The writer, a humanitarian worker, was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan in September of 2008. She recounts part of her ordeal in the hope that the public and particularly government officials who are tasked to address the problem of securing the safe release of other kidnap victims begin to appreciate the harrowing experiences that victims go through. It is easy to direct strategies from the outside when one is not personally affected. But if the welfare of the victims is primary in the declared intentions of said officials, it becomes necessary to see the situation from the perspective of the victims. This, it is hoped, will enable authorities to make their decisions in a more informed and humane manner. This first part recounts the fears and uncertainties that the writer experienced during her 61 days of captivity. This will be followed with another article which will try to explain how she coped with the situation, and finally a third article with her reflections on the entire experience.
Ms Mendoza gave MindaNews permission to run the series.
More than six months ago, on September 15, 2008, four of my colleagues and I were taken at gunpoint by seven heavily armed young men along the road from Tipo-Tipo to Lamitan, Basilan, at around one o’clock in the afternoon. (Three of our companions were thankfully released several hours later.) We had just come from a meeting with the leaders of displaced people in Tipo-Tipo Proper to consult them regarding their views of the conflict situation and to plan out a program of assistance with them. The meeting with elders, religious leaders and women was a culmination of a house-to-house survey of more than 200 displaced families, which was conducted with the assistance of the Basilan Provincial Social Welfare Office. I had just come from a similar two-week field research in Kalingalan Caluang, Sulu and was on my way back to Manila after this short side trip in Basilan.
I had been returning to Basilan the past years and was recently exploring possibilities of community program engagement to help perennially displaced communities through local program partnerships and multi-stakeholders’ engagement. Earlier on, I did two rounds of security assessments consulting the local government officials, police and military officials and community leaders regarding the risks and ascertaining contingency measures to address these.
The First Hours
The memory of those first moments of abduction when our vehicles were stopped by rifle-bearing men who dragged us out of our vehicle continues to haunt me to this day.
Hard as I try to block it from my memory, it persists. I was the last one to get off when a fierce-looking young male pointed an M-206 at me and shouted for me to get out. I was stunned and could not move. It was as if my mind could not understand or accept what was happening. I then noticed that my colleagues who had alighted from the vehicle earlier were already some distance away, being led away by the other armed men. I started to worry about them. There were two Muslim female friends with us who at first argued with our abductors but who were later allowed to leave. I pleaded with one of them not to leave us but I also quickly realized that it was the best decision for them to go so they could run for help.
Minutes later, we heard gunfire. Our abductors pushed us to move faster. We surmised that we were being pursued, possibly by some CAFGU units who may have been alerted regarding our abduction, there being a checkpoint not too far away. Each of us was being dragged by one of the armed men, pushing us to move faster non-stop. We were running and stumbling along the way, trying to catch our breath, fearful of being caught in the crossfire should our pursuers who were trying to rescue us catch up with us. As I deliberately walked slowly and was at the end of the line, one of the armed men shouted at me, “Binabaril ang mabagal maglakad!” I hurried to catch up with the rest.
We were only able to stop around 3 pm in a forested area, exhausted, where the armed men huddled and discussed their plans. It rained that time and we tried to seek refuge under the trees. They interrogated us as we continued to plead with them to release us by explaining that we were humanitarian workers. They took away all our valuables and asked us to write down our names. I was the first to write down my name and as they read it, I noticed they nodded their heads and pointed to me.
They insisted we were Red Cross people and “melikans” (foreigners), the reason for the abduction. We tried to prove to them that we were not with the Red Cross. Each of us was asked what we were doing there, what our jobs were, how much we earned, where we were from. Sometime later, after talking among themselves, they told us they had made a mistake and promised to return and send us to the house of the Tipo-Tipo Mayor after sundown. We were thankful and were excited to be going home. We believed them.
In my excitement I deferred eating anything thinking that we would have food at the Mayor’s house anyway.
