Lito and the Sniffing Dog

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“Are you ready to die?”

That was the first thing I asked Manolito Ruedas when he came to see me at the Hotel Jen in Manila where heads of posts in the Middle East and Africa were then holding a command conference. This was in December 2015, seven months after I arrived in Baghdad.

Lito already had an assignment order even before I volunteered to go to Iraq but as head of post I still had the final say. I really wanted to make sure I get the right people to serve with me in Baghdad—one of the most challenging posts in the foreign service because of, among others, the average of five terrorist bombings that take place there everyday.

I have never worked with Lito and knew nothing of him except that he was a foreign service staff officer in his late 50s who had previously served in Canada and the Vatican. Since I would not want to be stuck with another non-performing asset, I had to make sure Lito was someone I could count on. After telling him about the grave risks he would be exposing himself to in Iraq, I asked him again just in case he decided to change his mind.

“Are you sure you want to go to Baghdad?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Are you sure you want to go to Baghdad?”

“Yes, Sir!”

And so I agreed to take him in and just over a month later, I was there at the Baghdad International Airport waiting for him. He was the first of three replacement staff whom I personally chose to serve with in Bilibid. And like Jerome Frias and Richard Billedo who would arrive a few months later, Lito did not fail me.

On his first week, Lito got to experience how heart-pounding the situation in Baghdad could be. He was initially billeted at the Babylon Warwick Hotel and since it was on the way to my quarters in the Green Zone, I offered to drop him off at the end of our working day.

WARWICK

And so after work one evening, I brought Lito to the hotel as usual. The Embassy’s rented Toyota Land Cruiser was waved through by Nepalese guards armed with AK47s who were positioned outside the main entrance. We were the second of three vehicles that were allowed to enter the reinforced steel gate that led into a containment area that had anti-blast walls on both sides. In front of us was an SUV and behind us was a sedan.

Before rolling to a stop, our vehicle had to pass over a sensor that the hotel management had installed a few months after a suicide car bomber detonated himself near the lobby. The sensor was designed to detect anomalies in the vehicle’s undercarriage, such as artillery shells or other explosives that terrorists usually attach there.

After clearing the sensor, we would have to wait for the bomb sniffing German Shepherd to do its job. Just like the Green Zone, which is the seat of government in Baghdad, big establishments such as the Babylon Warwick employ K9 teams to inspect all vehicles before letting them pass through. The five-star hotel had no choice. It had already been targeted twice by suicide bombers with the last attack taking place in May while I was billeted there. That attack killed at least 10 persons.

In addition to the sensors, Babylon Warwick decided to buy more dogs. The hotel’s Security Officer, Russell Bennett, explained to me that even if the hotel management poured in thousands of dollars on modern equipment, dogs were still the most effective in detecting improvised explosive devices or IEDs that Iraq is notoriously known for.

Russ explained to me how it goes—a trained K9 dog is led by his handler around a vehicle and is ordered to sniff at certain areas such as the tires, hood and trunk where explosives could be hidden. In most cases, the dog would not smell anything and would be led away. But if the dog smells something while going through his routine, he would just stop and sit without being told to. In all the security inspections I have to go through since arriving in Iraq, I have never seen a sniffing dog sit.

And so there we were waiting for our turn to be inspected. I was seated at the back of the Land Cruiser with Lito sitting in the passenger side in front of me. I can no longer recall who among our Iraqi local hires was driving. We saw the handler lead the dog towards the SUV in front of us. First they started with the right side—the tires, the passenger compartment—and then up the hood then the left side and finally, the trunk.

I was not paying much attention to what the dog and his handler were doing since it was a routine inspection that I have been through a hundred times.

I was not paying much attention to what the dog and his handler were doing since it was a routine inspection that I have been through a hundred times.

My mind had briefly drifted somewhere when I heard Lito. His voice somewhat troubled.

“Sir.”

“Yes, Lito?”

“Sir, yung aso.”

Ano nangyari sa aso?”

“Sir, umupo po yung aso.”

I moved my body forward to get a better view and indeed, the German Shepherd was there sitting on the driveway while his handler was taking a closer look at something in the trunk of the SUV. Almost simultaneously I tried to shield myself with Lito and the front passenger seat and braced myself for the inevitable. There was no way we would survive. We were goners.

Kapag oras na natin, wala na tayo magagawa. Baka eto na yun,” I told Lito who then closed his eyes and began praying. I was praying, too.

Kapag oras na natin, wala na tayo magagawa. Baka eto na yun,” I told Lito who then closed his eyes and began praying. I was praying, too.

The next few seconds spent waiting for our end inside that rented soft-skinned vehicle felt like hours. This is not happening again, I told myself, as images of the massive car bomb explosion at the Babylon Warwick that I somehow survived eight months earlier started flashing on my mind. After what seemed to be eternity with no explosion ripping us apart, Lito opened his eyes and saw the dog being led down by the handler from the SUV’s trunk.

“Sir, mukhang okay na,” Lito said as the handler led the dog to our vehicle and the sedan behind us. We waited to see if the dog would sit down again but fortunately it did not. We were cleared to go through.

That close call was just one of the many stories that made our stay in Bilibid memorable.

That close call was just one of the many stories that made our stay in Bilibid memorable.

A week after that, Lito would join me and Vice Consul Andrei Bauzon in responding to an emergency case that involved the death of 13 of our kababayans in a fire at a hotel Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

LITO-

I remember Lito wading in his Ferragamos as we combed through the partially flooded basement of the Capitol Hotel to recover the personal items of the victims. It was also Lito whom we assigned the grim task of taking photographs of the deceased when we came to see them at the Rizgary Hospital.

Lito also played a critical role in our efforts to expand our network in Kurdistan and in going after human traffickers who have victimized many Filipinos working in the region. Lito was also someone who could be counted upon to make sure that Baghdad PE would be able to deliver much-needed consular and assistance to nationals services to our kababayans in Iraq.

A few days ago, Lito finished his two-year sentence in Bilibid and is now serving in one of our posts in Europe where he will be spending the remainder of his six-year assignment abroad.

Alamat, as the Bilibid boys fondly call him, is among the few who are willing to risk their lives to serve where others would not. He has earned my respect.

Mabuhay ka, Lito! Maraming Salamat!

LITO 1

Kuwait, 22 March 2018

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