GENERAL SANTOS CITY (02 February) — It was not too long ago. In fact, it was only in early January when I ribbed Joint Task Force Gensan head Col. Medardo Geslani that it looked like he is going to survive a full year without any major terrorist attack in the city.
It turned out that the remark was a tad too early.
Barely three weeks after that innocent conversation with him, another explosion rocked the city, claiming the lives of four innocent civilians.
The explosion outside Philbest Canning Corporation Wednesday evening last week was the 16th to rock the city beginning May of 2000. It came a year and twenty days after the last bomb attack at a lotto outlet in front of the public market on January 10 last year. Six people were killed and several others were injured in the incident.
While Wednesday’s explosion fitted into the pattern of previous attacks in that majority of them occurred late afternoon or shortly after dusk, its location was out of the ordinary, to say the least.
But that is where the difference ended.
All of the attacks, including last week’s blast, were aimed at civilian targets, the perpetrators having no compunction at all to the lives that were lost and maimed.
This raises the question whether General Santos City will ever be freed from this kind of attacks and be spared of similar threats.
Three years ago, I posed a question on how safe are we in the city. Ironically, it was also to Col. Geslani whom I asked the question.
Back then, he gave a rather qualifying answer – painstakingly asking us to appreciate the threats posed by a host of “enemies of the state.”
Coming from a man who spent most of his military career in the intelligence community, his assessment then of the threat groups and the likelihood of them attacking was rather educating if not an eye-opener.
Terrorists, he then said, have the choice of time and space. They could attack anytime and anywhere at the least expected moment. That is why last week’s bombing attack was no longer a surprise.
Days before that, checkpoints mushroomed all over the city.
Police and military authorities never gave a warning that an imminent attack was in the offing although sources from the intelligence community were rather jittery leading to the anniversary of the Lotto outlet bombing last year.
Residents here have become impervious to seeing uniformed police and military personnel conducting roadblocks that these have become a way of life.
In the aftermath of the bloodiest bombing incident ever in the city, St. Elizabeth Hospital administrator Antonio “Tonyboy” Veneracion asked, to paraphrase the late former senator Emmanuel Pelaez, “What is happening to our city?”
That was after 16 people were killed and more than 50 others were wounded in the Fitmart Department Store bomb explosion in April 2002.
Months earlier, KCC Mall and Kimball Plaza were razed to the ground, apparently caused by arson. Both the bombings and the burning of the two malls were later claimed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) through its self-confessed spokesman Noor Mohammad Umug.
Umug, who called himself Abu Muslim, was captured months later in Cotabato City and admitted to participating in the attack and extortion activities of the ASG. He has since turned state witness and is now under the custody of the Department of Justice.
Indeed, why has General Santos City became a veritable magnet of terrorist attacks?
If the military establishment and police authorities were to be believed, the Abu Sayyaf first organized a cell in the city in 1992. At the time, the ASG was known as the Alharakatul Islamiyah.
Some prominent Imams and Muslim personalities were named as members of the shadowy group that first made its presence felt by planting a bomb at the Matutum Hotel. No one was hurt in the explosion. After ASG leader turned government informant Edwin Angeles exposed the personalities behind the Alharakatul Islamiyah, its members fled the city.
In May 2000, a bomb, apparently planted inside a tricycle, exploded outside city hall.
That signaled the start of the rash of bombings in the city for just a month after, six bombs exploded in different parts of the city within minutes of each other.
Although those explosions claimed the lives of “only two” persons, it sent shock waves throughout the country.
That series of bombings were later blamed by the military on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which the latter vehemently denied.
Then the attack became bloodier.
In addition to the ghastly Fitmart bombing, a powerful blast tore through the market stalls inside the public market in December 2004. Fifteen innocent civilians died and scores of others were wounded in the attack.
These, including the lotto outlet and Philbest Canning Corporation bomb blasts, should qualify General Santos City as the most bombed city in Mindanao in the new millennium. It also had the most casualties. And it is still almost three years before the decade can even come to a close.
General Santos City has all the elements a terrorist group will find to its liking. It has a rapidly-growing mixture of migrant population with scattered and heavily-populated communities. Road networks that allow easy entry and exit. Lightly-guarded coastline that is shared with nearby Sarangani province. A newly-established intelligence community following the redefinition of the administrative and political regions in Mindanao. Host to several big business and strategic industries.
Most of all, it has the necessary communication infrastructure that connects it to the outside world thereby producing the desired impact if one was to deliver a bloody political message.
Yet, the city is also far away from the claws of the central government. Like it or not, the fact that it is known for its opposition to the central government, as many urban centers are, may have helped the city earned the not-so-deserved reputation.
The fact that all known security threats to the government are also operating in General Santos has made it a fine laboratory for both terror groups and the military in their cat-and-mouse game.
“Get me if you can” has become an operative dictum to those who are protagonists in this deadly war on terror.
Three years ago, Col. Geslani said nothing can stop a determined terrorist from launching a campaign of terror.
At that time, Mayor Pedro Acharon Jr. also said residents should not underestimate the capabilities of the men, and presumably women, behind these terror groups.
Back then, both expressed guarded optimism that these groups will eventually be neutralized.
Neutralizing them has become even harder as the identities of the people or terror group behind the bombings have become even murkier.
The police and military may not admit it. The signature of last Wednesday’s bomb blast may be different from previous explosions attributed to the Abu Sayyaf.
Three years and three bombings after, the assurances given by Col. Geslani, then PNP Regional Director Chief. Supt. Antonio Billones and Mayor Acharon remain plausible excuses for the failure to arrest suspects behind the attacks.
And there appear to be no end in sight for this macabre plot to sow fear and helplessness. We are still at the mercy of people who had the luxury of choosing where and when to hit their target.
That is tragic and altogether reprehensible.