As the hours dragged into the deep of the night, only three of my colleagues were taken off in two motorcycles. The two of us left, both females, were assured that we would follow to the mayor’s house once the motorcycles returned. After some two hours, the motorcycles returned, and my friend and I each got on and we rode off. However, the motorcycle I was on slipped and fell in the mud and would not start again. I began to be afraid since I could no longer see my friend. I began to worry about her safety. I wanted to keep her in sight to assure myself that she was alright. At the same time, being able to see her would give me a sense of not being alone myself. With our motorcycle dead in the mud, my guard ordered me to walk. It must have been around 10 o’clock in the evening. As we were walking my guard would often stop, as if in deep thought. This caused me concern. What was he thinking about? Could he possibly harm me? I would try to distract him by suggesting we take a certain route. At the same time I worried about my friend. Where was she? Would I ever see her again?
After what seemed to be a long while, I heard a motorcycle approaching us; I prayed that it was my friend. And indeed it was, and at that point we were turned over to another pair of guards. We were told that these guards would bring us to the Mayor. We bade our salams with the men and thanked them for releasing us. But the hike under the moonlit sky only seemed to take us deeper into the woods. It was eerily quiet. There were no houses in sight. We walked up and down hills, crossed a stream, and crossed an open field, walked in a forested area. My friend and I were both very quiet, deep in our respective thoughts. When we pleaded to rest, it was then that the elder guide told us,”We are Mujahideens. If no one comes to help you, you will not be able to go back home”.
That confirmed our deepest fears. We were in the hands of the dreaded Abu Sayyaf of Basilan.
After walking for some more distance, I pleaded to find a place to stay for I could n0 longer walk and my friend was also in pain as she had slipped earlier. A little hut was found later and we were instructed to stay inside a very small windowless room and to be quiet. We washed our muddied feet and went off to sleep, very, very exhausted. We were both hungry, tired and wet.
From our original group of five there were only two of us that our abductors decided to hold on to. While one would not wish the nightmare of kidnapping to happen to anyone,
I was at least glad that my friend and I were together. She and I had known each other and worked together for so many years for community-based development programs and humanitarian assistance in Basilan, and I look upon her as my sister. If there was anyone I would have gladly shared hardships with, it would have been her. Having her beside me made me feel I could cope with any uncertainties and sufferings that faced us. I did not cry when I was with her. Alone I felt each of us would become more vulnerable.
Unfortunately, my fears came true. On the third day I had a premonition we would be separated. I felt palpitations and I told my friend that I was afraid something would happen to us. True enough, that evening two young ASG men arrived to get me as instructed by their commander who wanted to interrogate me. My friend and I embraced each other tightly and blessed each other as we bade our goodbyes, quietly crying at being separated.. I requested her that if she were to go home sooner, to ask forgiveness from my parents for letting them go through this horrific ordeal with me.
We walked for what seemed like five hours until what was most likely past midnight.
During that hike we had to hide when we encountered a group of men whom my escorts did not know. They could have been “lost commands” or other groups who could have “snatched” me from my captors. There was some gunfire, hearing which my escorts pushed me to lie down on the ground behind the bushes and to keep still while they got ready to fire back. My ASG escorts took off their light-colored shirts so they would not be seen in the dark. My heart was beating so fast awaiting the exchange of fire until my guards decided to avoid an encounter and instead move quickly away towards the opposite direction. I was breathless as they dragged me by the hand not knowing and seeing where I was being led. I suffer from poor eyesight and had to just blindly follow my captors.
Later when we were both freed and reunited, my friend told me that she did hear the shots after I had been brought away, and that left her extremely distraught, not knowing what had happened to me.
During that first week away from my friend, my new captors tried to get me to reveal the contact numbers of my family as well as friends who could be threatened to come up with a ransom payment for my release. I resisted since I did not want to bring further anguish particularly to my parents who are advanced in age. I was tormented by the thought of my father and mother agonizing over me, not knowing what was happening to me. I would think up all sorts of excuses as to why particular persons they identified from the directories of my two mobile phones would not be able to help me. They asked if I knew any politicians or celebrities who could intercede for me. I denied knowing anyone. All this time I was torn by the desire of gaining my freedom but at the same time not doing it at the expense of tormenting further any of my family or friends.
In exasperation the ASG Commander berated me, “Why are you thinking of protecting these people? Why don’t you think of yourself first?” I had hoped in the beginning that an unconditional release would be possible through local contacts that my friend and I have established over the years, and/or by other means. After all, I had worked among Muslims for many years. I was sure many of my friends were exerting their efforts, looking for contacts who could convince our captors to release us. I was sure the government could also do something short of a military rescue operation. As it turned out, it was naïve of me to have thought so. As the days dragged on, the situation seemed to become more complicated.
