Widows recall moments before horror

PETALING JAYA - It was the kind of nightmare one would not want to live through.

Marlinah Utan was at a surau in Tawau with other members of Perkep (Association of Policemen's Families) when they received word that policemen were under attack at Kampung Siminul in Semporna.

Just then, an officer's wife, who had a family in Semporna, received a call from where the gunbattle was taking place.

It was on speaker phone. The group could only listen with horror as gunshots echoed throughout the room from the phone.

"As they tried to calm me, more news arrived that a few of our men had fallen. I kept on asking for their names, in between tears," recounted Marlinah.

"I started getting frantic as I knew my husband was in Semporna. I shouted, 'Help! My husband is there, my husband is there!'" she recalled.

"When they answered 'Tuan Michael (Padel),' I lost control.

"I knew my husband was one of the fallen even though no one told me. I knew because wherever Tuan Michael was, my husband would be too. They were very close friends."

Michael and Marlinah's husband Sergeant Salam Togiran were among six policemen killed in the attack on Kampung Simunul a year ago.

Just hours earlier, Marlinah, who felt troubled, texted her husband asking how he was.

"He replied at 3pm, 'Alhamdulillah, I am fine'. An hour or so later, he called me and asked that I pray for his safety," recalled the 40-year-old Sabahan, who is the mother of four children.

Marlinah's eldest son took the news especially hard because the 16-year-old boy had promised to lead his father's funeral rites.

"My husband told my son that when he died, he would like my son to give him his last bath, to do the jenazah prayers and to lay him to rest in the grave. My son could never fulfil that promise," she said.

The policeman's body was only retrieved days later, after the fighting had ended.

Marlinah said her husband had wanted to be part of the action following reports that another policeman had been killed a day earlier in Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu.

"He said: 'This is mati syahid (It is a martyr's death)'," she recalled.

To keep her going, Marlinah turns to her memories of Salam. "All of them are beautiful. He was the best person I know. But sometimes I think, as much as he loved his children and me, he loved his country more," she said.

Jabah Mingku Voon, the wife of Semporna Special Branch chief ASP Michael Padel, was not too worried when her husband's team had to respond to information that Sulu gunmen were hiding in Kampung Simunul.

"As a wife of a policeman, I trusted my husband's ability to carry out his duties even though I was aware that his job was not easy," she said.

As all his previous missions were successful, ASP Michael's death came as a terrible blow to the 34-year-old housewife.

"A few months before his death, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary by renewing our vows. He asked me to marry him again at the church and we did!

"It was very romantic; he was a very romantic man," said Jabah, who has an 11-year-old son with Michael.

Although Michael was by nature a cheerful man, he started behaving strangely soon after his 35th birthday.

"He kept mentioning his old schoolmates and started re­­pairing whatever was broken in the house.

"He took our son (Macliue) to the movies very often and called his family in Sarawak every day," Jabah said.

On the day he left Tawau for Semporna at 5am, Michael was very sad. "When he bade me goodbye, I saw that he was crying," she said.

During operations in Semporna, Michael would call home five to six times a day and sent text messages frequently.

"The last call I received was at 3pm. He told me not to worry. A few hours later, all attempts to reach his phone failed," said Jabah.

At around midnight on Sunday, a large group of officers and their wives came to her house to tell her that Michael was injured. They were crying. "I knew he was dead."

A year after his passing, "my husband's voice still rings in my ears", Jabah said.

Jabah feels proud of Michael's sacrifice and believes that his death was not in vain.