By Ben Cal
As the nation marked with grief the first anniversary of the Marawi siege by pro-Islamic State Maute terrorists last May 23, journalist Benjie Liwanag recalled his daring coverage of the bloody fighting that lasted for five months, during which, he found himself in the line of fire a number of times, but prayers and faith in God saved his life during those critical moments.
The Marawi siege was preceded by a series of clashes between the military and the Maute terrorists to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Islamic terror group, who was spotted in the Marawi.
During the fighting, the Maute terrorists attacked Camp Ranao and occupied several tall buildings, including the city hall and the Mindanao State University in Marawi.
In an interview, Liwanag said it was the second day of the fighting when he arrived in Marawi by car from Iligan City, where he and his driver, Joshua Otadoy, had to pass checkpoints put up by government forces on strategic areas going to Marawi.
Marawi City is about 850 kilometers south of Manila, in the province of Lanao del Sur in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Before they proceeded to Marawi, Liwanag and Otadoy donned their bullet proof vests and steel helmets for their protection since they were in a war zone, where stray bullets fly and zoom anytime of the day or night.
While approaching Marawi, they could hear the rattling sounds of gunfire from various calibers, including cannons and machine guns.
Liwanag immediately called dzBB in Quezon City to make his first on-the-spot broadcast of the ongoing firefight.
He knew beforehand how dangerous and risky his assignment was but he was determined to fulfill his job as a reporter.
“I prayed to God, morning, noon and night to protect me from harm, and the Lord heard and answered my prayers Thank you, Lord!” he said.
“During the five-month Marawi siege, I covered the gun battles for four and a half months, my office gave me a weeklong leave twice to visit my family in Metro Manila, but continued to monitor the situation daily during my vacation so I would be updated of the latest news,” Liwanag said.
During the Marawi siege, Liwanag reported blow-by-blow accounts of the fighting live on radio and TV on real time, tailing government troops during heavy fighting, finding himself in the line of fire.
Adam Harvey, radio broadcaster for the Australian Broadcasting Company, was the first journalist wounded during the Marawi siege.
Harvey was wounded in the neck while covering the fighting. He was rushed to the hospital and was pronounced out of danger.
The war had practically ruined the once beautiful and scenic Marawi City. However, rehabilitation of the city has been ongoing since its liberation from the terror attacks.
There were reports that foreign-looking terrorists have participated in the fighting, including some operating as snipers.
With today’s modern technology through the internet, people across the country and around the world were able to listen over the radio or saw the fighting including the “surgical airstrikes” by government forces against the Maute terrorists holed up in tall concrete buildings in Marawi City, on televisions, and mobile phones in real time, right in their living rooms.
Liwanag was no stranger covering the war. He covered the bloody Zamboanga siege mounted by elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 2013.
Other Manila-based journalists who likewise covered the Marawi siege were Manny Mogato of Reuters, a 2018 Pulitzer winner in journalism, Jim Gomez of the Associated Press (AP), Sandra Aguinaldo, Jun Veneracion, Macky Pulido, and Emil Sumangil all of GMA 7.
Also on the front line were Chiara Zambrano, Jeff Canoy, George Cariño, and Rod Gagalac of ABS-CBN TV/DZMM radio and Ed Estabillo, to name a few.
During the five-month siege, most of Marawi City’s commercial area was destroyed.
The government’s counter offensives had resulted in the killing of two top terrorist leaders, Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute on Oct. 16 last year. The following day, President Rodrigo R. Duterte declared that Marawi City was “liberated from terrorists influence.”
Six days later or on Oct. 23, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana formally announced that the Marawi siege had ended. The five-month fighting had resulted in the killing of 974 Maute terrorists, and the capture of 12 militants, including one foreigner.
On the side of the government, 168 soldiers were killed, including 12, who were killed accidentally by friendly fire, and some 1,400 others were wounded. Also during the same period, 87 civilians were killed, 40 of whom died due to various ailments.
With tears in his eyes, Liwanag emotionally recalled “how our soldiers made their great sacrifice by risking their lives in defending the country from terrorists’ attacks.”
“I salute our brave soldiers and I continue my prayers for them,” Liwanag said.
Like the raw courage of the soldiers, journalists – who covered the Marawi fighting – were unfazed in the face of the grave danger to their lives, as their mission was to broadcast and write for the world to know about the wicked truth of terrorism that continued to wreck mankind today.