His unexpected visit took them by surprise.
But for the grief-stricken families of the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos killed in a clash with Moro rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, on Jan. 25, it was President Benigno Aquino III's failure to answer questions about his role in that tragic counterterrorism operation that left them stunned.
Janet Carap, widow of PO2 Peterson Carap, said the "most important questions" about the disastrous police operation remain unanswered as Mr. Aquino kept mum during their unscheduled, six-hour dialogue with him at Camp Crame, the national headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Quezon City, on Wednesday night.
"I'm not contented because he did not answer my questions," Carap told the Inquirer after the meeting with the President at the Camp Crame Multipurpose Center.
"I want to know what really happened, who made the mistake and who should be held accountable for the death of my husband and the others. For me, that's much more important than the livelihood and other assistance they promised us," she said.
"The most important questions he should answer are what did he do after learning about the incident, what did he do to save his people. Those 44 men and the other members of our security forces fought for this country," she said, raising her voice.
"Is this country worth fighting for if that is the only kind of support our security forces get? Is it OK for the government to lose many of its men just for the life of one terrorist?" she said.
"The government is not telling us what they are going to do to give us justice. It's not easy for us to accept that the lives of our loved ones are worth the life of Marwan," she added.
Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias "Marwan," was killed by the commandos during the operation in the early hours of Jan. 25 in Tukanalipao village, Mamasapano, but his Filipino lieutenant Basit Usman, though wounded, managed to escape.
As they withdrew from the village, the commandos engaged in gun battles with guerrillas from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Mr. Aquino stayed longest at the table of the relatives of SPO1 Lover Inocencio, Insp. Joey Gamutan, PO1 Oliebeth Viernes and PO2 Rodel Ramacula.
At one point, Mr. Aquino was seen showing text messages on his cell phone and several documents to the families.
Inocencio's widow, Liezel, said they asked the President if he had ordered the deployment of reinforcements to help the SAF commandos.
She said the President told them that the information on the Mamasapano incident was relayed to him by the SAF commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, who had taken responsibility for the PNP's worst operational debacle in recent years.
"He showed us the text (message) of Sir Napeñas. It was sent to him around 7 a.m. (of Jan. 25). He said he had sent reinforcements," Liezel said.
Mena Ramacula, mother of the slain SAF trooper, said the President also told them how he was being blamed for the incident, which had clearly affected the Aquino administration's four-year efforts to seal a final peace agreement with the MILF.
The MILF, the biggest secessionist group in Mindanao, has admitted that some of its members were involved in the clash with the SAF commandos.
Hard to answer
Asked if she thought Mr. Aquino should take the blame for the death of the commandos, Mena said: "No comment. It's hard to answer that question."
Forty-four SAF commandos, 18 MILF rebels, and five civilians were killed in fighting that lasted 12 hours.
The SAF did not inform the military and the MILF, which has signed a peace agreement with the government, about the law-enforcement operation. Coordination with the joint ceasefire committee would have prevented a clash between the government forces and the Moro rebels-or have compromised the mission, as feared by Napeñas, who was sacked over the debacle.
Napeñas said he called for military reinforcement as the fighting raged, but no help came.
The military said a rescue mission was organised, but Napeñas could not determine the location of his pinned down troopers. It was already too late when they were finally located.
Mr. Aquino has admitted having knowledge of the operation, but has never said how much he knows about it and who gave the order for it to proceed.
Waiting for information
The families of the slain SAF commandos have been waiting for him to inform them what really happened that the operation ended up in a bloodbath and who are responsible.
Wednesday was the second time Mr. Aquino met with the families of the slain commandos, who had been hailed by the government and by netizens for their bravery in tracking down one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
Joined by senior government officials, Mr. Aquino hopped from one table to another as he talked with the families, spending at least 30 minutes to listen to their concerns.
Relatives of at least three commandos occupied each table.
Skipped wedding party
Mr. Aquino, who arrived before 6 p.m. and left at midnight, skipped the wedding reception of his close friend and political ally, Sen. Francis "Chiz" Escudero, and actress Heart Evangelista to be with the families.
The President had been pilloried in social media when he chose to attend the opening of a car manufacturing plant in Sta. Rosa City, Laguna province, than join the heroes' welcome for the dead policemen at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City on Jan. 28.
Mr. Aquino tried to make up for it by spending 13 hours with the families after necrological services for the slain commandos at SAF headquarters in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City, on Jan. 30.
Speaking with reporters after the grueling marathon meeting on Wednesday night, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said the President decided not to attend Escudero's wedding party after he informed the Chief Executive that relatives of the slain SAF troopers were in Camp Crame.
"He changed his schedule to be here. He ordered the Cabinet members to address the needs of the families and not to let these concerns be buried by the bureaucracy and documentary requirements," Roxas said.