The following write-up recounts how one victim of the Abu Sayyaf coped with her enforced detention for 61 days at the hands of her captors. While realizing that the ability and the means of dealing with such a situation is unique to each victim and is a product of one’s background and the circumstances under which one is held, it is hoped that this narration will help other potential victims find the strength to persevere under the difficult situations that they will find themselves in. At the same time, the writer also hopes that this recounting will provide others – families and friends of victims, the general public and those persons tasked with the responsibility of securing the safe release of victims – an inside look at how possibly a victim may be dealing with the difficulties he or she faces.
Ms Mendoza gave MindaNews permission to run this three-part series.
“Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for the Lord is with me. His rod and staff protect me.” Psalm 23:4
The Lord is my Shepherd
My companion and I were abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan early afternoon of September 15. On the third day, we were separated from each other and held in different locations until we were finally released, my companion after 47 days, myself after 61 days. During this entire period we were at the mercy of our captors and did not know if we would ever survive.
When one finds oneself in such a situation, the phrase “living day-to-day” becomes a reality. You begin counting not just each day but each hour, each minute and during periods of extreme terror, each second. During this entire period I forced myself to confront the ordeal of my captivity with the Psalm of David as my consolation. For every step during the long treks through the mountains, it was this biblical verse that I held on to as well as my prayers to Mother Mary. These, as well as other lifelines that I discovered along the way helped me survive the ordeal of a two-month period of enforced detention, during which I did not know whether I would ever come out alive at the end.
It was late evening on the first day that my companion and I realized that our greatest fears had in fact come true. Earlier, three of our companions who had been abducted together with us, were driven away in two motorcycles. Our abductors told us that they had made a mistake and were going to bring us back to the Mayor of Tipo-Tipo. Because there were only two motorcycles to use, two trips would have to be made. My companion and I would be on the second trip. But as the hours passed and the night grew darker, we realized that in fact we were not going to be released, contrary to what we had been told earlier. We were trekking up a mountain under the moonlit sky, filling us with a foreboding of a nightmare we could not escape, when Psalm 23 hit me. We were walking into the valley of the shadow of death.
It is in situations like this that you experience deep in your bones the fear of the unknown, of stepping into what appears to be an abyss, not knowing what lies ahead of you. Often, when I was compelled in the middle of the night to move on, to walk for hours to an unknown destination, I would be in tears trying to overcome the terror that seemed to paralyze me. But realizing that I could not resist, I would hold my tears back and confront the situation holding on tightly to a prayer in my heart. “The Lord is with me. His rod and staff protect me.” (Psalm 23:4) “God’s will be done” (Matthew 26:39). It was a moment of acceptance, of plunging into the unknown holding
on only to one’s faith in God.
Looking back now I have come to realize that in leaving my fate in the hands of God, I was in fact no different from a devout Muslim. After all, a Muslim is one who submits oneself to the Will of Allah. So too is it with a Christian: we likewise submit ourselves to the Will of God. It is in situations like this that our Faith takes on real meaning for us, and where we realize that we, Muslims and Christians, are really one in our belief in One God.
The Rosary and the Tasbi
On that first day, after we had eluded the pursuing CAFGU team, our abductors went through the things that we had brought with us, appropriating to themselves everything that they fancied: obviously what money we had brought, ATM and credit cards, certainly mobile phones, digital camera, and jewelries as well. The leader of the group confiscated my rosary beads, a special memento from Pope John Paul II, which I had kept with me all these years. To him it was a trinket, a necklace he planned to sport around his neck. To me it was a lifeline, one I reluctantly gave up, not having any choice on the matter.
Nevertheless, even without the rosary beads, I prayed the Hail Mary in my heart all throughout the darkest moments. I am thankful that our parents taught us to pray the Holy Rosary when we were young. I felt the love of Mother Mary embracing me all throughout my captivity.
Whenever I was brought out for a walk, always late at night, always with armed guards, whether to move to another house which would serve as my detention center for the succeeding weeks or when we would have to go up the bud (mountain) to catch the signal for a phone call, I would pray the Hail Mary with every step that I would take, even though I was breathless. Back in my cell, I would run through the Mysteries of the Rosary day and night, reliving the decades in my own “way of the cross” , and gaining strength from the spiritual connection that I was establishing through prayer.
