ADVOCACY MINDANOW: My Disastrous Moments: Davao Prison Hostage-taking

(This is Part 2 of a 3- episode series of a firsthand account chronicling the hostage taking incident in the Davao Penal Colony [DAPECOL] that happened 13 years ago while the author was still presidential assistant of Mindanao of former President Ramos.)

DAY THREE, MARCH 7, SATURDAY – At around 10:30 a.m., I landed again with my staff and mediamen at the Dapecol compound on board two Huey helicopters. I could see from the air a multitude of prisoners  on the ground straining their necks  up as we approached for landing amid whirling dust,  dry leaves and loose soil.  I peered at the direction of the RDC building where the hostages were held and I could see persons looking out from the grilled windows. “They must be waiting for some good news from me,” I told myself. I ran through my mind my game plan for the day. I felt confident. But yes, still a bit nervous. This was to be my second return to them after my first initial negotiations the day before.

HANDSHAKES –After a brief review with some officials of latest events, I immediately proceeded to the RDC hostage area. When I entered the room, the hostage-takers looked more relaxed. Some even warmly met me and shook my hand—unlike my first entry when they merely watched me coldly, perhaps with suspicion. But I noticed two or three of them were still aloof and remained at the back of the room standing and on alert. I also noticed that the five women hostages were tense, perhaps tired or troubled. I sat down and immediately told them that their demand for the removal of the superintendent was approved. Of course they chorused that they heard about this the day before through the radio. (I thought so. That confirmed that they were monitoring what was going outside through the transistor radio inside.) Then, as planned, I interviewed each of them about their individual cases and how I could be of help. I remember the supposed leader Dario Mahumot first volunteered to tell me about his case. He was convicted for illegal possession of firearms and sentenced to six years imprisonment. But his case was still in the Court of Appeals for review. He claimed he was innocent. (This was a common refrain of course.) I took notes and told him I would verify the status. There were a few others who also talked about their cases.

PHONE CALL TO MILF  — Two of the hostage takers, namely Amid Darino and Modi Ammed were insistent that since they were members of the MILF, they wanted to contact  a certain Commander “Mortar” as they belonged to his unit. I told them I would arrange a telephone conversation with an MILF official, but not with “Mortar” because I did not know him. Unknown to the two, I was able to contact on the phone early that morning a high MILF official and explained to him the developing situation and the earlier demands of the group to be brought to Camp Abubakar. My personal friendship with some MILF leaders even long before this incident was helpful. Of course, as I expected, the MILF would not want to be involved one way or the other with the incident. Allowing their rebel camp to be a sanctuary of these prisoners and and be a refuge to  jail-breakers, even if indeed the prisoners  were truly MILF elements was certainly not  a welcome scenario to them.

Hence, I was fully confident and not worried about allowing the two prisoners to talk on the phone with  an  MILF official. Since the cellular phone signal was weak in the hostage area, I brought both Darino and Ammed out of the room, walked with them outside then to the open grounds where the signal was better. There, a phone call was made and the two talked with an MILF official for a few minutes. Many onlookers outside the perimeter fence watched as the phone conversation took place.  I could only make out from the conversation that the two prisoners were insisting that they be brought to the MILF camp. They were talking in their native dialect. But I could sense that the MILF official was telling them it was not possible.  That was the story line we agreed when I earlier explained about my predicament and the situation.  After the phone call, I brought the two back to the room. I could sense they were frustrated. And angry. But again, I told them that I would continue to help them.

STOCKHOLM SYNDROME? –Expecting that things would turn for the worse as their plan to be brought to Camp Abubakar appeared dim especially after hearing about it directly from the MILF official who did not give any positive assurance,  I continued  my dialogue with them when I  returned to the room with Darino and Ammed.  Then, in order to prevent them from making immediate drastic moves, I told all of them that I would bring an MILF official the following day so they could discuss the matter together and in person. I was hoping an MILF high official could help me persuade them to give up on their plans. I was also buying for more time hoping that I could find some breakthrough, although I could sense they were showing desperation and anger.

One thing that stood out in my mind that day was the unexpected outburst coming from one of the hostages:  Mrs. Corda. She was insisting that government must do everything to resolve the situation, that she was sympathizing with the prisoners and that she was willing to do everything to help the prisoners. When she was talking, I realized that the tension and pressure on the hostages had built up to the point of almost at a breaking point. That was already the third day of their captivity.

Then I thought:  was this an initial manifestation of the so-called “Stockholm syndrome”?   In other similar cases , after going through such ordeal, hostages were said to start identifying themselves with the grievances of the hostage-takers, adopt those grievances also as their own in the course of  gaining the hostage-takers’  friendship and hoping that by befriending and siding with  them, they would not be harmed and their safety and possible release could happen. But I was only speculating then.   The other women hostages were already crying. The more I was worried at the turn of events. I left the room, again the prisoners chanting “ALLAHU AKBAR” with more intensity this time. I met immediately with the relatives who were waiting outside and briefed them. I gave a hint that we were approaching a critical phase and that the safety of their loved ones were on the line. I told them that there were several options being studied. They remained quiet most of the time, except for some audible sobs.

ASSAULT TEAM READY — Then I closeted myself with the PNP team where I was briefed about the preparations for an assault, in the event a decision would be made to forcibly rescue the hostages. That was to be the last option when the negotiations would fail, I told everyone. Unknown to many and out of the public view, a crack team of “shooters” had been undergoing mock-up assault practices and drills in another location while I was engaged in the negotiations. They were assisted by experts who constructed a close replica of RDC Room D where they went through simulated exercises and assaults until they felt confident that they were ready for the real thing.  I was told that they were ready to “go” anytime.

I was curious about the scenario and I asked to be briefed on details. I just wanted to be sure how it would be executed. According to plan, eight shooters would be lined up, corresponding to the number of hostage takers inside with another set of backup shooters in their heels  just in case. The assault would start with a detonation of an explosive outside the building intended to momentarily shock everyone inside. Simultaneously, the team would enter the door with everyone shouting “dapa, dapa” (on the floor) and the shooters engaging targets as they entered. It was assumed that the hostages would hit the floor while the armed hostage takers would fight back. The fact that all the hostages were women gave confidence that the shooters could pick out their male targets easily. The main concern was how to neutralize immediately the fellow who was suspected as having a hand grenade. Another concern was how to gain entry the fastest way if the door was locked. One volunteered the suggestion that a food courier in the guise of delivering food should unlock the padlock ahead of time. Other tactical details were discussed.  Someone even volunteered the information that they clocked the mock assault and it could be over in “less than one half minute” if no other unforeseen complications would arise. I told them it was not yet time.  But I made clear to the officer in charge that they should be ready to “go” anytime, once the hostage takers would start harming the hostages.

WEIGHING OPTIONS –I returned again to Davao city for the night, although still closely monitoring Dapecol through phone.  Before nightfall, I was able to arrange for Atty. Lanang Ali, my friend and a member of the MILF peace panel to be fetched by helicopter in Cotabato City the following morning.  I was making a last ditch effort hoping that perhaps, they would listen to the MILF official in ending the stand-off peacefully. That evening I stayed awake most of the time, weighing options and imagining scenarios. I was also worried that the prisoners would make a move that night. They appeared desperate and restive when I left late that afternoon. I learned the following morning that a commotion took place in the area that night but nothing more eventful happened. (TOMORROW’S EPISODE: THE ASSAULT)