ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 17 September) – Ela Ramos’ long wait is over.
The remaining 16 of 19 relatives who were taken hostage by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) from their family compound in Lustre, Baraangay Sta. Catalina, were freed early Tuesday morning, hours after niece Pilar was freed.
Nineteen of Ela’s relatives – siblings, nephews and nieces, in-laws, an aunt and an uncle – were held hostage on September 9 when MNLF forces loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari laid siege on four barangays, including Sta. Catalina, where their three-house family compound is located.
MindaNews chanced upon Ela on Monday night outside the gates of the Philippine National Police’s Camp Batalla, where she waited to be reunited with her niece, Pilar, one of at least 26 hostages who were freed that same evening
But while she was glad Pilar was safe, Ela could not celebrate. As of 9 p.m. Monday, a hostaged nephew, Rubin Limen, was killed on Friday, his cadaver still left behind. Another nephew, Daniel Samson, escaped but suffered injuries. Pilar was freed but the fate of the 16 others, including three-year old Anthoneth, remained uncertain.
On Monday night outside Camp Batalla, Ela tried to fight off tears as she introduced some of her missing siblings to MindaNews through photographs on her digital camera, taken during the birthday celebration of their late mother, on Sunday, September 8.
“Ang saya-saya pa namin” (we were very happy), said Ela, who moved out of the family compound on March 8, for another area also within the city.
The morning after their party at the clan compound, Ela woke up to a nightmare. At 5:30 a.m. she received a text message that there was “gyera” at Petit Barracks. “I was afraid because that’s too close to where they live.”
A frantic Ela called her elder sister Lolita Dimapilis to ask how they were and appealed to them to leave Lustre.
She said her sister responded they were “okay” but could not leave because the MNLF had set up a checkpoint.
Their option was to hide.
The last time they communicated was around 11 a.m. on September 9. Her next text messages were no longer answered.
She knew they had been taken.
On Sunday, Ela dared call Pilar’s number. It was answered by a young MNLF guerrilla, as she reckoned from his voice.
She said she told the rebel to convey a message to the other rebels to think of their mothers, sisters and daughters and to please set the hostages free.
Ela got reunited with Pilar at around 10 p.m. Monday.
An hour earlier, she told MindaNews she hoped her relatives would be set free.
At 4 a.m. Tuesday, Ela received a text message that all her 16 relatives were among 79 hostages who had been freed.
Early Tuesday afternoon, MindaNews found Ela still staking out outside Camp Batalla, along with at least a hundred other relatives, waiting for their turn to be called to enter the camp and be reunited with their kin.
“I had no time to change,” she said. She was still wearing the same clothes she wore on Monday night.
But her mood was no longer somber.
“How many of the 16 were freed? “ MindaNews asked. “All of them,” Ela replied. Five, however, suffered some gunshot wounds and a niece will have to undergo surgery. But all of them are safe now, she said, adding, “my prayers were answered.”
But there will be no more celebrations in the clan compound, only memories of growing up in that village and photographs from her digital camera on the last celebration in that compound on September 8.
The compound is gone, Ela said, the houses there among at least 800 houses burned in the conflict-affected villages during the nine-day stand-off.
A death in the family
A total of 149 hostages had been freed since September 9. City Information Officer Sheila Covarrubias told MindaNews 79 were freed Tuesday morning, 36 Monday night and 34 others much earlier.
Like the Ramos clan, the Dela Pena clan waited outside Camp Batalla to be reunited with their sisters Rosita West, 67 and Marilou Merejuar, 65 and their husbands James West, 72 and Victor Merejua, 70.
Godofredo dela Pena II and Godofredo III said the Merejuars were inside Camp Batalla while Rosita and James West, they were told, were in a hospital.
The Dela Pena brothers said the Merejuars arrived on Sunday from their base in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay to visit their 88-year old mother, Pasilisa Romero Dela Pena, who was rushed to the Brent Hospital.
The Merejuars spent the night in the house of the Wests. Early the next morning, they were taken hostage.
The Dela Pena brothers told MindaNews that the release of their siblings and in-laws came a bit late.
Their mother passed away at the hospital at 4:20 p.m. on Monday, September 16.
The brothers said they deliberately did not inform their mother that Rosita, Marilou and their husbands were held hostage, so she will not worry. But she must have heard about it from other sources, they said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)