Prayer sustained me during those periods of terror and uncertainty. As we walked in the middle of the night there was always the possibility that we would be accosted, whether by military patrols or by bands of “Lost Commands” who might try to grab me. Then, of course, as a lone woman in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by numerous strange, armed and clearly violent men, there was always the possibility of harm being done to me by my captors. In the midst of all of this, I could do nothing more than turn to prayer.
Again, in reflection, I realize that my practice of praying the Rosary is no different from the devout Muslim’s chanting of his prayers using the Tasbi or prayer beads, whether it be the 99 names of Allah, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great), Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah) or Subhanu Allah (Allah is without imperfection).
One evening, around the 5th week of my captivity, an 18-year old ASG fighter came to peep into my room. He seemed sad and distraught because, as he confided in me, he missed his home.
Earlier on, he had reached out his hand through a hole in my cell with two pieces of candy. I was very happy with it since I desperately needed the sugar everytime I needed to hike. I stored those candies for my next long hike.
He told me he had been with the ASG since his junior elementary days and had been separated from his family since then. He said he was tired and would have severe attacks of migraine every time he would hear the sound of gunfire. How he wished he could go back to school. Yet he knew he had no option about going home. It was an impossibility as far as he was concerned. He knew he would probably just die as an Abu Sayyaf.
During our conversation I noticed he was holding his tasbi. I asked him if he could include me in his prayers as well so that I could go home safely. He said he would and in fact prayed that I would be reunited with my family and friends as he had wished for himself. I offered my prayers for him, too.
I also recall a poignant moment, at around 6 o’clock in the evening that first week, when the ASG Commander and I prayed side by side. I was in his hammock, which he let me use one evening during that first week he came to see me. I lay in the hammock silently praying my rosary, while he was kneeling on the floor, with his back turned to me, facing Mecca and worshipping Allah. I was very certain then, that at that particular moment, we were praying before the same Supreme Being, the God of Love and Mercy.
Because of the fear that gripped me, particularly during the early weeks of my captivity, I would be on my guard at night, forcing myself to stay awake in the event that anyone would try to come into my cell, until such time as I would drop off in exhaustion. In my troubled sleep, oftentimes attacked by bangungot, I would take comfort in some visions I would have, visions that would in turn sustain me when I would wake up the following morning.
I often saw and conversed with my departed mentor, Fr. Rey Roda, OMI, who had been brutally murdered 15 months ago at the convento in Tabawan, South Ubian, Tawi-Tawi.
During the first week of my captivity, after I had prayed to him before falling asleep, Fr. Rey appeared in my dream to embrace me with a smile, showing behind him all his OMI brothers praying for me. One by one they came to console me. Then Fr Rey led me by the hand to the chapel so that we could pray together. He said this was to be the way out. I woke up grateful with the message of hope that all would be well. It would just be a matter of time, although in my case it would be another 7 weeks before I would finally be able to go home.
Several times particularly in the most difficult situations, I would feel Mother Mary’s mantle of protection over me. This is why I never stopped praying the Rosary in my heart. Often, too, I would hear my own mother’s voice lovingly whispering to me, keeping me close and lulling me to sleep; feeding me in my troubled dreams to appease my hunger pangs. And often, as I stumbled in the dark during those late night walks to the bud or elsewhere, it was Mother Mary’s and Father Rey’s hands who would guide me, working through the hands of my captors. During the last week of my captivity, as negotiations were finally ongoing for my release, I feared a deadline which had been given for certain demands to be met else further harm would come to me. One evening, Mother Mary came to me in a dream. She consoled me with a message “Milet, this is your Mama Mary. Please continue to pray. You will be home soon”. I immediately was awakened with a smile on my face. I was freed two days after that dream.
Dealing with Torture
The ASG group that held me was adept at psychological torture. This obviously was my first experience in undergoing something like the mock execution which was carried out on me (narrated in the previous article) and so the terror that gripped me at the time and, which remains with me to this day, is indescribable. I was not afraid of death but I wanted one with dignity.
As my executioner raised the bolo over my head while I was kneeling with my hands tied behind my back and my mouth taped, I was stunned by what they were prepared to do.
