Post-Lenten reflections of an Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim: Moving forward (1)

Part I

Humanitarian worker Milet B. Mendoza was held captive for 61 days from September 15, 2008 by the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan. She concludes her captivity story with some insights on how to understand and approach the kidnapping problem in the complex areas of conflict. This will be published in two parts.  

An Inexplicable Calling

I have been fortunate to have worked in Mindanao for many years and particularly to have worked with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Central Mindanao as well as the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) area. As a program coordinator for Tabang Mindanaw, I coordinated humanitarian assistance for hundreds of thousands of indigenous Filipinos during the El Niño in April 1998 in Southern Central Mindanao, and also during the all-out-war between Philippine government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Central Mindanao which displaced hundreds of thousands of the civilian population from 2000 to 2003.

My work in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi began with a program of assistance for Filipino deportees from Sabah, Malaysia in 2002. In Basilan, I coordinated an alternative learning program for the out of school youth and day care centers for young children in Lantawan, and a microfinance program for women in Isabela City. From 2005, I oversaw the water resource mapping of Sulu province and began the difficult steps towards paving the way for the implementation of a grassroots-based water and sanitation program in the municipalities of Pata, Panglima Estino, Siasi and Kalingalan Caluang. This work during this period from 1998 to early 2007 was done when I was associated with Tabang Mindanaw as its Executive Coordinator.

Upon my resignation in May 2007, I continued as a humanitarian worker in the Sulu Archipelago volunteering my services and skills as a non government individual in the field of humanitarian work, disaster risk reduction and peace building in the Sulu Archipelago. I felt that it was still possible to continue the work in the communities even as an individual. I felt drawn to continue working in the area, particularly in the BaSulTa area, which now had become a second home for me.  I had learned so much from my friends and was touched by the genuine warmth and kindness shown to me wherever I went, whether it was in Tabawan in South Ubian, Tawi-Tawi or Karundong in Kalingalan Caluang, Panglima Estino, Talibang or Kagay in Indanan,  Sulu or Isabela City and Tipo-Tipo in Basilan.  I was accepted into people’s homes in all these areas and I felt I was accepted in their hearts as well.  I witnessed their faith in Allah and that strengthened my own faith in God.

I was, at the same time, though, aware of the dangers that posed themselves to an “outsider” like me working in these areas.  Many times I had been warned by my family and well-meaning friends about the risks I was taking.  Even my mentor, Fr. Rey Roda, OMI who was viciously killed in his convent in Tabawan, South Ubian, Tawi-Tawi on January 15, 2008 once warned me, that it was just a matter of time before “they will come and get you, Milet”.  His words were prophetic in more ways than one.  Around six months after he gave me that warning Fr. Rey himself was killed by persons trying to abduct him, and two years later I myself was kidnapped.

Still I felt drawn to the area.  The encounters and challenges that had gradually unfolded before me over the years that I had lived and worked in the Southern Philippines did not merely speak of danger but of hope.  I have been inspired by many triumphant moments in the lives of people caught in the midst of most difficult circumstances due to armed conflicts as well as natural disasters.  These experiences in the conflict areas of the Sulu Archipelago and in Central Mindanao strengthened my resolve to work with our Muslim brothers and sisters.  I tried to defy my fears and allowed myself in faith to go where the Spirit would lead me. Even as the possibility of kidnapping or getting caught in the crossfire between the military and local armed groups hounded me, I was determined to stay and volunteer, armed only with faith in God and in the goodness of people, and a humanitarian fervor.  This inexplicable “calling” was no longer a matter of choice for me but rather a given.  

