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EXCLUSIVE FROM LAHAD DATU: Dramatic rescue of woman
Lahad Datu: It was like a scene straight out of a Western movie where the townfolk had cleared out after the local sheriff had battled it out with some rogue gunslingers.
The stretch was eerily deserted. Nothing moved except for dried leaves blown by the wind.
Just about a kilometre from where we had pulled up, an arresting picture-postcard view of the Sulu sea greeted us. The pristine white sandy beach and the lush idyllic greenery around us was in sharp contrast to the view that was about to assault our eyes as we turned into Kampung Tanjung Labian, and a about kilometre later, Kampung Tanjung Batu.
Empty shell casings and spent ammo boxes were scattered all over. The windows of houses that lined the road we were on, and cars parked on the lawns, had their windows blown out.
Where houses once stood were bare foundations and ashen pillars that held up and supported nothing. Just a few metres ahead was a Kancil and a yellow Ford Ranger, its front passenger door wide open. Both were riddled with bullets and the windscreens were shattered.
With us was a local from the village, Yusof Sarang, 58, of Suluk descent, whom we had known for a while now, and Abdul Rahman Selami, 63, whom the terrorists had bumped into and bummed some cigarettes from, before he fled the village.
“Both cars belong to my neighbours and they were not here when we left. The terrorists must have used them,” said Yusof.
Further up, we saw cattle and livestock tied to trees and left to fend for themselves. They followed that same constant orbit, just as far as their leash would allow and it was a matter of time before they ran out of food. The patch of land they were on was devoid of grass and vegetation, grazed to extinction in the days following the clash.
We went into the village with the two eager men who wanted to retrieve some of their belongings. We had been told by military intelligence sources said the area had been "flushed" of terrorists twice.
The doors to a grocery shop just after the main entrance to the village that had been securely locked when the villagers left was wide open. There was nothing much left on the shelves, save for the non-edibles.
The terrorists must have plundered it to stock up before going back into hiding until now.
More than a week ago, as we made our rounds to source for stories, we had had to make way for a long military convoy which eventually exited the main road into Kampung Tanjung Labian. Just five minutes later, we heard sounds of shelling coming from the village.
This village bore witness to the Malaysian security forces' might. Terrorists being pounded by security forces in Kampung Tanduo had breached the cordon there and penetrated into Kampung Tanjung Labian and the adjacent Kampung Tanjung Batu on March 2.
The villagers had been evacuated, right before the security forces launched an all-out offensive on the terrorists' fortress in Kampung Tanduo. They had turned that idyllic village into their stronghold when they first arrived on Feb 12.
Rahman had gone back to his house at 9am on March 4 to check on his house. He feared that it could have been looted and plundered by the terrorists. At this point, there were still about 20 villagers in the village, defying evacuation orders.
When he opened the door to his house, he froze. Inside the living room were seven fully armed terrorists, charging their handphones. Before any of them could react, Rahman, in a moment of brilliance, offered them cigarettes and the use of his motorcycle. They told him that they had sealed off the only way in and out of the village.
He gave the terrorists the slip at noon and rounded up the remaining 20 villagers. The story of his close encounter with the terrorists sent chills down their spine. They formulated an ad-hoc escape plan almost immediately and were right in the middle of it when they heard gunshots. Not waiting to ask questions, they grabbed whatever they could, some of them with only the clothes on their backs, and bolted to the relative safety of the sea, about 100 metres away.
The villagers waded the tide for three kilometres until they reached the main road outside of the village before flagging down a van to take them to the evacuation centre in Felda Fajar Harapan.
As Rahman told us this, we didn't realise that we were all on edge, jittery and skittish, until Yusof broke the silence in the car with a loud gasp, almost sending us into cardiac arrest.
Having seen many houses being turned into smoking hulks of bombed-out shells, he was just thankful that his was still intact. The systematic destruction of the homes was part of the terrorists' plan. They knew that security forces were using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for battlefield reconnaisance and they destroyed the homes so that the smoke would obscure the view of the sensors carried by the UAVs.
He told us that he wanted to go in and get his birth certificate. Rahman wanted his motorcycle back, praying hard the terrorists hadn't rode of with it. We put our foot down. There was no way we would go in.
A man suddenly jumped out from the hedges. The sight of a stranger popping out from cover, couple with our frayed nerves, made us jump out of our skins. Yusof immediately identified the man as Kassim Rol, 52 , his neighbour. Kassim was rambling about something and his face wore a worried look.
Inside the house he came from, was his handicapped sister Rasidah Rol, 47, whom he and the rest were forced to leave behind, when they ran for their lives on March 4.
Paralysed from the waist down since her early 20s, Rasidah had spent more than a week in one corner of the house all by herself she had been sharing with her brother. They are both single.
Having been stranded at the village since March 2, she was malnourished. Rasidah had been surviving on the dozen packets of Mamee that were in the house. Around the house, there were empty bottles of water. Her heavy frame made it a constant struggle to move. She had to crawl to get from one point to another.
The physical hardship was compounded by the realisation that if there was another attack by the terrorists, or if there was another barrage laid down, she's be helpless. She shielded herself with a blanket at night as heavy battles raged on outside her door.
Her only contact with the outside world was huge window at the corner of where she was; and the view wasn't at all reassuring. Every time she looked outside, she could see the structure that was once a house, a scant 20 metres away, that had been burned down.
We were caught in a Catch-22 situation.
As journalists, we've been trained to cover the story, not be the story. But in this case, we couldn't just leave her there. Three of us lifted her into the back seat of our truck. Yusof and Rahman had to ride in the carrier section of the truck, along with their prized motorcycles. They were told to hang tight because this was going to be a 'hot extract'. There was no time for sight-seeing, we were going to floor it and if they weren't secured. We were not stopping for anyone.
As we gunned the engine and kicked up a rooster tail of dust to make our escape, Yusof yelled for us to stop. Instinctively, we jammed on the brakes. He hopped out of the carrier and ran straight into the grocery shop we passed earlier.
Moments later, he returned with a handful of supplies. "I'll pay the owner when I see him again," he sheepishly said as he dumped everything into the back and clambered aboard. We hit the gas.
A few kilometres ahead, we passed by a heavy military convoy. We gave them the universal greeting when you're on the road – the high beam – and they responded. They were apparently on their way to Kg Sg Nyamuk, next to Kg Tanjung Batu.
When we brought Rasidah to her family's house near the Felda Harapan evacuation centre, her family who spotted her in our truck started wailing and came out running. They had given her up for dead; for them, Rasidah had been given another lease of life. They carried her into the house, gave her milk, hugged, embraced and pawed at her like some long-lost cousin and made us feel at home. The thank yous and expressions of gratitude were almost endless.
In the end, Rahman got his motorcycle, Yusof his birth certificate and motorcycle, and we probably had saved a life.
We “confessed” and showed our footage to the military and police top guns here, before they found out. They always do. Their reaction surprised us. We got an earful, but somehow sensed their subtle approval. One joked that we should consider being VAT69 commandos.
Yesterday, after holding back this story for a day, we followed up with Rashida. She had been unwell since yesterday and had gone to a traditional healer. Her brother, told us that she had wanted to see us before she went but did not know how to contact us.
"Please know that if you ever need anything from us, all you have to do is ask," Kassim had said.
At a time when we are bombarded with scenes of hardship and despair , THIS felt good.