There is probably nothing more disconcerting to an ordinary person than waking up suddenly in the darkness of early dawn to the thunder of gunfire and the loud explosions of what can only be an honest to goodness, full fledged war going on just a short distance from his home. But that is what exactly happened to me early Thursday morning.
As I tried to shake off then the lingering effects of an interrupted sleep, it became immediately clear to me that Lianga was again being attacked by New People Army rebel forces and that for the fourth time in its long and colorful history, the police station beside the town hall in the center of the poblacion was once more bearing the brunt of what could only be a determined assault by guerrilla insurgents.
I quickly joined many of the townspeople who were anxiously peering out of their windows and even huddled with the more fearless folk who had the guts to go out into the streets and peer around street corners in order to find out what was really going on. The din of the fierce fighting lasted for at least an hour. It has just past 5 o' clock when the first shots were fired and by 6 AM the town center was still echoing from the rhythmic thumping and loud cracking of rifle and machine gun fire as a small group of some nine policemen and army soldiers fought off some thirty rebels who had launched their attack from the hills on the western side of Lianga.
It was almost 7 AM when final confirmation came that the rebel forces had withdrawn back to where they came from leaving behind one wounded comrade who was eventually captured by government forces and immediately brought to the local hospital for treatment. He is now under military custody and has been supposedly identified as a vice-commander of the local guerrilla front involved in the Lianga dawn attack.
Worthy of note were several things both directly and indirectly related to the attack itself.
First, the bravery and presence of mind of the policemen and soldiers defending the police station cannot, in this particular action, be denied. Faced with an enemy superior to them in numbers and firepower, they were not only able to hold their own and successfully repulse the dawn raid but their effective return fire led to the capture of one of their attackers as well. All these they had accomplished with no casualties on their own side.
Second, the aftermath of the Lianga attack was also be seen as a serious and embarrassing setback for the local communist movement who may have planned for the success of the dawn raid as its way of demonstrating its capability to still effectively wage war against the government. This is in the wake of recent statements by the top military leadership of the armed forces that the communist insurgency all over the country is already a spent force and on the verge of total defeat.
Whether the failure of their assault in Lianga was the result of poor tactical planning, a botched execution of carefully laid plans or plain and simple bad luck, there is a lot of speculation here that the existing local guerrilla front units may no longer be the feared, combat-hardened and battle-savvy forces they were in the past. Many residents of the town who had been witnesses to all or some of the previous three rebel offensive operations in Lianga point out to a common impression that last Thursday's attack seemed tentatively as well as haphazardly carried out.
Even then, they also agree that that local military forces need to greatly improve their logistical and operational capability to respond quickly and effectively to rebel attacks on government facilities within the area. A brigade-size army unit is headquartered only some 9 kilometers away in Barangay St. Christine yet the Lianga police station defenders had to hold out for almost an hour before reinforcements could be safely sent to assist them.
Government troops are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are to ambuscades if they were to move quickly along the national highway to immediately respond to security threats away from camp hence the wait and see attitude. In the meantime, besieged police and military units have to fend for themselves. This not exactly a recipe for maintaining good morale among soldiers and policemen manning front line or isolated outposts.
Air assets such as helicopter gunships or sea craft capable of transporting troop reinforcements by sea could have quickly spoiled the dawn attack in Lianga by giving government forces the power to project its presence quickly where it is needed without necessarily exposing troops to the danger of ambuscades and harassment attacks by enemy forces hidden along land routes. The capability of the government to rapidly deploy forces and equipment would also discourage rebel attacks on vulnerable government targets since the success of such operations must ultimately depend on the element of surprise and the ability by insurgents to successfully complete such assaults quickly before the military react.
Third, despite the avowed efforts of the NPA guerrilla forces in the past to supposedly utilize all measures to insulate the civilian population from becoming harassed, injured or killed as a result of their offensive operations against government forces and installations, last Thursday's attack did have civilian casualties although minimal in nature. A civilian vehicle was strafed with rifle fire by rebels manning a blocking force in the north of Lianga after the driver, who was unaware of the ongoing rebel operation, failed to heed the blockade. A woman passenger was reported wounded in the leg in the course of that incident.
One house located right across the town hall and the police station suffered considerable damage as stray bullets rained on it in the course of the firefight. A mother and child inside had to dive for cover and crawl their way to safety. Luckily no civilians in the vicinity were injured in the course of the almost hour long battle.
In my view, however, the most notable thing about this morning's drama of sorts was the callous fatalism and almost voyeuristic glee with which most Lianga residents faced what for most other people in a similar setting would have been a traumatic and psychologically numbing experience.
Even when the clash at the town hall was at its most intense and volume of gunfire from both the rebels and the government troops was at its peak, curious bystanders were not only crouching and hiding behind street corners at a distance but many were actually positioned just meters away from the action. As the guns would quiet down a bit, there would be a surge of the mob to inch closer to the battle zone and then like startled chickens, the crowd would sudden scatter and scamper back to safety as the guns would start firing again.
I personally saw this ebb and flow of the curious throng happen many times during the course of the almost hour long battle. It would probably boggle the mind of a Lianga outsider to witness how so many people would so callously risk getting killed in the crossfire of an actual shooting war just so they can satisfy what can be seen as an unhealthy curiosity or an insane quest for the excitement of being able to get close enough to dodge flying bullets or smell the cordite and stench of battle.
Perhaps there are many of us here in Lianga who have seen too much and experienced an excess of the sights, sounds and scents of the never-ending war that has plagued this country for decades now. We have become inured, desensitized and calloused to the horrors of a conflict we now consider as normal and an integral part of our very existence.
It is a war that no longer horrifies or sickens us but perversely provides us (when we are directly touched by it) with the excitement, the spectacle and the sensual gratification of a big budgeted war movie blockbuster spectacular played out in real life before our every eyes instead of being confined to the sterile confines of some movie theater or on the television screen of our own living rooms.