Priest held captive in Marawi given warm welcome by townmates

NORALA, South Cotabato (MindaNews/28 Nov) – Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub was feted a warm welcome by his townmates here Tuesday after surviving a 116-day ordeal in the hands of the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group in Marawi City.

Clad in all-black slacks, long sleeves and a hat, the 57-year-old priest was paraded around the poblacion area in a motorcade organized by the local government unit.

Father Teresito Soganub narrates his ordeal at the gymnasium in Norala, South Cotabato on Tuesday, 28 November 2017. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Residents along the route of the motorcade went out of their houses and stores to see and to take pictures of their bearded townmate who smiled and waved to them in return.

An estimated 500 residents, including students of private and public schools in the bucolic town, gathered at an open gymnasium where the priest detailed his ordeal that began on May 23 after the Maute Group abducted him and five others from the Catholic church compound.

Father Teresito Soganub is reunited with fellow hostage Belen Babon on Tuesday (28 November 2017) in Norala, South Cotabato. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Soganub arrived from Manila on Monday but proceeded first to Sto. Nino town, also in South Cotabato, to see his bestfriend-priest before going home to Norala.

Before the priest was to speak, a touching scene unfolded before the crowd when another hostage, Belen Babon, who is from neighboring Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat province, and Soganub tightly hugged each other and cried on stage. Babon worked as a house helper in Marawi until her abduction.

It was the first time they were reunited after separately escaping from the terrorist gunmen.

“The aerial bombings, the artillery fires, the machine guns that we heard were so terrifying. It’s like a scene you can see only in a (war) movie,” Soganub told the crowd in the vernacular.

“As hostages, death stared us on the face because of the fierce fightings between the two sides…Fortunately, I was able to escape towards government troops,” he added.

Soganub, who served all 23 years of his religious life in Marawi, said he was angry with God for putting him in a nightmare.

“However, my faith on God did not diminish a bit while I was in captivity, in fact it even deepened my trust on Him,” he noted.

Soganub laced his almost two-hour narration with humor that brought the audience in laughter.

Father Teresito Soganub during the motorcade in Norala, South Cotabato on Tuesday, 28 November 2017. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

He thanked the local government unit and the residents for the warm welcome.

The priest, also called “Tisoy,” was recovered by government troops on September 17 after escaping from his captors.

Norala Mayor Victor Balayon said they were relieved after learning that the priest had escaped.

“Since he was abducted, we have been praying for his safe release. Now that he is free, I consider this as the second life of Fr. Chito,” Balayon said in Ilonggo.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Mindanao under martial law hours after the Maute Group laid siege on Marawi on May 23 for 60 days. Congress, upon the initiative of Duterte, extended martial law until December 31, 2017.

Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi from the Maute Group on October 17 even if fighting still continued there. The declaration came a day after Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the designated Islamic State emir in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, were killed by government troops.

The government terminated military operations in Marawi on October 23, exactly five months after the crisis erupted that displaced over 400,000 civilians.

At least 1,100 individuals, mostly Islamic militants, were killed in the five-month war that left the core of Marawi in shambles, mostly due to the aerial bombings and artillery fires from government forces. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)