The Hours that should never be
Fr. Mamert Dolera
On board our respective motorcycles, Laslie, Tata and I were apprehended by about seven heavily-armed men right at the middle of the road leading to the town proper. When we were blocked, initially I thought that those armed-men were government soldiers, doing a “test mission” or a “clearing” of the main road to apprehend an outlaw. But I was alarmed by the way those armed-men appeared. Their looks were so deceiving. From afar, they appeared like they were government soldiers, but their shabby military uniforms and their rough-rugged looks proved otherwise. White plastic gallons were attached to their backpacks, and most of their guns were tied with strips of red cloth. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher (RPG), carried by a young-looking fighter, was enough to convince me that those armed-men were Moro rebels (for as I know, Moro rebels have RPG’s) The three of us were shocked, caught flat-footed like sitting ducks. And the joy that we have had savored during the just concluded fiesta celebration suddenly dissipated. Before I could talk, one of the rebels commanded us to go to a nearby sari-sari store. There I saw several armed rebels and scores of civilians already rounded up before us, and presumably made hostages. A rebel wearing a bonnet forcibly took my watch and wallet. He did not see my one-way radio (icom-T2H) but feeling the present threat, I voluntarily handed it over to the rebel. An elderly woman with a child on her side told me not to worry, because according to her, one hostage had managed to escape and reported the incident to the police. I ignored her suspecting that she was an accomplice of the rebels because she spoke of a language I could not understand. While the rebels surrounded us, I comforted Laslie who was so scared and worried of her father’s motorcycle, which was then used by the rebels to block the road. Four rebels were positioning at my right side, and escaping was extremely impossible. What was in my mind was to obey what the rebels would tell me to do. Doing so, I thought, would spare us from their cruelty. A few minutes later, my hands were tied behind my back. From somewhere, I heard some yelling: “wag kayong maingay, baka masaktan kayo!” (keep quiet or you’ll be harmed). From that time on, I was troubled with uneasy silence. I tried to size up the situation, and observed which Moro rebel groups we were dealing with: MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), Abu Sayyaf, or lost command. But it was so difficult to do it, for I could not understand their language and the surrounding was so dark that I could even hardly see my co-hostages. I took several deep breaths hopefully to ease my restlessness. After a while, I noticed that Laslie and Tata were also hogtied. With a nylon rope, a rebel tied our hands behind our backs, and tied the other end of the rope to the corner of the sari-sari store.
Rope or bullet?
A rebel, also wearing a bonnet, told us to sit down. But when heavy gunfire erupted, I secretly told my fellow hostages to slowly and carefully lie down in order to avoid stray bullets. Lying flat on the ground, I heard sounds of motorcycles passing by and helpless screams from nowhere alongside deafening burst of gunfire from the rebels. One man lay dead on the street, bathed in his own blood. I started to feel the excruciating hopelessness of our situation. I closed my eyes, praying – as if waiting for my unfortunate and violent departure to the next life! An exchange of bullets had occurred between the rebels and the responding law enforcers. But it lasted shortly. There was a lull of heavy gunfire for several minutes. Suddenly, the rebels chorused: “Allahu Akbar!” (Allah is great!) and unleashed the power of their high-caliber guns. The ground on where I lied down shook. My body trembled. I was terribly horrified. It was a hell-like experience I encountered since my birth. For Heaven’s sake, I thought, why do these men use God’s name to justify their violence and lawlessness! One hostage, in his mid 40’s, was so noisy complaining about the pain in his wrist. He smelled bad, as if he had taken up a volume of liquor. I presumed he was intoxicated when he was seized by the rebels. Nevertheless, I suspected he was a companion of the rebels but disguising as hostage, because he spoke the language of the rebels. There was a shout ordering him to shut up: “anong gusto mo, tali o bala?” (what do you want? rope or a bullet?). The man responded quickly, “tali po!” (rope). Then he kept silent while a rebel took him off and pushed him to the ground nearer to my right