I remember quite clearly, though, the feelings that ran through me in that one terrifying moment: why had the animosity come to this that men such as these were prepared to harm women? Why was the hatred so deep? With my body wracked with terror and fear and sobbing quietly, I begged my executioners for forgiveness, not forgiveness to spare my life, but forgiveness for the transgressions of Christians against Muslims which had kindled such deep animosity against us. In that same split second moment I cried out my gratitude and respect for all the Muslim families and communities who had welcomed me into their homes these past years and shown me the true essence of Islam. By revealing their faith in Allah they had in turn made me a better Christian.
All these feelings and sensations ran through me as I awaited the executioner’s bolo against my neck and continued to run through me as, hours later, I lay in my cell, curled up, sobbing and trembling terrified. My “executioner” left word that should there be further delays or if I continued to be uncooperative in providing them names of friends or family they could contact, there would be no second chance.
The Power of the Ordinary
When one is left with nothing, when you have been stripped of everything to include even your dignity, even the most ordinary things acquire meaning; things that normally you would not think about, that you would take for granted and not even notice. This lifechanging experience made me aware how the most insignificant can become most significant to me.
Except for the first day of our abduction when we were taken at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, not even once during the entire period of my 61 days of captivity was I allowed out of my cell during the day. If ever I would go out – whether it be to move to another place of detention or to climb the mountain to make a phone call or, in the last house to which I was moved, to take an occasional bath in a nearby stream – it would always be late at night, certainly not earlier than 8 in the evening. Thus I never had the chance to see the sun during this entire period except for one occasion towards the last part of my captivity when I begged for sunlight to get me energized and counter my physical weakness.
In my confined quarters I would often wake up in the morning, waiting for the sun’s rays to slowly reach into my cell through my tarpaulin barrier, and try to see if I could feel the warmth on my face, slowly following its progress down the wall and onto the floor until finally the rays disappeared as the sun continued along its path in the sky. Those few moments of warmth were something to savor and to look forward to. It was a moment of thanksgiving.
Although I would have the opportunity to walk out at night, the occasions were seldom; as mentioned earlier only to move to another house or to make a phone call. Hence I also missed the opportunity of seeing the moon and the stars at night. My cell’s windows had been sealed and I was not allowed to take a peep through any hole. In one of the houses there was a 16-year old girl who occasionally I got to talk to. On these occasions, at night, I would ask her to describe to me the night sky. Was it a full moon? Were the stars shining brightly or were they covered by clouds? One evening, as I listened to her excited voice describing the splendor of the moonlit sky, I felt happy and sad, happy picturing in my mind what the sky looked like, sad that I could not see it myself. It was a moment of yearning and hope, amidst darkness and fear.
My Little Miracles Game
Recalling the love and concern that Fr Rey showed to me with regard to my work in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, I knew that he would continue to watch over me. I was confident that he was there in spirit with me. So I decided to play a game with him. Once I asked him to provide me a bottle of coke (Coca-Cola), something which I thought the ASG family that kept watch over me would never have. On a few occasions, I would see the family drinking orange during their merienda, but never coke. The day after I asked Fr. Rey, the two-year old son of a neighboring family came inside my spot and handed me his milk bottle half-filled with coke!
Food was hard to come by. Often it was rice and very salty tuyo, which I could never finish. One evening I asked Fr. Rey if I could have an egg with my meal. And, voila! The following morning I was given half a hard-boiled egg to eat with my rice for breakfast, the first and only time I had egg during my captivity. I told myself it was typical of Fr Rey to tease. The ASG man who handed me my breakfast plate could probably not figure out why I had a big smile on my face over half an egg.
The coincidences were starting to bother me. Were my thought waves somehow influencing the people around me? I decided to test it. There was a tuko that I occasionally would hear outside in one of the trees. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the tuko joined me in my cell? I slept that night, waking up the following morning to see a tuko in one corner, sticking to the ceiling of my cell
Then I asked for a bird to fly into my cell. A few hours later a chick ran agitatedly into my cell, probably looking for its mother!
On another occasion, I asked Fr. Rey if he could somehow arrange for a chicken meal. I knew I was asking for the impossible since my usual diet was rice and dried fish or instant noodles. That same evening, the Commander himself came to my room bringing some chicken tinola, telling me that he had had difficulty running after the native chicken which had been loose in the yard.
I also prayed for strong rains in the heat of the day just so I would not be asked to go out at night. God answered my prayers. It rained heavily on the days or nights I would pray for it to rain even if it had just been sunny a few hours earlier.
