Post Lenten Reflections of an Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim: Moving Forward (2)

2nd of 2 Parts

(In this concluding section, humanitarian worker Milet Mendoza, who was held captive in Basilan by the Abu Sayyaf from September 15, 2008 to November 14, 2008, provides further reflections on her experience. This, she explains, is being done to convey an inside view of what it is like to be a kidnap victim and hopefully produce a more informed approach to addressing the problem of kidnapping in the South and helping victims recover from an experience they will never forget. (Ms Mendoza gave MindaNews permission to run this two-part series- MindaNews ed)

Transforming the Negative to Positive

Is it possible to transform an experience as horrifying to a victim as being kidnapped to something that would turn out to be positive in the long-term? To me it is. The ability to do so, however, depends on so many circumstances: the victim’s background and personal disposition, the conditions under which he or she were kept while in captivity, and the manner in which the victim is treated after release. Essential to this is the understanding and support one receives from immediate family circle and friends. My own captivity experience, negative as it may have been, is something I had desired from the outset to turn into something positive not just for myself but for others as well. I did not want such an experience to be “wasted” without benefitting from it somehow. This was to be an important step for my healing, but obviously would have to be done at my own pace.

I realize too well that what had happened to me was not just my captivity but a shared one. My family and close friends also went through the horrific experience with me for 61 days. Not knowing what was happening to me, feeling helpless about being able to concretely intervene to get me safely from my captors, it was similarly their own imaginary prison cell, with possibly the worse of nightmares haunting them over and over. Prayer was the only recourse. In my case, I was unheard of for one month since the abduction. And for the first of the two calls that were made in the course of my captivity, it was just less than a minute. Both were dead-end calls.

Upon my release, and for the first time in my life, I honestly felt that I needed to become kinder with myself. Caring for my soul, and taking time, just moving on gently by taking one step at a time, living day-to-day. I felt that I did not have to compel myself with decisions even over minor issues. I left it to people who cared for me to give directions. To take my hand and lead me where I should best go. Perhaps it was a post reaction to a captivity experience wherein I was not given choices. What I could do and say was dictated upon me. It could also be some form of inward resistance to pressures on my yet shattered being. The internal pressure within can be overwhelming, hence, I was cautious about taking in more pressures from outside. I desired undisrupted silence.

There was also a strong need to affirm the positive and the sense of goodness that seemed to have been lost by the traumatic experience of witnessing and experiencing violence, not just in physical terms but also psychological. This affirmation is not just a taking of love and care but also of giving love and care. I became more expressive of my gratitude to family, and friends and even to strangers who came to me to express their love and concern. It was a natural rebirth to a life of love and gratitude.

Difficult as it was, I found myself, for a long while, not being able to cry with people who cried and felt sorry for me. It took me at least a month to get in touch with my innermost feelings. Hence, I was genuinely happy to have it unleashed when, after mass in my home village one day shortly after I had returned home, a woman ran to me to embrace me and say how she was inspired by the sharing which I had been asked to give by our parish priest. This stranger had prayed for me during my captivity. And there were many others like her, in different parts of the world. Friends of family and friends of friends networked among each other to form a prayer chain for my friend and me. Moved by such an act, we embraced and cried together, unashamed, in public. I was happy to feel “human” once again.

With the help of dear friends and family, I began to take stock of myself and took on some work activities to help refocus. Moving on was to be anchored in my own inner strength which had to become intact again.

Rest and solitude was also a key. Quiet sharing of unending stories with intimate groups; having someone who could help articulate back to me what happened and how it was affecting me and helping me understand my own experience and coping; or even just quiet loving presence of persons whom you know are just by your side, holding your hand as you go through your healing; this support system helped sustain me. I cannot help but feel that as God had promised, He is seeing me through every step of the way. The instruments of His love kept on coming my way.