In June 2007, when I was confronted by the question of whether to stay in Sulu or not after I had resigned, I underwent an experience that confirmed the decision to stay on. I was manhandled by a soldier of the Philippine Marines as I was documenting the damages done to a community in Kulay-Kulay, P
anamao, Sulu.  I had gone to the area upon the invitation of the leaders of the displaced community together with some women and children from Panglima Estino who gladly accompanied me, after I had cleared my visit with the Commander of Task Force Comet.  In the course of taking photographs of the damaged homes, we were accosted by one of the soldiers assigned in the area, who was not in uniform but in shorts and undershirt, and who asked what we were doing.  When I explained that we had been given permission by the Commanding General of Task Force Comet to document the damages, and that I was waiting to meet with the commanding officer in the area, he rudely responded, “Walang General-General sa akin!” (I don’t recognize the authority of any Generals!), grabbed my young male companion’s shirt and was about to hit my Tausug friend when I stepped in-between to stop him.  The soldier then wrenched my camera from my hand and hit me on the face with it.  Seeing this, my companions grabbed my arms and dragged me away, forcing me to run with them barefooted towards the village where we came from.  We were expecting the soldiers to pursue us and fire their guns in our direction, and as we fled, I felt the fear and panic that the ordinary people of Sulu must feel every time an encounter occurs and they are forced to flee.  At that precise moment I felt one with them.  It was as if I was watching our group as we ran for our lives. An inner voice revealed to me as we were running to safety, “This is how it is to be like them.”  I understood clearly at that point why the people feared the military.  That moment of terror and panic was the moment I felt closest to the people.

Later, upon hearing news that the Tausug males I had befriended in the community were preparing for a “rescue operation” for me, I felt it was critically important to put some positive closure to this unfortunate incident through a face-to-face dialogue with the community. With the support of the Task Force Comet Commanding General, the offending Marines were reprimanded and did a public apology before the Tausug people of Marsada, Panglima Estino and Kulay-Kulay in Panamao three days after the incident. After all, it was essential to seek forgiveness from the people who have been suffering from the deep wounds of disrespect and humiliation by soldiers. Apologies and forgiveness were exchanged. The good General reiterated, “We are the soldiers of the people.” The mayor was moved to tears. It was the first time in his life, according to him, that he heard a military general apologize sincerely to the Tausug people. It was a historical moment which I will treasure in my heart. And it happened in the gimba (hinterlands) of Sulu.

While nothing can really prepare one for the terror that grips a kidnap victim, in one sense, all these experiences I had undergone in the South helped me survive my 61 days of captivity. Whatever biases and prejudices I may have had in me would have been magnified a hundredfold if it were not for my exposure. How much more difficult it must be, I realized subsequently, for victims who have not had the opportunity to interact as closely as I had with the ordinary people of Basilan and Sulu and seen intimately how difficult their lives are.

Moreover, the strong sense of faith in Allah that I witnessed among the ordinary people — greeting everyone with a greeting of peace every time you would meet (Assalamu Alaikum), invoking the blessings of Allah every time a meal would be taken or a meeting would be started (Bismillahir Rahmanhir Raheem), observing as much as possible prayer times five times a day, observing strictly the fasting period during the month of Ramadan – strengthened my own faith in God.  Hence, I strongly felt the assurance of God’s protection during all my journeys throughout the BaSulTa area and particularly from Day 1 of my captivity through each day for the next 60 days in the hands of the ASG in Basilan.

The ASG Community

I was held in an ASG community which consisted of around 15 families – ASG fighters with their wives and young children – as well as other young fighters who were presumably single.  In time I came to realize that they were in many ways just like many of the small villages which I had visited and lived in.  It struck me that these ASG families could have been any other happy and secure Muslim family in any part of Asia.  I heard husband and wife converse and giggle, I heard them play with their children, and care for their babies.  One of the fighters, a young man in his mid- to late-20s, who I later learned is an ASG expert on bomb-making , I observed taking good care of his young child  and wife.  Household tasks would be divided between husband and wife, with the wife sometimes cooking while the husband would be washing clothes.  I heard the commander speak about his vision for them – a community of people enjoying a time of plenty and security.

On the few occasions I heard some of the women express the same anxiety they had about being molested or harassed by government military troops as we who are not from there have about the Abu Sayyaf men.  We may be of different religions and may live in different communities, we may even be considered to be haram (forbidden, as I was often told by my Commander) by them, but our joys and hopes, pains and fears are similar.

