It must be one of the loneliest, and certainly one of the strangest, military outposts in the world: The BRP Sierra Madre is a decrepit, World War II-era ship purposely beached in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to serve as improvised detachment for a small Philippine contingent.
The scene is out of a dystopian future: a rusting shell of a ship, vulnerable to the elements, empty save for eight or nine soldiers on assignment.
But this is very much the present.
Every few months or so, the military replaces the soldiers stationed in Ayungin, as well as in other Philippine outposts in the Spratlys: Lawak, Likas, Parola, Patag, Rizal Reef. But it is Ayungin that stands out, like an elaborate set from a Hollywood movie, because it is truly out of the ordinary.
Photos taken by Inquirer photographer Grig Montegrande, who was among the 18 journalists who joined the successful supply run over last weekend, show a ship in an advanced stage of decay.
The trash and ancient equipment rising in the main hold compete with the rust accumulating everywhere.
It seems only a matter of time before the sea claims the ship itself.
But for the soldiers on assignment, this is home away from home, at least for a few months.
It is a dangerous mission, because Ayungin Shoal is one of the flashpoints in the increasingly acrimonious maritime dispute between the Philippines and China.
Large Chinese Coast Guard ships patrol the waters around the shoal; Chinese and American military aircraft monitor the skies above it; not least, Mischief or Panganiban Reef, a part of the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group which the Chinese occupied in 1999, is only several kilometers to the west.
But the Sierra Madre is also a difficult assignment because it is so isolated.
Ayungin Shoal is about 105 nautical miles away from Palawan, the nearest Philippine province. There is no cellphone signal. There is no Internet connection.
There is only erratic TV reception.
It takes a day and a half for a boat from Palawan to reach it; these days, Chinese patrols make the journey even longer, or even at times impossible.
And once on the Sierra Madre, the soldiers also have to bear the murderous tedium of having almost nothing to do for hours on end.
What does it take to survive in such a hardship post?
“You have to be strong-willed,” First Lt Mike Pelotera, the commander of the platoon that had served in Ayungin for five months and was replaced last Saturday, told the Inquirer.
“This is our territory. That’s why we have to be prepared to stay here for a long period, even if it takes years.”
His answer finds an echo in something Marine Technical Sgt. Jerry Fuentes, part of the team that replaced Pelotera’s platoon, said: “It makes us even tougher.
In the first place, this is ours. Why should we leave?”
These frontline soldiers studiously avoided using words like “sovereignty” or kasarinlan—which may be too big, too heavy, even too pretentious, especially when contrasted with the pitiful conditions one finds in the Philippine outposts.
But others deployed to Ayungin Shoal or other detachments in the Spratlys strike variations on the same theme, say almost the same thing.
For instance, Second Lt Robinson Retoriano, the detachment commander of Lawak, told the New York Times last year: “A lot of Filipino people might not know why we’re fighting for these islands. But once you see it, and you’ve stepped on it, you understand. It’s ours.”
It’s ours, despite the surrounding isolation.
There are two satellite phones on the Sierra Madre, or at least there were when the Times team spent a week on the ship last year.
“Like the others, (Sgt Roy Yanto) is able to talk to his family once a week or so, when they call in to one of the two satellite phones that the men take care to keep dry and charged.
“‘It’s enough for me,’ he said of the five or 10 minutes he gets on the phone with his family. ‘What’s important is that I heard their voice.’”
We hope those sat phones are still in working order. One of the Marines extracted from Ayungin Shoal last Saturday, Private First Class Ryan Esteban, said his wife-to-be was due to give birth to their first child in May.
“I was finally able to speak to her at dawn yesterday, as soon as our ship got near the mainland and we got a signal on our cellular phones.”