Reaching out to other victims is also essential. As a kidnap victim, there remains a part of you in captivity when you are aware of other captives still suffering under their captors’ hands somewhere in Basilan, Sulu and elsewhere. Having been through a harrowing experience, the pain of loneliness and fear is never cut off from the experience of other kidnap victims who are still in captivity. You are out yet you are still a captive with them,
albeit vicariously.

Understanding Trauma: How not to victimize kidnap victims twice over

The way trauma affects a person will be influenced by his/her family background, culture, relationships, age, life experience, support system and ways of coping. It cannot be the same traumatic effect for people even if they had gone through similar traumatic experiences.

Nevertheless there are certain basic rules that should be kept in mind when dealing with victims. First is the need to respect the privacy of victims, to help them find themselves again, making themselves whole again. Apart from the security constraints that confront a kidnap victim and his/her family, the need to uphold the victim’s dignity is critical. At the point of release, a kidnap victim is naturally distraught, having been taken away abruptly and violently, a traumatic memory that continues to haunt the victim again and again, and later having to get exposed to many strange faces after a long period of separation from what was once a familiar, comfortable environment. The traumatized victim should be protected from public glare at all costs. Her privacy needs to be guarded and respected.

This was blatantly disregarded, for example, by the Provincial Director of the Basilan Philippine National Police the morning after I was released when he came over to see me to have a picture taken. Inasmuch as I wanted to resist this “photo-op” and did not want to get off the vehicle, he nevertheless persisted. Having satisfied himself with the picture-taking, off the Provincial Director went. To begin with, based on accounts subsequently related to me by friends who were involved in addressing the problem of our kidnapping and negotiating the release of my friend and me, it appears that the Provincial Director was one of the local officials who hardly did anything to assist in resolving our case. He attended only one or two of the many Crisis Management Committee meetings that had been called to address our problem. If ever the PNP was represented in these meetings it was through a representative, although in many instances no PNP representatives arrived. In contrast, the Philippine Marines were always represented in these meetings whether in the person of the Brigade Commander himself, Gen. Rustico Guerrero, or his Deputy, Col. Remigio Valdez. I found the Marine Officers in Basilan to be very professional in their work. Although there was external pressure for the military to conduct pursuit operations, they realized too well that it would be at great risk to us. They consented to the request of the Crisis Management Committee to put off launching any offensive operations against our kidnappers while negotiations were attempted. In fact, I noted that the ASG was puzzled that for the period we were held captive, it was unusually quiet apart from the persuasion flights conducted now and then. It appeared to me that our abductors became “bored” because of the absence of combat action.

I had opted not to get myself exposed to media scrutiny upon my release. I was not ready to face anyone except those familiar to me. Having been bombarded by my captors with information meant to confuse me and weaken my spirit, I needed to shield myself from others unfamiliar to me. I was not in the proper state of mind. Moreover, I wanted to protect my privacy and dignity. My friends and family close to me understood this and generously respected my private space. However there are many people – politicians, police officers, military officials, media, etc – who have their own agendae to promote and pursue victims relentlessly.

For example, after I had been released, the details of my return to Manila had been kept secret. No one was told what flight I would be on, arrangements were made for me to be checked in by third parties anonymously, and I boarded the plane before any other passengers did. And yet, despite all these precautions intended to protect my privacy and delicate state of mind at the time, upon our landing in Manila I was horrified to find a television crew waiting outside the airport terminal hoping to get some video footage of my arrival. They pounced on me as I stepped out of the terminal and I had to quietly request them to kindly leave me alone. Someone leaked the information to the media about my flight details.

It did not end there, though. From the airport I was immediately brought to a hospital where I was supposed to rest and undergo a battery of tests and meet my family who were anxiously waiting there. As we drove to the hospital, we noticed that the media van was trailing us and we tried to elude them. We drove to a friend’s house, changed vehicles and then continued on our way to the hospital, thinking that we had successfully left the media crew behind. However, upon arrival at the hospital we were shocked to find more television crews waiting for us. We had to drive into the basement of the hospital and take the elevator to my room, where I had a tearful reunion with my parents, brothers and sister and other relatives.

