SISTER STELLA M. Sister Stella Matutina, OSB (right) at the press conference Thursday on their detention at the barangay hall of Tanaytay in Cateel, Davao Oriental. Beside her is Sister Elsa Compuesto, Executive Secretary of the Sisters Association of Mindanao. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo
Matutina, who is also the treasurer of the pro-environment non-governmental organization Panalipdan, said the soldiers did not allow her and her companions to leave the two-story barangay hall of Taytayan where they were allegedly arrested.
Wenceslao Mapa, Panalipdan Davao Oriental chairperson and one of the nun's companions, said soldiers limited their movements and even sent sentries to accompany them when they go to the toilets.
"We were really very traumatized by the incident. I heard stories about these but this is the first time I experienced this,&
quot; said Matutina, who spent 18 years in Europe.
Aside from Mapa, the nun’s companions were identified as Maria Fe Matibo and Gil Sentinales, all officers of Panalipdan.
The four arrived in Barangay Taytayan, a small rice farming community in the town of Cateel, last Feb. 16, to investigate reported illegal mining activities and conduct information drive on the environment.
Matutina said they went to Taytayan after local officials led by Barangay Chair Deonecito Mamangkas and council member Sotero Gros invited them to investigate the recent flash floods that hit the village early January.
She said they slept in the Taytayan barangay hall after a hectic day of meeting with residents.
Matutina said they were sound asleep on the second floor of the hall when five to eight soldiers came around 3 a.m. breaking down doors as they barged inside the building.
"I raised my hand and asked them who they were," Matutina narrated. She said she noticed that the soldiers did not have nameplates and some were wearing ski masks.
Matutina said the armed men ignored her questions and instead asked for their identity cards. She said she gave her driver's license.
When she realized they were soldiers, Matutina said she told the soldiers that they could not arrest them because they did not have a warrant of arrest.
"I told them this is already arbitrary detention," Matutina said. But the soldiers ignored them and instead detained them at the barangay hall.
She said the soldiers also ransacked the office of the barangay poring at every document they could find.
Later in the morning, Fr. Boy Escobar, principal of Maryknoll High School of Santo Tomas, Davao del Norte, interceded after he was asked by the Mati diocese to negotiate for the release of Sister Matutina and her companions.
Matutina told reporters the soldiers wanted to take their picture before they would be released. The four refused.
They then travelled to Mati after they were released.
Army officials have a different version of the incident.
Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the Armed Forces’ Eastern Command which has jurisdiction over Davao Oriental, said the nun was never arrested by the soldiers.
"We just asked the nun some questions, we did not arrest her. We released her to the parish priest of Cateel after we confirmed she was indeed a nun," Cabangbang said in a phone interview.
He said the soldiers received intelligence information that a meeting attended by communist rebels had taken place in the barangay hall and decided to investigate.
The officer insisted that the meeting was still going on but those who attended ran away when they saw the soldiers arriving at the barangay hall.
Cabangbang said Sister Matutina was all alone when the soldiers came. He said he did not receive any information that Sister Matutina had companions.
"Sister Matutina was not wearing a nun's habit, so the soldiers did not recognize her as a nun. She was alone, she did not have companions," Cabangbang said.
He said the soldiers had no recourse but briefly detain her until they could check her identity.
He denied that the soldiers harassed and arrested the nun.
"She was interrogated because she was in civilian clothes. The soldiers received an information about the meeting," the Army officer said.
Cabangbang said they urged Sister Matutina to press criminal charges against the soldiers if she felt her human rights were violated.
"We also wanted to know what really happened. Why Sister Matutina was not wearing her nun's habit because it was obvious that she was there not because she had a job," he said.
Cabangbang said the presence of the nun in the rebel-infested town of Cateel is highly suspect since even the parish priest, Father Nestor Marata, was reportedly dismayed when Sister Matutina did not coordinate with him when they went to barangay Taytayan.
"I hope the nun would only tell the truth. Our soldiers had restrained themselves when they went to the barangay hall. They did not fire their weapons on anyone," he said.
Sister Matutina, who hails from Pangantukan town in Bukidnon, said the martyrdom of Fr. Nery Lito Satur, who was killed in the ’90s, was in her mind when she looked up at the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles.
Satur was murdered on October 14, 1991 by armed men allegedly in cahoots with illegal loggers who got angry against the illegal logging campaign waged by the slain priest in the province of Bukidnon.
"I was always inspired by the sacrifice done by Father Satur. I always pray before his small memorial tablet at the altar in our church in Pangantukan," Matutina said.
She said she and Father Satur were town mates and usually see each other at the local school where they studied.
"If I have died that morning in Barangay Taytayan, I knew there are six other townmates who will replace me. They are also nuns of the Order of St. Benedictine," the nun said.
Matutina said the province of Davao del Norte is endowed with rich natural resources that it would be a pity if only the rich will benefit from it.
She said she was very furious the team leader of the soldiers told her that "nuns like me should stay in the convent praying and should not be in Barangay Taytayan."
"He told me that nuns are just feigning to be religious but later on, they will organize the people to make them turn against the government," Matutina read from her two-page statement during the press conference today.
"Is this how peacebuilders like us should be treated and be accused?" she asked.
Sister Elsa Compuesto, SAMIN secretary-general, condemned the military for detaining Sister Matutina and her companions.
Compuesto said the Army soldiers have sent "a chilling message" that in the rural communities, "the military rules over the people."
"They have committed no crimes; they have committed no acts that make them deserve detention and being suspected as rebels. Sister Stella and her companions were in Taytayan on the invitation of local officials to talk on environmental awareness and protection," Compuesto said.
Lawyer Carlos Zarate, of the Union of People's Lawyers, said they are now studying with Sister Matutina what charges they would file against the soldiers.
"Clearly this is a horrible experience for the nun and her companions," he said. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)