As mentioned previously, one of the women approached me once, bringing her baby with her, and pleaded with me not to have the military launch an operation against them once I would be released.  She was concerned about her baby and how they, the women and children, always ended up as the helpless victims whenever fighting would break out between their men folk and government forces.  These are exactly the same sentiments a mother in Metro Manila, Luzon, or the Visayas would express faced with the same situation.

A Community Responsibility

Once I was released I learned from my
friends who had been helping work out my release and that of my friend that early during the first week of our abduction they sought the help of the local communities where it was believed that we were being kept.  Unfortunately, the Barangay Chairpersons who were approached – some of whom were relatives of the suspected kidnappers — expressed ignorance of our whereabouts and through the rest of the period of our captivity did not extend any help at all to the authorities and the people who were searching for us.

Sadly, the same situation appeared to prevail with regard to the Provincial and Municipal officials concerned. Even after my release, much to my dismay, I did not hear a word from the Tipo Tipo mayor who encouraged and pushed us to assist in his municipality, and in whose municipality my friends and I were abducted and were held captive.  Except for the Vice Governor of Basilan who chaired the Crisis Management Committee which had been set up to address our situation, and the Chief of Police of Al-Barka Municipality, it appears that little if any real help was received from the other officials concerned.

Of course my friend and I were unaware of all of this while we were in captivity.  We hoped that everything was being done to try to get us out, although often it seemed as if our situation was hopeless.  We only learned about this once we were out and were briefed by friends regarding the efforts that had been exerted to rescue us.

Looking back it is clear to me that this problem of kidnapping will not be solved unless the local communities realize that kidnappings work against their interest, they decide to do something about it and actually take action to put a stop to this inhuman activity.  The police and military authorities cannot solve the kidnapping problem by themselves.  They need the help of the local communities.

Questions need to be posed:  how do the local communities look at the situation of kidnapping in their midst?  Is it a “normal” situation as far as they are concerned?  Is it something they tolerate?  Is it possible the local communities somehow benefit from kidnappings occurring in their areas?  Or do they condemn it but are somehow unable to do anything about it for fear of retribution from the armed kidnap gangs?

On at least two occasions during my captivity, these questions occurred to me.  Once, a young girl who visited me from time to time once asked me, “Ate, bakit kayo malungkot?”  (Why are you sad?)  It made me wonder.  Surely they knew I was a captive, a prisoner.  Did they expect me to take this lightheartedly?

On another occasion this same young girl commented to me that based on what she saw on TV regarding goings-on in Manila, she found Manila to be a scary place to live in because of the robberies and killings featured in news reports.  I responded to her by asking, “Hindi ba mas nakakatakot ang Basilan?”  (Don’t you think Basilan is scarier?)  She looked at me quizzically, not seeming to understand why I would think such a thing.  “Bakit naman, Ate?” she asked.  (Why would you think so?)  “Eh, kinidnap niyo ako, hindi ba?”  I responded to her.  (Well, you kidnapped me, didn’t you?)  Then it seemed to dawn on her.  “Ah, oo nga pala, no,” she said, slowly understanding the situation.

Some honest and sincere soul-searching needs to be done in this regard.

The Paradox of Emptiness

Our deepest experiences can never be described in words.  Words can only point us in certain directions.  Each of us needs to find in our own experiences the inner meanings of what the words try to convey.

When you are kidnapped your life is wrenched violently from you and you are transformed into a creature totally at the mercy of your captors.  The sense of control that you had one minute over your actions and decisions disappears at the snap of your captors’ fingers.  You are forced to follow their every command, their every whim, surrendering yourself completely to their will.

The loss of control you experience extends to even the most basic aspects of your life – your sleeping and waking hours, appeasing your pangs of hunger and thirst, bathing, responding to the call of nature.  In my case, the latter took a bit more adjustment than the others.  Not being allowed to leave my cell, everything had to be done there.  For a long while, everything had to be done in plastic bags – “cellophane” as they referred to it – which came in short supply.

In time, one learns to adjust, and one learns to resist in subtle ways.  But the feeling of helplessness is always there. Being subjected to such tests also pushes you to humble yourself.

