Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guarding the Historic Polls: A Tale of Heroism during the 2010 Elections

Written by Major Harold M Cabunoc (Inf) PA

On May 8, 2010, two days before election day, 2LT Warren Bionat was already busy preparing himself for a very delicate ‘mission’. He was tasked to lead a squad of soldiers to secure the polling centers in communist rebel-infested villages in Casiguran, Sorsogon.

Bionat is no stranger to the harsh environment in Casiguran town. He had patrolled the remotest areas as a Platoon Leader of the 49th Infantry Battalion’s Charlie Company based here. He had experienced shooting it out with the communist terrorists a few months back.

“I am fully aware that we were vulnerable to possible attacks by the NPA rebels in those villages. At least three encounters had transpired in areas around Sta Cruz and San Pascual villages. Meanwhile, we were also confronting armed thugs who were working for selfish politicians,” said Bionat.

Based on the operating guidelines issued by higher headquarters, soldiers are tasked to conduct security patrols near the polling centers to ensure the conduct of honest and credible elections. Moreover, soldiers are not allowed to come inside the polling centers.

In compliance to this directive, Bionat and his men departed from their company base two days before the election day. They headed towards San Pascual village passing through the six different villages as part of their task of ‘barangay visitation’ to show their presence.

Later in the day, his patrol established a patrol base in a strategic location overlooking San Pascual village. The situation was normal until he received a call from his commander late in the afternoon of May 10, during election day.

“Check the reported harrassment of voters in Burgos village. There are armed men who threatened voters there,” he recalled his commander as saying.

He immediately alerted his men to proceed towards Burgos village. Reminded about the past skirmishes with the NPA rebels about 5months before the elections, he and his men chose the forested areas as their route, delaying their movement just to ensure their safety.

Reaching the polling center in Burgos village at about 7:00pm, he noticed that there were people inside the school but it was very dark. There was no light even inside the polling centers.

Investigating about the situation inside, he summoned the leader of the Barangay Tanod who was detailed inside the school.

“What are you doing here, why aren’t you installing lights inside the polling centers?,” he grudgingly asked the village watchman. He was frustrated that the ‘tanods’ could not give clear explanation for their failure to help install even kerosene lamps inside the polling centers.

He learned later that a commotion took place when an armed man was threatening some voters inside the polling center, and that a voter collapsed as a result. However, the situation got back to normal when the people realized that the soldiers were just outside the school premises.

He talked to many voters and the BEIs to let them know that we were there to protect them against anyone who will disrupt the polls. He and his men kept watch until the polling was completed by around midnight.

“I was relieved that the voting went unhampered despite the absence of lights inside the school. They were contented with their small flashlights during that time but I really wished they (BEI and pollwatchers) used their common sense by installing even emergency lights,” Bionat revealed in between sighs.

Early in the morning of May 11, he received another call from his commander about the alarming situation in San Pascual village.

“Please check the status of the BEIs in San Pascual village because they are not responding to phone calls from their superiors in the COMELEC. Something might have happened during the transport of the PCOS machines and voting results,” he heard the worried voice of his commander as saying.

Reaching the village at around 10:00am, he noticed that the situation looked calm and peaceful. He saw some bystanders having their drinking sessions in a ‘sari-sari’ store.

Learning that the BEIs had already left at around 4:00pm on May 10, he decided to temporarily stay near the day-care center in the middle of the village as he tried to establish radio contact with his company base.

He and his radio man were tinkering with the Harris manpack radio when he heard sporadic gunshots coming from behind the houses.

His warrior instincts directed him to shout “kalaban!” (enemy) and “cover” as he himself dashed towards the concrete classroom. He sensed the bullets whizzing just inches around him as he jumped inside the building.

Peeping outside the window, he could see the enemy positions. He saw around 3 bandits wearing civilian outfits, firing their weapons behind a house. Confused civilians started screaming as they looked for their children.

“Return fire! Make sure of your targets!,” he shouted to his soldiers, reminding them about the presence of civilians. Exchange of gunfires continued. He can hear the bullets smashing through the concrete walls.

He crawled towards Pfc Martin, his SAW Gunner, to give give him his sector of fire.

“Sir, you got a bullet wound on your left foot,” Cpl Macaraeg, the Squad Leader said, pointing at his leg.

“Don’t worry about me, direct your men. Spread out to suppress the enemies who are firing from the high ground,” he ordered Macaraeg amidst the loud explosions.

Seeing that blood was dripping, he started to feel the gnawing pain from his wound. However, he continued directing his men to press the fight by coming near their positions to direct their fires.

Then he saw one of the rebels behind a coconut tree about 75-meters away, he took his aim. He can see part of the terrorist’s shoulder while the latter fired his weapon at them. Squeezing his trigger, he saw the terrorist fell down but was able to run away.

“I definitely hit him but he did not sustain a fatal wound,” he said, narrating his experience in that ‘face-to-face’ encounter with the NPA.

After 15 minutes, he saw that the rebels started to retreat. He commanded his men to cease firing and observe the surroundings.

Assessing that the rebels have scampered away, he directed Macaraeg to send 5 soldiers to scour the enemy positions as the rest provide overwatch.

Moments later, his soldiers recovered a cellphone from the wounded bandit whom he shot behind a coconut tree. He felt vindicated. While he can freely recuperate from any hospital, the NPA terrorist might end up treating himself in the boondocks.

Recovering from his leg wound in a provincial hospital a day after that encounter, Bionat was happy that he survived the latest NPA atrocity.

“I am proud to have served in that historic elections. In my own little way, I was able to contribute something to our people that they will remember forever. For sure, I will come back and continue helping the people in my duty assignment ,” he beamed as he narrated his story.

Raring to serve and fight anew. 2LT Bionat recovering from his wounds sustained in combat.

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