Fr. Chito Soganub: “God bless you all, pray for my healing and recovery”

(MindaNews / 19 Sept) — Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub was flown to Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City from Marawi on Monday and was presented briefly in a press conference where he spoke only a few lines: “Salamat saka (Thank you and) I pray for you, God bless you all. Pray for my healing and recovery. Thank you very much. God bless you.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the 59-year old Fr. Chito of Norala, South Cotabato, Vicar General of the Prelature of Marawi, was “rescued” in Barangay Sangcay, Dansalan, Marawi at 11:45 p.m. along with Lordbin Acopio, 29 of Badiangan, Iloilo.

Lorenzana explained that as the firefight to retake the Bato Ali Mosque from the ISIS-inspired Maute Group progressed “and our troops gained the upper hand, the terrorists were forced to withdraw to nearby structures at the periphery of the mosque.” As the terrorists were busy repelling the attack, “the troops had the opportunity to snatch Fr. Chito and Mr. Acopio during the melee,” he said.

“The rescue of Fr. Soganub is a very deliberate effort, it’s an intelligence project supported by combat operations, although we cannot give you the details” for now, said General Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Ano said that as early as September 13 or two days after President Rodrigo Duterte visited the main battle area in Marawi, the troops were supposed to “extricate” Fr. Chito before the final assault on the stronghold of the Maute Group then: the Masjid Bato Ali or the Bato Ali mosque.

“What we wanted is before we assault the Bato (Ali) mosque, mailabas kaagad natin si Fr. Soganub (we could get Fr. Sognaub out immediately) but on the night of September 13, September14 and early September 15, nagbago yung paggagwardya ng kalaban so hindi natin nairescue si Fr. Soganub (there was a change in the guarding system of the enemy so we were not able to rescue Fr. Soganub) so I gave the go signal to assault the Bato (Ali) mosque so we can implement the extraction of Fr. Soganub while there is fighting, so nagmaterialize naman lahat yun because on Saturday when we were able to gain the foothold in Bato (Ali) mosque, na-extricate natin si Fr. Soganub on the night of September 16.”

Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub, Vicar General of the Prelature of Marawi upon arrival at the 15th Strike Wing base of the Philippine Air Force in Lumbia, Cagayan de Oro City, en route to Villamor Air Base on Monday, 18 September. Fr. Chito is a free man after 117 days as Maute captive. Photo courtesy of ZIA ALONTO ADIONG

Initial reports said Fr. Chito and another hostage escaped amid the firefight and as they were fleeing, they were identified by troops and brought to safety.

Reporters, however, were not given a chance to ask questions except how he is. “Physically strong and handsome,” Fr. Chito replied, smiling, before he was brought out of the conference room and Lorenza and Ano proceeded with the press conference.

Glimpses of life as captive

But during the two-hour plane ride to Manila from the 15th Strike Wing base of the Philippine Air Force at the old airport of Cagayan de Oro in Lumbia, Fr. Chito gave glimpses of how life was as a captive of the Maute for 117 days, in video clips shared to the media by Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesperson of the Provincial Crisis Management Council.

Amer Hussein Lucman of the Provincial Rescue Team asked Fr. Chito several questions.

But the glimpses into his life as captive were limited only to food. What Fr. Chito and the hostages were made to do every day, how they managed to survive, what they did during air strikes and firefights, how they regained freedom, etc.. were not among the topics discussed in the video clips or if they were discussed and videotaped, were not shared.

Asked what food he missed most, Fr. Chito said: “After 117 days? After 117 days? Normal lang. I miss the vegetables, meat, chicken nami-miss ko kasi wala yan sa loob” (that was not available inside), “sa loob” referring to his captivity.

He said the “usual” food they ate in those 117 days was “sardines 555 tuna, (inaudible), Lucky Me noodles, itlog (eggs),  corned beef, canned goods.”

He said they had plenty of rice because they stocked up on it. “Kinuha yung mga ano sa groceries (the stocks were taken from the groceries) pero yung nasusunog na yung building dahil sa war at ano, yun na wala na ring supply na scarce na rin yung supply (but when the buildings were burned because of the war and ‘ano’ = ano apparently referring to air strikes — we also ran out of supply. Supply became scarce).

He noted there was no way for the ISIS or the hostages to survive if they did not get food from the groceries. The main battle area was the commercial district of Marawi City.

