'Suicide squad' takes risks to rescue civilians

A group of rescue volunteers carrying a body on May 28 that they found at the beginning of the fighting between government troops and militants in Marawi.
A group of rescue volunteers carrying a body on May 28 that they found at the beginning of the fighting between government troops and militants in Marawi.PHOTO: REUTERS

Unarmed volunteers in Marawi brave gunfire and air strikes

MARAWI CITY (Philippines) • Mr Saripada Pacasum Jr gagged and turned away the first time he came across a decomposing body in Marawi City, where hundreds have died since fighters inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attempted to overrun the southern Philippine town six weeks ago.

But the 39-year-old rescue and recovery volunteer had no time to waste as gunfire rang out from government troop positions and militant snipers around him: He put on a pair of rubber gloves and helped carry the remains out of the conflict zone in a pick-up.

"I thought of resigning after that," said Mr Pacasum, who works in a disaster relief office. "I was scared and not prepared for this kind of job."

But Mr Pacasum continued to lead a team of about 30 young men and women who make near-daily forays to rescue civilians and retrieve victims in an urban battlefield that is infested with rebel snipers and battered by air strikes.

They have come to be known as the "white helmets" or "suicide squad" because of the risks they take when going in unarmed and wearing little protection other than white plastic construction helmets.

More than 460 people have been killed since the battle for Marawi began on May 23, including 82 members of the security forces and 44 civilians. The military believes hundreds of civilians are still trapped by the conflict, the biggest internal security threat the Philippines has faced in decades and a shock to neighbouring countries worried that ISIS is trying to establish a foothold in South-east Asia.

Fishermen, farmers, students and small business owners, mostly from Marawi, are among those who have volunteered for rescue missions.

"We all grew up in Marawi and it breaks our hearts when we hear that Marawi is under siege," said Mr Abdul Azis Lomondot Jr, a 25-year-old university student, speaking in the team's one-room office in the town's capitol complex, where many of the "white helmets" grab some sleep.

When the team gets a call from a trapped civilian or his evacuated relative, it first tries to determine his location. Team leader Pacasum then asks for volunteers. Mr Lomondot said: "We grab our helmets, IDs, a ladder, some small tools and we are good to go."

One such mission around three weeks into the siege almost went awry when the team drove into the conflict area in pick-ups but could not immediately find the house where four elderly people were known to be trapped.

"In that moment, I was panicking because I thought this may be an ambush," Mr Pacasum said, "We were just waiting for the sound of gunshots." After driving around for 20 minutes, the team finally located the house, but were shot at as they drove out with the civilians on board.

As the siege drags on and the government pours troops into the lakeside town, soldiers have started providing cover for some of the rescue team's missions. The team has also received counselling and equipment from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and training on how to properly handle cadavers.

Mr Pacasum, who has led more than 10 rescue missions, wants to see the battle through to the end, but will consider changing professions when it is over.

"It's too stressful, he said. "I have kids and I want to watch them grow old."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline ''Suicide squad' takes risks to rescue civilians'. Print Edition | Subscribe