One has to grudgingly admire the resourcefulness of the media but at the same time one wishes that they would exercise more decency and understanding in dealing with victims not just of kidnappings but any other unfortunate incidents. They should be aware that their actions and the manner in which they pursue their journalistic responsibilities have an impact on the healing of the victims, not to mention the security implications of public exposure. Even while in captivity, I prayed hard that there would be minimal information about me from the broadcast media, particularly radio and television, Any exaggeration about my background would put me in a more difficult position. Unnecessary high profile exposure encouraged the abductors to hold on to their “prize catches” and made it more difficult to resolve the situation quickly. This was the reason, I believe, why I had to be separated immediately from my friend to be under the hands of the commander himself.

 

Indeed, th
ere is still a great challenge to raise sensitivity awareness among many sectors in the management of trauma victims, in this case, kidnap victims. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why I decided to write about my experience, after having had a period of time to recover from it. I opt to share my experience only insofar as it would hopefully result in some benefit to others.

 

The bottom line in every action one takes is the respect for human dignity which is rooted in our personal sense of worth for the human person regardless of faith, belief, and social status in life.

 

The Worsening Kidnapping Situation and Government’s Responsibility to Protect

 

It is tragic that the kidnapping situation in Basilan is now out of control. In the first four months of 2009, more persons have been victimized by kidnap gangs from Basilan than in the entire year of 2008. And 2008 marked a record as well compared to recent prior years as far as kidnap victims was concerned. In both Basilan and Sulu, and also in Zamboanga City, the kidnappers have become very brazen, abducting people in broad daylight and in centers of population. In Basilan, moreover, the incidents appear to be quite random and indiscriminate, involving even victims from low-income families. Are there serious, well studied efforts by government authorities to address this? Are communities and local officials confronting this problem seriously? Is there paralysis or plain acceptance by the communities and the local officials?

 

The kidnapping situation reflects a major failure of governance, both at the local as well as national levels. This is particularly reflective of the failure of the state agencies mandated to provide security for the citizenry to fulfill their duties. More often than not, the security agencies are on a reactive mode, taking action only after kidnappings have been carried out. The absence or failure of preventive measures is clearly shown in the rising frequency of kidnapping incidents in the BaSulTa area and Zamboanga City.

 

It appears that the intelligence agencies are likewise unable to provide the needed information to prevent or at least resolve kidnapping cases in as short a time as possible. This despite the fact that they appear to have agents embedded in several of the active kidnap gangs. I am told that during our captivity, there were conflicting intelligence reports regarding our status and our whereabouts. There were reports that my friend and I were being held together in one location. There were reports that we had been separated. There were reports that we had been moved to the island of Jolo. There was even one report at one time that I had been killed, that I had died fighting off a rape attempt. There were reports that my friend and I had been married off to two ASG commanders. While realizing that it is in the nature of intelligence work that raw information would be obtained which would need to be assessed and verified before being acted upon, nevertheless it is clear that one reason the captivity of my friend and I was prolonged was because there was little hard information that the security agencies could act upon. In my case, for example, my release was the result of the efforts of one person, a close friend, who quietly established contact with the commander holding me, negotiated and arranged my release without the knowledge of the authorities. This friend advised the concerned authorities only two days before my pending release and only because he felt he needed their assistance to ensure my safety during the actual turnover and transporting me back to my family. The vaunted intelligence agencies of government were of no help at all.

How about government assistance and support to the victims and their families? In reality, the victims are left to fend for themselves. This becomes even more pressing now that it appears that kidnappers are abducting persons indiscriminately. Victims are not just persons coming from families with means but schoolteachers who barely get by with their meager salaries, construction workers, linemen from the electric cooperative, farmers, and other lowly paid individuals. Once these victims are released, what kind of assistance could they expect to help them recover their lives which had been so rudely and violently interrupted?