Feeding 100 to 200

But the terrorists were strict, Fr. Chito said. “Sinasabi nila hindi kayo kukuha ng sobra at abuse. Strikto sila doon . Pero walang choice. Dapat kunin mo yung stock of rice para ma-consume mo (They were saying do not abuse, do not get more than what is needed. They were strict about that. But there was no choice. You get the stock of rice to consume) because around “100 to 200” persons were to be fed.

“In the beginning, parang more than 100 yung hostage eh. Sila mismo, umaabot din sila, pumupunta sa headquarters mga 100, 150” (there were around 100 hostages but the ISIS themselves, those who go to the headquarters were around 100, 150).

How many hostages and terrorists were still around before he regained his freedom, was not in the video clip.

There was another video clip on food. Fr. Chito was asked, having stayed in Marawi City for the last 22 years, what his favorite Meranaw food was. He mentioned chicken soup of a restaurant in Marawi. He also narrated how his palate had adjusted to the spicy Meranaw food.

Returning to Marawi

Asked if he would return to Marawi, Fr. Chito nodded. “Oo, kasi kung may trust and ano ka sa parang qadr mo, kasi may equivalent din sa amin yung qadr. Kung anong sinulat, yan talagang mangyayari. Kung hanggang diyan ka lang, nakasulat na yan.”  (Yes, because if you trust in your qadr, because there is an equivalent of qadr for us. What is written, that is what will happen. If you’re just until here, that’s already written).

Qadr in Arabic means fate or God’s will.

Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub (R) with Co. Romeo Brawner, Deputy Chief of Task Force Ranao (center) and Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesperson of the Provincial Crisis and Management Council., inside the aircraft en route to Villamor Air Base in Pasay City on 18 September 2017/ Photo courtesy of ZIA ALONTO ADIONG

Fr. Chito, also the Acting Rector of the St. Mary’s cathedral and chaplain at the Mindanao State University (MSU) main campus in Marawi said there is a commonality between Christians and Muslims: “we believe that there is the Almighty, the Creator. Siya lang ang pinakamalakas sa lahat. Siya ang susundan (He is the most powerful of all. He will be followed. We believe and that’s common).

“We believe in one God, we want to live in peace,” he said of both Christians and Muslims. He said Muslims after their earthly life “want to be in paradise” while Christians “want to go to heaven.”

What is also common, he said, is that Islam and Christianity are both for peace. “We want to be living in peace,” said Fr. Chito, a pillar of inter-religious dialogue in Marawi.

Interfaith relationship

Although he lost a few pounds from the time he was held hostage on May 23, Day 1 of the Marawi Crisis, Fr. Chito appeared physically fit, even jumping off the helicopter that brought him from the 103rd Army Brigade’s Camp Ranao in Marawi City to the PAF’s Lumbia base in Cagayan de Oro City, and running at some point away from the helicopter towards the lounge where they waited for an hour before boarding a C 220 PAF aircraft that brought them to Villamor Air Base in Pasay and another helicopter ride from there to Camp Aguinaldo

In one of the video clips, he said he is “okay pa, okay na and happy and thanking the Lord God na buhay pa rin ako at saka ano (that I am still alive and …) I am undergoing yung trauma na nangyari ina-undergo ko yung personal healing process ko  habang wala pa yung systematic healing process na assistance.”

Asked by Lucman for a message to the Meranaws and the military, Fr. Chito said, “sa kapatid  natin na Muslims sa Meranaw sa Marawi City at Lanao del Sur, tuloy pa rin ako sa belief in the interfaith relationship na magkaisa pa rin  tayo as Muslims and Christians. Hindi pa rin tayo magkaaway at magkaisa pa rin tayo. (I continue to believe in the interfaith relationship that we will continue to be united as Muslims and Christians. We are not in conflict and we are united). We believe in one God”

He also thanked the Armed Forces of the Philippines and its various units who helped and “pasalamat din ako na in one way or another tumulong tsaka one of their focus is to save the hostages and to save me particularly as a priest. at ..pasasalamat ako na sinunod nila yung utos ni President na kahit slowly daw kung ma-save lang na buhay yung hostages, including yung pari, that’s me, si Fr. Chito.”

“Salamat at salamat din kay President Duterte … ginawa nila yung… sa lahat,  salamat,  salamat sa Almighty” (Thank you and thank you also to President Duterte … they did all, to everyone, thank you, thank you Almighty),” Fr. Chito said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)