The Siege of Marawi
Ruel Kapunan was in his element—developing and executing a strategy that could change at any time.
The leader of SPIDR, an elite voluntary special-ops unit in the Philippines, was in a makeshift room near ground zero coordinating the movement of retrieval team members toward the end of the 148-day siege of Marawi in 2017. Kapunan and five others under his command were applying tactical dispatch methods he’d learned from related experience and a class he’d attended at an emergency dispatch conference.
“I had to be ready on very short notice,” Kapunan says. “There were guidelines, but there was no SOP in place yet. I did this as we went along.”
Kapunan’s extensive work in rescue ops and 9-1-1 (via both the government’s official number and his own subscription-based emergency communications business) makes him a well-respected figure among members of the Philippine Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). In June 2017, one week into the siege, the DILG accepted his offer to volunteer in Marawi. He didn’t know until his first trip to Marawi on July 3 that he was assigned as branch director of the Philippine National Incident Management Team’s Management of the Dead and Missing (MDM) cluster operations. Its 60-member field retrieval team consisted of local medical responders and members of the fire service.
As the title implies, MDM provides retrieval of the dead, identification of bodies, culturally sensitive disposal of remains, and medical and psychological assistance to families of the missing and killed.1 MDM was organized in 2014 for human-induced and natural disasters and divided into several support teams, including police, civil defense, Department of Health, Red Cross, and telecommunication.
Five Months of Battle
Kapunan’s job put him in the middle of a war being waged between ISIS-linked rebel groups operating in the predominantly Muslim Marawi area and the Philippine army and national police. Marawi is an exception to the nation’s leading faith; about 86% of the Philippine population is Roman Catholic. The Maute, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and ISIS foreign fighters—from Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Chechnya—captured the southern Philippine city on May 23, 2017, following a heated firefight to protect an ISIS leader. The military did not anticipate the power of the rebels, who had stockpiled weapons ahead of the planned attack. A siege the government thought would last no more than a few days escalated into five months of pitched battle on the ground and from the air. ISIS rebels prowled the streets pursued by military and police forces. Rebels took hostages, killing some and forcing others—especially young boys—to fight alongside them. Government forces were also accused of violating human rights.
Kapunan instituted tactical dispatch methods built around critical operational and retrieval information gathered from the combined incident command team. Dispatchers using radios and available Internet bandwidth in the battle area navigated MDM field personnel and their vehicles through a city bombarded by improvised explosive devices, shoulder-fired rockets, armored vehicles, and air strikes. They monitored social media and provided real-time audio to facilitate communication among team members within different areas of operation.
Kapunan and the tactical dispatchers were under constant threat of being hit by stray bullets every time they left and entered the battle area. But personal safety wasn’t a priority for the volunteers. “The team was composed mostly of victims themselves, the people who lived here,” Kapunan says. “The desire to help was very strong.”
A City Decimated
On October 17, 2017, the day after two prominent ISIS militant leaders were killed, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the military had successfully liberated Marawi from terrorist influence. On October 23 all combat operations in the city were terminated.
Marawi, once a center of trade and culture in the southern Philippines, was decimated. No building was left unscathed after five months of artillery bombings by military forces and house-to-house combat. Family homes occupied during the siege were uninhabitable upon the return of their owners. Heaps of concrete, twisted steel, shattered glass, and personal belongings such as clothes and furniture were piled high in the streets. Graffiti and bullet holes competed for space on doors and walls. Antiexplosive teams scoured the battle zone for the improvised explosive devices. Rebuilding the city and the confidence of residents could take years.
The military said 163 soldiers and police officers were killed in action, dozens were reported missing, 47 civilians died, and 847 terrorists were killed.2 Thousands were wounded. The biggest number affected were the 20,000-plus people who fled from their homes to evacuation centers. Many still don’t know if or when they can go home due to power and water outages, slow clearing of unexploded ordnance, and the fear it will happen again.
“I still can’t put into words the terrible conditions this created for the people,” Kapunan says. “It was on a scale I’d never seen before. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see the faces of people who had lost everything. It’s very hard to put into words.”
Kapunan was a natural for MDM. He was owner of a GPS tracking business (Snaptech), which he divested from in 2013 to form a company to provide private emergency dispatch response (Pilipinas911). During the past four years, subscriptions have increased to 30,000 people using the service. His employees are emergency medical dispatch (EMD)-trained and certified by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, and the aforementioned conference he attended was the IAED’s Navigator ’18 conference. He is an official instructor for the government’s emergency 9-1-1 telecommunicator course.
Members of Kapunan’s nonprofit operation, SPIDR, are trained in medical, high-angle, fire, hazmat, and tactical first aid rescue. A portion of the money Pilipinas911 makes from subscriptions goes into disaster response volunteer deployments.
The name SPIDR comes from a spider’s strategy of lying motionless for a long time, then when it moves, striking with lightning speed. “Similarly, we can lie ‘motionless’ and wait for long periods of time,” Kapunan posted on the SPIDR Facebook page. “But when a disaster strikes, we should be quick in our movement—for every second counts and lives could be saved.”
Kapunan was drawn into the disaster field by a desire to acquire rescue and self-preservation skills after witnessing massive flooding north of the Philippine capital, Manila, in September 2011. “It was my first time to see such widespread damage and witness up close the agony it causes,” he says. “One particular sight I will never forget is that of a child on a pail with the mother wading through chest-deep water. The child looked very sick and the doctor [Kapunan was with] said the child might not make it if not brought to the medical facility. It was during the trip to the evacuation center, in the back of a military truck, that I decided I wanted to go into lifesaving.”
Kapunan’s involvement in Marawi emphasized his belief in training to be ready at short notice. It also provided a message he brings to emergency dispatch:
“Nine-one-one is no longer just for day-to-day emergencies,” he says, “but also for large-scale natural and human-induced disasters. During these times, it is the call-taker who is in the best position to help both the victim and the responder.”
1. Republic of the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Rules and Regulations Governing the Implementation of the Management of the Dead and Missing Persons, http://ndrrmc.gov.ph/attachments/article/2758/NDRRMC_Memo_Circular_No_19_s_2016_re_Rules_and_Regulations_Governing_the_Implementation_of_MDM.pdf.
2. Rappler.com. In Photos: 148 days of war in Marawi city, https://www.rappler.com/nation/185608-in-photos-148-days-war-marawi-city.
Audrey Fraizer is the managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Dispatch, published by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.