LAST OUTPOST | Soldiers endure loneliness, spartan living to guard remote islands in Spratlys
The online news portal of TV5

AYUNGIN REEF, Kalayaan Island Group, Philippines – This place is probably the loneliest place a soldier can be assigned to. There is no land, only limitless water, like living in your very own water world.

The seven-man team stationed here on one of the Philippine-occupied areas in what is more popularly known as the Spratlys face a unique set-up: their entire military detachment is a broken warship.

Back in the 1990s, the Armed Forces of the Philippines intentionally ran its Landing Transport Ship 57 (BRP Sierra Madre) aground on this reef, located 176 nautical miles from mainland Palawan, so the country can claim it as its own territory.

Now, the ship is rusty, full of holes and is a very dangerous place for anyone to live in.

“Medyo mahirap ang buhay dito dahil walang puno, walang lupa, pero nakakapag-adjust naman kami [Life’s quite hard here because here are no trees, no ground, but we are adjusting somehow],” says Petty Officer 3rd Class Benedicto de Castro, one of the soldiers stationed here.

The soldiers--five Marines and two Navy personnel--spend most of their days fishing, listening to the transistor radio or just patrolling the ship. There are no cellphone signals, no cable TV. 

That’s why it came as a surprise to the soldiers when their commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, arrived at their detachment Thursday afternoon with a tub of ice cream.

Marooned for months with nothing to eat but fish, the soldiers’ faces light up like little children when the tub of ice cream was placed before their ocean-weary eyes.

Soldiers had the same reaction in other Philippine-claimed islands that Sabban visited.

“Masayang masaya kami na nakakita kami ng ice cream, high morale ito sa amin,” says 2nd Lt. Christopher Maguensay, commanding officer of the Lawak Island detachment.

Soldiers of Lawak Island (international name: Nanshan Island, located some 180 nautical miles from Ulugan Bay) crowd around a tub of ice cream personally delivered to them by their commanding officer, Lt. General Sabban. Within seconds, the ice cream is reduced to nothing.

“Malungkot dito. Miss na miss ko na ang anak ko. [We are lonely. I miss my child badly],” admits Staff Sergeant Rufino Flores, 49, amid a big spoonful of ice cream.

Unknown to many, the military’s Western Command has deployed teams of Marines and Navy personnel to nine of the Philippine-claimed islands and reefs to ensure that no foreign country will encroach on them.

While the soldiers face no immediate threat of attack, they still have to brave the unpredictable weather, the extreme loneliness and boredom all in the name of duty.

Lawak Island has a small detachment of 12 soldiers. They live by fishing and spend most of their days doing so. The island spans almost 5 square hectares surrounded by lush trees and a white sandy beach.

Manguensay says he tries to boost his men’s morale by encouraging them to engage in sports and discussions.

“Dapat busy kami lagi para di kami ma-bore. Tapos pinapatawag ko sila sa family nila minsan, tig-iisang minute [We always need to be busy to avoid boredom. Every now and then I let them call their families also; each one gets one minute on the phone],” he adds.

Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen who pass by the island often give vegetables and fish to the soldiers, all in good faith.

Sabban says Lawak Island would make for a great tourist destination.

“They intended to have an airstrip here…for commuter planes…so from Puerto (Princesa City), it only takes one hour by air. So if there’s an air strip here, many hotels, cold storage for the fishing industry---that’s a very big deal,” he says.

Another nearby Philippine-occupied island, Patag Island (Flat Island, very near Lawak Island), which spans only about a square hectare, would also make for a great island-hopping destination.

Parola Island (Northeast Cay, located 240 nautical miles from Ulugan Bay), the farthest Philippine-occupied island, is largely undeveloped, its resources untapped. Just a few kilometers across the island is the Vietnamese-occupied Pugad Island. From a distance at night, one can see the stark difference as the Vietnamese island is filled with concrete structures, while Parola Island is dark; the light from the lighthouse flickers and then it’s gone. Locals say the Vietnamese island houses that country’s naval academy.

“Thirty-one years ago I was the commander of this island and when I was here I would say that our island was much better than theirs simply because there were more troops here and the surroundings well-maintained. It seems that we are lagging very far behind,” Sabban says.

Sadly, the proposal to develop the islands still remains as it is – a mere proposal. A rusty bulldozer sits idle outside the soldiers’ detachment in Lawak, wasted away by years, with nothing to contribute to progress.

Staff Sergeant Engelbert Madrid, detachment commander of Parola Island security detachment, admits feeling a little envious of the Vietnamese on Pugad Island.

“This place is really sad because our neighbor is Vietnam, but we can’t go over there for a visit; all we can do is stare and be envious,” he says, speaking in Filipino.

The soldiers, however, remain unfazed by their situation. They spend most of their days fishing and planting trees and vegetables, engaging in leisure activities and developing the island in their own little way.

Sabban says that the presence of Marines in the disputed islands is significant: it is meant to let other countries know that these are Philippine-occupied areas.

“We are not confrontational; what we’d like to do is to let others know that this is Philippine territory. We have to warn them that this is Philippine territory and they should respect our sovereignty,” he says.

Petty Officer 2nd Class John Kenneth Atchina, 42, stationed at Likas Island (West York Island, 240 nautical miles from Ulugan Bay), is on his sixth tour of duty in the Spratlys. He has been deployed to many of the disputed islands since 2005. He admits it’s no easy feat but sees it an honor to be one of the soldiers to defend the country’s territories at this raw frontier.

“Masarap yung pakiramdam,” he says. “Kaya kahit siguro palagi kami dito mag duty okay lang [The feeling is great. Maybe even if we’re deployed here often it’s still okay].”

Sabban says that while the government has yet to tap the rich resources on these islands, the Marines will continue to stay there not only to protect the territory but also to enjoy the many islands’ rich resources. 

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