During this time as well it was clear that a search operation had been launched for us. Several times I heard helicopters whirring overhead as well as other types of aircraft which I assumed were the OV-10s used to drop bombs during military operations. Fear would grip me every time I would hear the aircraft, not knowing if they would begin strafing or bombing without knowing that I was there. To this day, sudden sounds like this, even a motorcycle or thunder which catches me by surprise, continue to startle me.
Impatient at not being able to extract any cooperation from me and because no progress was being made in getting anyone to pay for my release, my captors dragged me one evening out of the 4X4 meter GI-roofed cell in which I had been confined. It was a room which was extremely hot under the sun during the day and extremely cold at night.
It must have been around 9 or 10 in the evening. Two men barged into my cell and dragged me out into the dark. They pulled me roughly away from the house where I had been confined and then pulled off my hijab, the head and face veil which I had been forced to wear. They used this to tie my hands behind my back and then roughly pushed me down on my knees. They taped my mouth with masking tape to prevent me from crying out. One of the men positioned himself behind me and pushed the barrel of his rifle against my head while the other one pulled out his bolo and raised it to decapitate
“Mabuti pa ikaw ang mamatay kaysa kami!” he shouted. (“Better that you should die than us!”)
With tears streaming down my face and my whole body shaking in fear I cried out to myself, “Why have things come to this? Why does this hatred towards us exist?” But despite my fear and certainty that I was going to die it flashed on me that this ASG commander was right. As a humanitarian, as someone whose instinct it is to help others, I knew it would be better for me to be killed than for whole communities of people to be sacrificed as the military searched for me, in the process engaging the Abu Sayyaf in gun battles, strafing the ground with helicopter fire, in the process killing or injuring innocent civilians. I accepted my death at that moment.
My captors stopped from what they had intended to do having achieved their aim of terrorizing me, showing me that they had the power of life and death over me. I do not remember anymore what happened after that, only that I was back in my cell later, shaking with fear and in tears, anxious about the forthcoming nights. Nightmares were a common occurrence.
I was moved five times during the 61 days of my captivity. During this time, attempts were made to contact different people to make me plead for my life. Until the last ten days of my captivity I was kept in places where there was no phone signal, so that whenever calls had to be made I was forced to walk several hours until a signal could be found.
Because of the nature of my confinement where I was kept in an enclosed area where I could only sit or lie down, I had no chance to exercise myself. Thus, when I was pulled out the first few times to walk to make a phone call, it was a struggle. My body would not cooperate. My knees seemed to be like jelly, I would get nauseous easily and would run out of breath quickly.
We would climb up the bud (mountain), from which I thought I could see the lights of Zamboanga City to the north and lights to the south which were probably fishing vessels or some other islands. We would normally leave my cell around 8 in the evening, with an initial escort of between 3 to 4 heavily armed men. Along the way, other armed groups would join us, perhaps sent as advance reconnaissance parties to clear the way, so that by the time we got to the bud there could have been anywhere from 50 to 100 men guarding me. It would be a difficult 2-3 hour trek for me, to include the hike up the mountain.
Once up the mountain, attempts would be made to establish contact. On a few occasions contact was aborted for various reasons. On at least two occasions I was able to speak to two friends to plead for my life.
The mobile phone would always be on speaker mode so that the Commander could hear the conversation between me and the party on the other side. There were two simple rules: plead so that the other party will take pity on you, and do not reveal where you are and who you are with.
I had no idea where we were other than the fact that we were on the island of Basilan. So during the second phone call, when the party I spoke to asked where I was, I innocently replied “Nasa Basilan”, not realizing that even that piece of information was considered taboo. My captors hit me on the back when I gave that reply.
This whole time, even while we were separated, I was thinking of my friend. I would ask my captors for news about her. I would write her “love letters” which I gave to my Commander to send to her. He said he had them delivered but I know they never got to her.
I was told that I would have a chance to see her, and I excitedly prepared what little basic feminine things I had managed to keep with me in order to give to her. But she never came by. I desperately asked my captors and the women who took the chance to come and see me, bring food to me, how she was, whether she was alright.