More pernicious than the helplessness one experiences with regard to physical matters is the effect this has on one’s sense of dignity, of worth as a human.  Little by little the layers of self-worth that we build onto our self-image are gouged away by the indignities one has to suffer.  These range from such experiences as the h
arshness with which one is addressed by one’s captors, threats of mutilation and even execution, actual physical blows one receives and other such experiences that imprint in one’s psyche the message that one’s life means nothing to one’s captors, that they can do with you as they please.

The sense of helplessness is often accompanied by the depression of hopelessness, particularly as one’s captivity lengthens over time.  In the beginning there is hope that perhaps the abductors would have a change of heart, that they would realize that they may have made a mistake.  Failing that one clings to the hope that somehow one will be rescued or that some early arrangement will be worked out with one’s captors.  But, as in my case, when the days ran into weeks and weeks into months and my attempts at establishing contact with friends who might be able to help out were frustrated or ended up blocked, then hope slowly faded until I was left with nothing to look forward to.

At that point I ended up totally drained, totally stripped naked of any sense of self-worth, empty, and I retreated into the nothingness that I found myself in and a sense of darkness pervaded my being, a darkness that somehow became even darker as the days passed.  And thus I sat, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, in an emptiness waiting for nothing.

And yet somehow, in this parched desert, when I had surrendered myself completely and drained myself of my pretenses and ego, a miracle took place.

Months later, shortly after I had been released and I went on a silent retreat, I discovered a song based on the experience of the suffering of St. John of the Cross, the mystic who actually became a captive himself.  The song, entitled “Holy Darkness” expressed for me, better than any words that I could craft, the miracle I experienced and which, I believe, some kidnap victims may have gone through:

                             I have tried you in fires of affliction,

                             I have taught your soul to grieve,

                             In the barren soul of your loneliness

                             There will I plant my seed.


                             In your deepest hour of darkness

                             I will give you wealth untold,

                             When the silence stills your spirit

                             Will my riches fill your soul.

In my emptiness, in the darkness which enveloped me, I found God.  He had obviously been with me all along, but I had to be drained of myself to discover His Spirit within me.

Looking back, I now realize that my Basilan captivity turned me into an empty vessel, drained of hope. The worst moments filled me with a sense of abandonment and hopelessness. Ironically, these same fearful moments became a turning point. Over time, now that I am free, these negative experiences are gradually turning out to become the best moments of my life in the sense that it has helped define me as a person.  And most importantly, it brought out clearly in my mind that God truly is for me.   Even as it was a tortuous moment of intense fear and hopelessness, it was also during this utter point of vulnerability that God manifested himself more evidently, filling in the emptiness with His unconditional love. I felt my weakness gradually turning into strength, where I had discovered power in the midst of powerlessness unveiling my touchstone. In my weakness and brokenness, He gave me strength. “My grace is all you need. For my power is greatest when you are weak… For when I am weak, there I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I now have the consolation that whatever lies ahead of me will anchor me firmly in my touchstone. It came as a gift of my captivity.

From the beginning, and despite the terror I experienced, I had
faith that I would survive even as I was shattered. It was just a matter of time. “Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).   God had claimed me to this humanitarian mission in the Sulu Archipelago beyond my comprehension and I believed that He would protect me despite the odds. He did so as He had promised.

Bereft of everything, what I felt left burning in the deepest recesses of my being was the love and goodness I have been gifted by people, both the living and the dead. It was their names I was calling out to, and to the saints that I intensely focused on. They appeared to me in my dreams; messages were conveyed to me in many forms and manifestations. I felt strongly the prayers of family, friends and strangers hovering around me like a mantle of protection especially in instances when the situation could have gotten worse. God, with the intercession of Mother Mary and Fr Rey, paved the way for the miracle of my safe release. Until such time, without any chance to communicate or negotiate, I was waiting for nothing. When that moment came, with a breakthrough phone call of a dear friend that happened on the first day that the mobile site signal became operational in the ASG safe house, it was confirmed by an inner voice revealing to me that God was working on His miracle for my safe release in a matter of days.(Continued tomorrow)

The Agonies of an Abu Sayyaf victim (1)

The Agonies of an Abu Sayyaf victim (2)