What played out in the Golan Heights last week would have made a great war movie.
Seventy-five Filipino troops serving as United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan, the no-man’s land between Syria and Israel, were surrounded by Syrian rebel fighters, who demanded that they surrender.
The Filipinos’ commander, an Indian general, must have been terrified, because he ordered them to give up their arms and raise the white flag if the rebels attacked. But our troops refused, triggering a standoff as UN officials tried to talk the rebels into lifting the siege and allowing the Filipinos safe passage.
The rebels tried to force the issue by attacking one post manned by 40 Filipino soldiers. Although lightly armed, the Filipinos repulsed the attack.
UN armored vehicles brought the other group of 35 Filipinos to a secure area. The rest of their colleagues sneaked out of their post under cover of night and walked for an hour to another UN position.
Philippine military officials, who had been following the developments in the Golan Heights from Camp Aguinaldo, broke into smiles after learning that the Filipino troops had just pulled off “the greatest escape.”
The Armed Forces chief, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, was all praise for the peacekeepers, and rightly so. “Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours. We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire,” General Catapang said.
But he was severely critical of the indecisiveness of the Indian general, who heads the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, saying he put his troops at risk.
The Indian officer had twice ordered the Filipinos to hand over their weapons to the rebels. Had the troops complied, they would have become hostages, and that would have complicated the situation, General Catapang said.
He ordered the Filipino troops to defy their commander, knowing he could get in deep trouble with UN authorities by doing so. But for General Catapang, the safety of his countrymen comes first.
He said he does not expect the Indian general to apologize for putting the lives of his men on the line. “What is needed here is for him to be investigated,” General Catapang said.
Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the Armed Forces Peacekeeping Operations Center, said he relayed the no-surrender order to the Filipino blue helmets. “I also told them it’s a no go because under the rules of engagement, you can use deadly force to defend yourself and UN facilities.”
The commitment of the Philippines to answer the UN call to send peacekeepers to the world’s hotspots has never been in question. As of last July, 675 Filipinos were serving in UN peacekeeping missions around the globe. About half of them are with UNDOF, which was deployed in the Golan Heights in 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
Twenty-two Filipinos have died in UN peacekeeping missions since 1963.
“They may be soldiers, police or national staff. But there are no differences among them in terms of the risks they faced, the contributions they made, and the pride they took in their service to the United Nations,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon once said of the blue helmets.
“The difference between an ordinary person and a hero is that the hero voluntarily braves danger to save others,” the UN chief said.
The courage and dedication to duty of the 75 Filipino peacekeepers deserve recognition. And Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon shares our sentiment.
Congressman Biazon has filed a House resolution commending the 75 Filipinos for showing “to the international community the sterling qualities and dedication to duty of our soldiers even in the face of numerically superior forces.”
“What they did was worthy of emulation,” he said.