of command and operations. They must have gone through the mill – preferably starting out as platoon leaders, moving up to company command so their experience in operations and in the handling of men would show in their performance as battalion commanders. As it was, Lt. Co. Jacinto V. Sardual, CO of the 31st IB was a dental officer and did not have the benefit of regular troop leading experience before he became a battalion commander. His fatal error of ordering his men into formation and to stack up their arms allegedly on the mere suggestion of Commander Unad simply to facilitate a farewell handshake woefully showed his inadequacy.
- Third, for Brigades to always have an effective withdrawal plan for troops, ensuring that no unit, however small, is unnecessarily endangered. As it was, Commander Unad was able to assemble an armed group three times the strength of the 31st IB remaining on the island.
- Fourth, for military commanders to rise above themselves and to always report serious incidents immediately to superiors, no matter how embarrassing, so appropriate action may be immediately taken.
- Fifth, for Brigades and Division to always have a reserve to be employed when the situation calls for it. The 1st Brigade had no reserve. Neither did the 1st Division at the time of the Pata incident. When the operation was launched, there were seven (7) battalions in the 3rd Infantry Brigade under Rodolfo Canieso, only two battalions under Col. Rodolfo Tolentino, one of which (the 43rd IB) was sent to Bongao, Tawi-tawi.
- Sixth, when arranging for the surrender of enemy units, to have the surrender site under AFP control with superiority of forces in the site. As was the case in Jumabal Island, had we entered the swamp to receive the surrender, there was no way of knowing how we could end up- as hostages perhaps or fodder in yet another massacre. It would have been a grand coup for the MNLF – the SOUTHCOM Commander, the 1st Division Commander, the 1st Brigade Commander all in the bag- plus the destruction or capture of three helicopters.
Read more here: http://www.army.mil.ph/Pata/default.htm