ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/16 September) — They laid down their firearms briefly – a policeman and a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrilla – to talk “walang armas-armas” (without firearms) early Tuesday morning at the checkpoint at the boundary of barangays Mampang and Talon-talon and when the MNLF guerrilla returned to where he and about 19 other comrades held hostage 12 residents, all the women and children were set free.
As the 45-year old Merceditas Hasinon and her four children aged between 7 and 18 (three daughters and a nine-year old boy) walked to freedom towards the police checkpoint, the MNLF held on to the remaining seven male hostages, among them her husband Yassin, 47, and their eldest son, Mubrid, 22.
Merceditas’ family was among several families held hostage during the standoff between government and MNLF forces loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari which entered its eighth day on Monday.
Although they were held hostage briefly, her story stands out among the thousands of narratives this eight day standoff has spawned because of what the policeman and the MNLF guerrilla did: the combatants who talked “walang armas-armas” demonstrated that civilian hostages need not be collateral damage in war, that in life-and-death situations, dialogue can save lives.
Merceditas’ story begins at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, September 10, when an armed man in uniform knocked on their window in the mangrove area in Barangay Mampang to ask for water.
Speaking in Chabacano, Merceditas, a Catholic who married a Muslim, told MindaNews on Sunday and Monday that when she gave the man a small pitcher of water, he told her it was not enough as there were many of them.
When she looked outside, she saw about 20 armed men in uniform. Thinking they were soldiers on patrol, she handed them a bigger water container.
Initially, one of the armed men told her and her husband to accompany them to the roadside, which is quite far from the mangrove area. To reach it, she said, they usually ride the sikad (foot-pedalled tricycle). In the early hours of Tuesday, they walked.
“Puso ng saging”
The men, most of them in their 30s and 40s and a few in their 20s, carried long firearms including those she described as having muzzles that looked like “puso ng saging” (literally heart of the banana; apparently referring to RPGs or rocket-propelled grenades).
Strangers to the area, the armed men wanted to proceed to Barangay Sta. Barbara, the village next to Barangay Talon-talon, where their comrades were reportedly waiting for them.
The day before (Monday, September 9), MNLF forces had laid siege on at least four of the city’s 98 villages, including Sta. Barbara. Merceditas and Yassin thought they were out of harm’s way.
Besides, she said, her husband, a seaweed farmer like herself, was also worried over the seven cows and a goat that he was tasked by a cousin to watch over. They found no reason to leave.
Until that knock on the window shortly after 1 a.m. rudely interrupted not only their sleep but their lives.
Merceditas said the armed men got them in twos and threes and except for the two children under ten years old, tied their hands, using a thin nylon rope. “It was not tight, though,” she recalls.
The armed men neither introduced themselves nor explained their presence. All they wanted was to be escorted to Sta. Barbara.
Her 18-year old daughter Normina noted there were “MNLF” patches on the right breast pocket of the armed men’s uniforms.
Normina said the MNLF warned them not to attempt to run or they will be shot. The armed men spoke Yakan, an indication they were from Basilan and may have been sent over as reinforcement troops to the main group from Sulu under Ustadz Habier Malik, having arrived in the city only on Tuesday.
Merceditas said the walk to the direction of Sta. Barbara took long because helicopters would occasionally hover. She said the MNLF forces did not point their gun at them while walking but did so when they reached the police checkpoint at the boundary of Mampang and Talon-talon at around 5 a.m.
Merceditas said the hostages shouted at the police, “we are Zamboanguenos.” The distance between them was about 20 meters, with two roadblocks between.
One of the policemen later shouted to the MNLF initially in Tausug and later in Yakan, to meet midway and talk “walang armas-armas.”
The MNLF guerilla left his weapon with a comrade and both moved to meet each other midway.
But the two could not understand each other because the policeman spoke Tausug and a little Yakan while the MNLF guerrilla spoke Yakan and a little Tausug. The policeman said they would find someone else who spoke Yakan.
At around 6 a.m. a Yakan-speaking man clad in white shirt with some stripes arrived. Merceditas said she is not sure if he was also a policeman but the MNLF refered to him as “pulis.” But he and the MNLF guerrilla also met midway, for yet another “walang armas-armas” talk.
Merceditas could not recall how many minutes the talk took but when the MNLF guerilla returned to them, he informed his immediate superior about the demand to release the women and children. The superior then asked their commander if he would allow and the commander approved. The women and her two teenage daughters were untied.
The Yakan-speaking man walked towards where the hostages and the MNLF were to fetch Merceditas and her children. She said the two who spoke “walang armas-armas” treated the other like they were brothers.
Three plastic bags of bread were distributed for the hostages which they shared with the MNLF.
Merceditas burst into tears as she narrated how her husband and son assured her to go ahead and not to worry about them because they can take care of themselves.
Yassin instructed his wife and children not to attempt to run as they may be shot and to make sure they would duck should there be a firefight.
There was no time for an embrace. All that Merceditas could tell her husband and son was to pray that the minds of the armed men would be enlightened.
Before 7 a.m. on the same day, Merceditas and her daughters were free.
But not completely as both mother and daughters, were not quite sure they would still be reunited with Yassin and Mubrid.
Worst case, best case
The worst-case scenario, however, did not happen.
On Monday, September 16, Normina arrived at their temporary refuge at around 1:30 p.m. with the good news: her father was, indeed, alive and was staying in a relative’s house in their barangay and her brother, Mubrid, was a few steps away.
Normina had borrowed a mobile phone Sunday afternoon and texted a relative in Mampang who informed her her father and brother were back home. Normina dared to return to the village Monday morning and returned to where her mother and siblings were, early afternoon, with her brother.
By chance, MindaNews witnessed the reunion of mother and son.
When Normina left to fetch her brother at the gate, Mercedita’s face lit up and she excitedly chattered in Chabacano to MindaNews even if she was communicating previously through an interpreter. There was no need to translate the message she was conveying. Joy was written all over her face.
When Mubrid entered the hall at 1:35 p.m. Monday, mother and son embraced each other tightly, both of them in tears. Mubrid’s siblings cried with them as well.
“We’re just guides”
Mubrid narrated that when his mother and sisters were freed, the MNLF retreated a few steps and instructed them to take another route to Sta. Barbara. He said the MNLF had untied them when they untied his mother and two sisters but warned that if one of them would run, none of them can return home. The armed men again warned they would be shot if they run.
One of the seven actually did run but Mubrid said the MNLF may not have noticed because the escapee was walking behind them. The remaining six were Mubrid, his father, barangay tanod (village guard) Nonito, Estrada, a cousin and uncles.
They reached Sta. Barbara in the evening, and another group of armed men asked them if they were “bihag” (hostages). Mubrid said he explained to them that they were just guides. They were allowed to leave.
But one of the six “guides” – the barangay tanod – asked if he could get back his short firearm and a cellphone, apparently irking the leader of the other group who ordered all six of them to proceed to the interior of the village.
Mubrid said they were being led to the two-storey house where the hostages where reportedly brought but they couldn’t see because there were no lights. Again he managed to convince them they were just guides.
The leader of the other armed group then told them they could go home but Estrada would be sent home the next day.
Mubrid said they have yet to find out if Estrada has been freed.
The five of them who returned to Mampang passed through the mangroves, walked through waist-deep mud to reach home.
Yassin sent Mubrid to join his mother and siblings to ensure their safety but opted to stay in Mampang. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)