Most often than not, you would hear government security agencies chiding victims for not filing charges against their abductors. It is often used as an excuse to explain why kidnappers are not apprehended and continue to ply their trade: the victims have not filed any charges. However, the onus does not rest merely with the victims. To begin with, as mentioned before, the fact that the crime was committed is already a reflection of the failure of the police and the military in discharging their duty to protect the citizenry. But the crime having been perpetrated, what support systems are there in place to protect the victims and ensure that justice is done? Can the victim, the aggrieved party feel safe again? Will that be ever possible?

In my case and that of my friend, for example, when our abductors were communicating with our families, it appears that phone calls and texts sent to our family members were emanating not just from Basilan but from Jolo as well and even locations in Metro Manila. This would indicate that the ASG has tentacles even in Metro Manila. It would be very difficult to feel safe from retribution should one decide to file a case against the abductors.

What sustainable protection mechanisms can, therefore, be offered to victims and their families to ensure that justice is realized? Honestly, how successful has the Witness Protecti
on Program been? Does it truly guarantee safety and protection to victims and their families who would opt to file criminal charges against perpetrators of kidnapping or similar crimes? In a private conversation with a former high-ranking military official who personally handled victims under the Witness Protection Program, he confided that he considered the program to be inadequate, if not a failure. The witnesses are virtual prisoners themselves during the period that they are under the protection of the program. For those who have families to support they would receive an allowance inadequate to sustain them. And the actual physical security provided is spotty at best; sometimes not available if the security agents assigned are pulled out to attend to an emergency case.

With regard to the justice system in the Philippines, enough has been said in the media and various fora regarding the inadequacies of the justice system. Suffice it to call to mind the way a former National Security Advisor of the President described it: “We have the best justice system money can buy”. Moreover, one wonders how kidnap victims, who have already lived through a most harrowing experience, can survive the interminable judicial processes which often take years to work out.

The truth of the matter is that government has been inept in addressing the kidnapping problem in a comprehensive and strategically coordinated manner. The ASG is proud that they are able to focus intensely on their kidnap missions. The commander who held me exhorted his men in the following manner: “Mag-focus kita 200%”. They live, breathe and dream about kidnapping. As they put it, the government’s military and police forces and civilian agencies are lax because they are there only for the salaries they get. The ASG, on the other hand, aim for martyrdom in the name of Allah. That in their view is the contrast between government forces and themselves. Kidnappings are carried out to generate the resources needed to strengthen their organization and advance their cause, and ransom payments collected are merely repayment of resources stolen from their homeland by the “enemy”, Christians and their Government. I was considered a “trespasser” in Bangsa Moro. My humanitarian motives and actions did not matter to them.

What Can Be Done?

Where do the answers lie? What actions need to be taken?

There are no easy answers and there are no short-term solutions either. But at least the problem should be recognized for what it is: a major disease eating away not only at the security of the country but at the moral fiber of our people. In Metro Manila, going by recent news reports, it appears that kidnappings are on the rise again. And it appears that a new mode has been adopted: low margins (ransom payments), high volume (of kidnap victims), and quick turnovers (a matter of days up to a maximum of one week).

As a victim I can only hope that the problem is minimized, that as few as possible other persons are victimized in the manner that I was. I can also only plead that others understand the travails that a victim goes through and that victims be given the respect and support they require to rebuild their lives which will unfortunately be scarred forever.

It does seem irreversible at this point, though, and could get even worse if we continue to approach the situation rather simplistically, particularly with regard to understanding the security situation in the Sulu Archipelago. A complex problem needs to be recognized and appreciated for what it is, complex. Hence, one must not dare raise a simple answer to what is in fact a complex problem. There is so much more to learn, to understand and to challenge our mindsets with. The military approach can only be for the short term. The impact of this approach has been seen to be limited over time. This brings me back to the fundamental question that rushed through my mind when I saw the bolo over my head when my executioner threatened to decapitate me on the fifth day of our abduction: Why has the animosity between us gotten to this point? And I, as a Christian, aware of the historical injustices committed against the Muslim peoples over many years past, could only cry for forgiveness.

The agonies of an Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim (1)

The agonies of an Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim (2)

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

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