May 23, 2020
I am Fr. Chito, survivor of the Marawi siege in 2017. This is my recollection of that fateful day three years ago, when war broke out in the city and I was taken hostage by local followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
It was around 10:30 in the morning when we heard gunfires. We knew later these were in Barangay Basak Malotlot, when ISIS warriors resisted a team of government troops sent to arrest their top Asian leader.
While the war had already started, I prayed and asked for God’s enlightenment on the most prudent action to take to protect myself, and the church, and the people.
The prayerful reflections and discernment led me to a decision that I have to witness the unfolding of events. My experience in the last 23 years reminded me that we were spared from harm as I simply trust and put our fate, as always, in the hands of God.
Soon, the sounds of war reached the road just near our church compound. But amid the continuing rattle of gunfires in the streets, we promptly had our lunch at 12 noon, and by 3:30 in the afternoon, celebrated Holy Mass in preparation for the next day’s Santa Maria Auxiliadora Cathedral parish fiesta.
A climate of fear engulfed the entire city at 5:30 of that sad afternoon. The usual hustle and bustle of the city was gone, replaced with the eerie silence akin to a ghost town as the continued ringing of gunfires sent and kept people within the safety of their homes.
Not a single vehicle was moving in the streets. Lights in the houses were turned off. A deafening silence reigned over the city, broken only by the intermittent burst of indiscriminate gunfires.
Sensing the deep climate of fear captivating the entire city, me and my five lay companions in the Bishop’s house gathered in the chapel and prayed for 30 minutes.
At six o’clock of that sad afternoon, after the prayers, we saw in one direction, about 500 meters away from us, the city’s police station and jail burning. The Bureau of Fire Protection station was unable to respond as they were already occupied and controlled by the armed men.
About 30 minutes later, we saw from another direction one of the buildings inside the Dansalan College compound, some 500 meters away from us, go up in flames.
While witnessing the two big fires not so far from us, which we were helpless to do anything about, we resorted to prayer to control our fears.
At seven o’clock of that fearful evening, several armed men in full combat gear showed up at our compound’s gate. They introduced themselves as warriors of ISIS dawla, and ordered the six of us to submit to their commands so they won’t shoot.
We were instructed to get into a van. Inside, we met seven teachers of the Dansalan College. Together, we comprised the first group of hostages. Our horde would reach 120 as the war wore on.
As captives, we were living with unexplainable fears, surrounded by around 60 young and war-capable men brandishing Armalite rifles and other high-powered guns, with bandoleers of bullets strewn on their bodies.
“Lord, keep me in your hands.” These were the words I constantly intoned, fully entrusting myself to Him amid that very devastating situation. In my intense and fervent prayers, I told myself before God that my life will never be the same again with this experience. That is, if the Lord wills into my fate and destiny to survive from the ordeal, I thought then.
I and several male hostages were transferred to a location where the top ISIS leaders hold fort, dispensing orders to their fighters. There, we got a daily feel of the war’s nerve center.
When government forces soon discovered it was the main headquarters of the militants, our location became center stage of the offensives, and we were right in the middle of all the strife.
During days of intense assault by government forces, we have to constantly dodge from devastating air strikes. For those of us who survived every blast, we suffered the deadly sound unleashed at every explosion. In due time, our ears have grown deaf to the blare. We also have to be alert to immediately seek cover when a barrage of artillery fires and bullets start to rain on our location.
In a given day, I can count at least ten times that I escaped death from a bullet or a bomb shrapnel. Most of the time, I was just an inch away from being hit.
Seeing ISIS fighters and our fellow hostages hit, struggle with serious wounds and eventually die was also daily fare. The daily sight of buildings brought to their knees by bombs was a grim reminder of the devastating way we could meet death.
That ordeal I endured for 93 days! Horrific. Unimaginable. A tale that still shocks me to this day.
Having seen death face to face, I was no longer afraid to die. Instead, I prepared myself to meet it at any moment. I was just afraid of being hit by a bullet and agonize for too long before dying. Hence, in my intense prayers to the Lord, I implored, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the angels and Saints, that if I have to die, it should not be in such situation.
In a hopeless situation, simply praying covered me with the cloth of hope, especially when I forced myself to entrust everything to God, even asking Him to give me strength to accept His will.
After three years, the deep psychological wounds inflicted on me still linger, although these are within my capacity to manage, through the professional help of psychologists, psychiatrists, and health coaches. I hope that with the passage of time, and with the blessing of God, I can be healed completely.
I thank all the individuals and institutions in government, civil society, inter-religious and inter-faith communities, and the Church for accompanying me and other survivors and hostages, in our journey of healing. After three years, many among us still find it hard to return to our work or professions as the trauma would disturb our thoughts. This can be compounded by current worries of the coronavirus pandemic.
Please continue to pray for our recovery from that tragedy in Marawi. We also pray for strength in maintaining our forgiving hearts to our captors.
I am still awed at why God let me undergo such a unique and privileged faith experience three years ago. It was the greatest test of my faith.
And today, I have yet to comprehend the miracles of God.
(Fr. Chito escaped from his captors amid intense fighting near Marawi’s Bato Ali mosque on September 16, 2017 and was immediately brought to safety by government troops who saw him. At the time of his kidnapping, Soganub was chaplain of the Mindanao State University.)