All these coincidences or small miracles happened within 24 hours of my requests.
Then I had regular dreams of numbers which to this day I have not been able to figure out. I wrote them down and studied their meaning daily. I dreamt of the number 1 twice. First was the day before my companion was released. The second time the number 1 came to me in a dream was the night after Mother Mary came to me, telling me that I would be going home soon. I knew then I only had one more night with the ASG. The night following my dream of a very big number 1, I was on my way to Lamitan with the Vice Governor of Basilan and a dear friend who had come to fetch me.
All these coincidences buoyed my spirit, provided me hope when all seemed hopeless, and gave me the will to go on where otherwise I might have despaired.
Making Friends in the Community
I was kept in an ASG community which consisted of around 15 families made up of the married fighters and their wives and young children, plus a number of other fighters who presumably were unmarried. Although fraternization with a captive was frowned upon, some of the women would sometimes come to see me, particularly if the Commander was not around, just out of curiosity or even just to talk. I am sure they were just as interested in the captive as I was in them, in having someone to talk to.
As a woman, I felt more comfortable dealing with the women in the community. I turned to some of them for consolation, for hope, asking them for news about my companion who was held captive with me and later separated from me: had they heard how she was, had she been released already? Guardedly I also asked if they had any news about plans for me. Most of the time they would boost my spirit by telling me, “Inaayos na” (it is being arranged), or “Malapit ka nang uuwi” (you will be going home soon). While clearly they did not have any influence on the decisions that the group was making, “Wala kaming magawa, babae lang kami” (we cannot do anything, we are only women), nevertheless their presence and assurances helped to give me hope.
As a captive, I was sincerely grateful for every little act of what I felt were indications of kindness by the ASG or their families, whether for a meal of rice and fish or a bottle of boiled water. I made it a point to express my thanks to them. I caught myself with tears in my eyes whenever they would give me food. I was grateful. I also expressed concern for their safety and well-being despite my own contrary state. One of the women, a mother of a six month old girl, for example, begged me not to have the military launch an operation against them once I was freed. The women and the children would be defenseless in such a situation. I told her that I understood and would not do anything to endanger them.
Reaching Out to My Abductors
Naïve as it may have been, I tried during the period of my captivity to try and reach out particularly to the Commander holding me. I felt that despite everything there must be a touch of humanity underneath the strict demeanor he showed not just to me but to his men as well. Some of his men, particularly the ones he trusted the most and assigned to be my close-in security, were actually civil to me but, as revealed by one of them, if the Commander gave them an order to execute, they would do so regardless of what it was.
An 18-year old ASG follower told me, “Awa ang unang inaalis sa amin.” (Compassion is the first thing removed from us.) Hence I was being told not to mistake their personal actuations towards me as being a sign of weakness which I might try to exploit.
Whenever the occasion presented itself, I tried to speak frankly to the Commander. I tried to impress on him that while I realized that he was my captor, I looked upon him as my protector as well. There were all sorts of dangers around, not just from other armed groups who might try to grab me from them but even from among his men, some of whom were not as disciplined as he and his trusted men were, and who might try to do more harm to me. In fact, some younger members of the ASG presumably with other factions had become violently impatient with the delay in securing my release and obtaining the awaited ransom payment.
Looking back, I realize now that the Commander most likely manipulated the situations where I was psychologically threatened – as in the mock execution carried out on me – or the occasions where I was physically harmed by some of his men, but I nevertheless believe that in the end he was concerned about me. During the final negotiations which ultimately led to my release, I saw him genuinely agitated following an occasion when some of his men hit me in his absence. When my friend who was negotiating for my release complained to him about this, he nervously paced around the room as he allowed me to speak to my friend. He half-apologized for what had happened, claiming that he had been unaware of what had happened and tried to prevent it when he heard about it.
Following this he promised me that he would personally accompany me during my release to ensure that there would not be any hitches. He also promised me that night that I would be seeing my parents again.
It is hoped that this recounting will help others understand some of the conditions under which kidnap victims are held and, at least in this one particular case, how one victim managed to survive the ordeal. But the experience never leaves you and the scars remain, unseen by others. We just need to cope as best we can, not just as we live through the terror of captivity but for the rest of our lives, but only with the grace of God, the love of Mother Mary and the support of friends and family. (Continued tomorrow)