Towards the end of October I heard news that she was going to be released. That raised my spirits because I knew her burden was heavier than mine. She had a husband and children to think about and I prayed that she would be released as soon as possible.
When I finally heard she had been released, I was elated. That was one of the few occasions for joy during this whole time.
The two contacts I was able to make proved fruitless. On the first occasion, which was Oct. 15, exactly one month from our captivity, my hopes were raised when I was finally able to speak to someone whom I thought would be able to help me get out. But nothing resulted from that. After a few days it turned out that contact was cut off with that number. Later on, after I was released, I learned that the party had been instructed by the authorities to stop all communication with my kidnappers and me.
The second contact was even more dire. This was the occasion where I had blurted out that I was in Basilan, and received blows from my captors as a result. Moreover, because of the experience with the first call, the Commander threatened my contact that one of my hands would be cut off if their demand was not met within 48 hours. I believed they would really do so and the fear made me physically ill. During the next several days I experienced fever and had sore throat, thinking all the time of the threat of mutilation that had been made.
Helplessness and hopelessness would often sink into me. I was completely under the control of my captors. There was nothing I could do without their consent. I was confined to my cell except for those occasions when we had to walk to the bud. In the last house I was in, thankfully, I was allowed to bathe occasionally in a nearby stream but only late in the night, and with guards nearby to ensure I would not escape, and that was one of the times I could get out of my cell.
I could not take anything for granted. Except for the last house, bathing was impossible. I was given the equivalent of two liters of water a day, which had to suffice for everything I needed. Thus I used it sparingly and learned to keep myself clean to the extent possible.
There was no toilet, and therefore I had to satisfy myself with doing all of my business with the help of “cellophane”, i.e., plastic bags, which people competed for because of its scarcity. Still I managed during this period to observe minimum rules of sanitation despite the circumstances.
Coupled with the feeling of being completely under the control of others was the feeling of hopelessness, of not having anything to look forward to, of not knowing what to look forward to. Had I been abandoned? Why was no one responding to my pleas for help?
What was the government doing? Was the government helpless as well to do anything?
And while I knew that there were people who would never stop trying to get me out, still the days stretched out so that I was counting seconds, and minutes and hours, waiting and praying for something to happen.
Present during this whole time as well was fear. Often I would hear my name being called late at night, just as I was falling asleep. I would be roused because we either had to move or we were going to the bud. Occasionally I noticed that some of the young men would peep into my cell. Thus at night I tried to keep myself awake until my fatigue would force me to fall asleep.
On a few occasions I suffered the indignity of being hit by my captors, mainly, I assume, because I was found to be uncooperative. The blows themselves hurt but more than that was the knowledge that they could do with me as they wished and there was nothing I or anyone could do about it.
Thus, I have to admit, there were occasions where I contemplated ending it all. I thought of ways by which I could do this in as painless a manner as possible. There was a little kerosene in my cell for my gasera, but it would not have been enough to do the job. I had accumulated some medicines for fever and colds and tried to figure out if an overdose would work. But I knew it was going to be a slow death if at all they were to take some effect, which I doubted.
At one time I gathered the courage to tell my commander, “If you are going to kill me, go ahead and shoot me, but give me the dignity of a swift death.”
To this day I still wonder: if my captivity had dragged out longer with no signs of a recovery in sight, if I had been subjected to other indignities, and if the occasion and the means for a quick and painless death presented itself, would I have really taken my own life? Despair can be a strong motivator and death a release from hopelessness and indignity.
A Plea for Empathy
I convey some of the agonizing experiences and predicaments of a kidnap victim in the hope that one would be able to begin to understand what every kidnap victim in Sulu or Basilan or elsewhere is undergoing. The pleas of the kidnap victims like the ICRC humanitarian workers, the public school teachers, the microfinance worker, the young boy, and many others still in enforced captivity to this day, possibly even some unreported cases, express a very painful state of being. Every minute is crucial. Every action or inaction is critical. In the end, when everything comes to naught, when one is bereft of everything, and one fears that no help is coming at all, how can the victim cope? (Continued tomorrow: Coping with Captivity – one victim’s story).