Qwertyman for Monday, March 20, 2023
(This story may seem inspired by recent events, but it has nothing to do with the facts of specific cases.)
CPL. ELMER Kabigting heard the hornbill minutes before he spotted it on his PVAR, a kind of a honk followed by a murmur. He knew the sound from the long days and nights he had spent in forests, an almost hourly reminder of time passing, until human footfalls and gunfire broke the spell and sent the birds and monkeys scattering overhead. Through his gunsight, Kabigting watched the hornbill hop from branch to branch until it found just the right one to perch on, peering down at the landscape over its bright red mouth.
He tried to imagine what the bird could see. A scientist he had befriended in Bukidnon once told him that birds saw colors that humans could not, and that their eyes worked well in the low light of dawn and dusk, enabling them to hunt while other animals stumbled around or waited for things to clarify. The corporal wondered if a gunsight could be made that could see like a bird. The sun was beginning to drop on the horizon, and in an hour it would be hard to tell one van from another, especially if they came in a convoy—not that it mattered, given what he had to do, but something in him revolted at the thought of unnecessary waste. There were things he did not care to see in sharp detail.
Even without pulling the trigger, Kabigting felt the power of the weapon in his hand. The Pneumatic Valve and Rod Rifle was almost new, and if he had had it in Marawi, he might not have lost so many friends. It was supposed to be superior in so many ways—less recoil, less muzzle rise, better accuracy, lower maintenance—and he had heard that it was favored by the Special Forces, which made him feel like he had been promoted, using it today. He didn’t ask Sgt. Galicia where the cache had come from; even while in service, the sergeant had been remarkably resourceful, finding extra rations, gin, and cigarettes for the men, bringing tears even to Capt. Reyes’ eyes. Reyes was an academy graduate who was honest to the core and whose men rolled their eyes when he spoke of “courage, integrity, loyalty” and had them kneel in prayer, but even he could not and did not ask Galicia to stop what he was doing.
Kabigting turned his eye from the hornbill to the road. He knew that, a kilometer up, where the road ascended from a deep valley, a spotter was waiting to let him—let them—know by radio that the convoy was coming. There were six of them, three on either side, two with grenade launchers, the last men a couple of hundred meters down, a gauntlet through which no one would pass alive. Elmer knew three of those men, Marawi veterans like himself whom Sgt. Galicia had located in the bars and slums of Ozamis and Dipolog, people who no longer had much to lose but everything to gain for themselves and their families.
“What if we get caught—or if we die?” asked one of the six, when they had gathered together to discuss the operation in a carinderia in Dapitan.
“Then your families get everything. They’ll be set for life. If you don’t talk,” said Sgt. Galicia.
“We might be better off dead,” said another, with a chuckle. “If we die, we can’t talk.”
“I don’t have a family,” said yet another man, stubbing his cigarette onto his plate and burning a scar onto the cheap plastic.
“Then we’ll divide your share among the others,” said the sergeant. “They’re your family now.” The other men laughed but the ex-soldier remained glum. He was one of those whom Elmer knew, and Elmer knew as well that the man’s wife had left with their children after he had broken her nose once too often.
Elmer thought about his own family—his mother, his wife, and their five children back in Kabankalan, the youngest not even six, the eldest a high school senior who wanted to be a doctor. His daughter’s ambition made him laugh—they couldn’t possibly afford to send her to medical school—but he stopped laughing when she told him that it was for her to cure him if he ever got shot. He did come home once with a bandaged head, telling the children he had been grazed in a firefight with rebels, but he had been roundly bashed in a brawl with fellow soldiers over a card game debt. It wasn’t long after that incident that he found himself on the street and out of uniform, along with the sergeant and several of his buddies, after a local merchant complained to the governor—who happened to be his cousin—that a group of soldiers had broken into his warehouse and had carted away two truckloads of rice.
Yes—Elmer had admitted to his superiors—they had taken the rice, but everyone knew that it had been smuggled in from overseas, so who was the bigger thief? But nobody heard him, Elmer thought, they weren’t even listening.
So when Sgt. Galicia called for a gang of the boys to get together for some jobs, it was easy for Elmer to convince himself that they were still at war, except that this time the enemy was whoever Galicia said was as bad as the rice merchant, whose children went to private schools in Manila and whose wife served as the hermana mayor in the town fiesta. Their first target was the merchant himself, for no money but just to exercise their trigger fingers and feel good about themselves. This was followed by hits on a couple of rural banks, a vice-mayor, a radio commentator, and a regional bureau director, and despite some touch-and-go moments, it all became more routine, especially as the money flowed in and they began buying motorcycles, fishing boats, flat-screen TVs, and smartphones for the kids. Even Elmer’s daughter began to think he was serious when he teased her about taking up plastic surgery, so she could fix his cauliflower ears.
But those targets were easy and never shot back. Today was going to be different—an armed convoy of a van and two SUVs, including a police escort. They said the vice-governor was going to be in the van in the middle. They knew he preferred to ride the HiAce instead of his armored Montero when he was with his family. Elmer had seen them in church once, at a friend’s wedding. The older boy had a cowlick in his hair. He heard the hornbill’s call again. His radio crackled. The corporal did not want to see whatever the bird could.