side. Unknown to our captors, the man had untied himself. But before he ran for his freedom, he picked up a bottle and used it to strongly whip the head of a rebel who positioned just a few feet away from me. The rebels groaned and shouted words I could not understand. From nowhere, another rebel jumped over me and shot the man. Empty bullet cartridges of an M-14 rifle fell on my back, one of which had slightly burned my left forearm. The rebel, however, missed his target. And the man disappeared in the dark. When the rebels failed to recapture the man, I heard a voice commanding: “pag may tatakas pa, barilin n’yo na!” (if someone else escapes, shoot). This was a fatal warning against a mindless escape attempt. For all of us under this ruthless gang of fanatics, escaping was, indeed, a jeopardy, a worse scenario! Before sunrise, the soldiers of the 44th Infantry Battalion on board the military jeep with an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) serving as back up, were heading toward the town proper. But they were met with heavy gunfire and thunderous M-203 and rocket-propelled grenades unleashed by the rebels who were well-entrenched in the different corners. The rebels were shouting “Alahu Akbar” while mercilessly firing at the outnumbered soldiers who maneuvered for safety. The soldiers returned fire, and a shoot-out had ensued between them and the rebels. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the jeep. The tire exploded at once, causing the jeep to zigzag and stop eventually. The rebels repeatedly shot the APC with their powerful grenades. The APC moved backward, perhaps maneuvering for better position or perhaps avoiding the rebels’ firepower. Since then, I no longer heard gunfire from the soldiers’ position.
Pawns on a chessboard
I was so relieved, so grateful, because there was no subsequent heavy encounter after the rebels ambushed the soldiers. If there were any, then my fellow hostages and I would be certainly hit because the rebels used us like pawns on a chessboard. I still heard gunshots as the morning was approaching. But those were no longer intense and deafening like in the previous hours.
The sunlight had slowly emerged, and I saw the rebels crawling one by one – away from us. And to my great surprise, I noticed that all other hostages had already gone, except Laslie and Tata.
Between 6 o’clock and 7o’clock in the morning, there were no more rebels around us. But I was so nervous thinking of the rebel who took my wallet that contained my identification card, driver’s license, certificate to solemnize marriage, and a little amount of money. Those items were enough to tell the rebels who was I, and might entice them to come back and take me as “hostage-for-ransom,” like what the dreaded Abu Sayyaf did to their captives. I was haunted with uncertainties and fear, facing with no option except to hope for a hand that would give us freedom.
Tata, Laslie and I had exhausted all possibilities to untie ourselves but to no avail. Tata persuaded me to make myself visible, hoping that anybody nearby may recognize me and would lend his or her hands to help us. But the thick dirt on my face and on my clothes, which I intentionally put just a few hours after we were captured in order to hide my identity, made me hard to be identified. I saw three persons around: one was on the second floor of the two-storey wooden house situated just on the other side of the road leading to the Siocon District Hospital; the other two were on the veranda of the nearby lodging house. They stared upon us, but never helped. I was deeply saddened, but I was comforted with Laslie who opined that helping us might just endanger their lives. Fortunately, Tata was able to untie himself before I made up my mind to shout for help. He then untied me, and acted as a lookout when I started untying Laslie whose face at the time was becoming so pale.
I rolled the rope, which the rebels had used to tie us, and brought it along with me while we enthusiastically ran for our freedom toward a nearby house owned by the Perez family. The Perez family accommodated and offered us something for our stomach. But I did not take any. I was still trembling with fear but so thankful that we survived the nightmare. So exhausted and scared, I sat down on the floor leaning on the wall. A few minutes later, I heard a helicopter roaring over. Police Chief Alfredo Alcazar, PNP Chief of Sirawai, Zamboanga del Norte, arrived and brought us to his residence for safety.
Love your enemy but..
Seeking refuge at Chief Alcazar’s residence, I silently screamed then raged deep into my soul cried to heaven for justice and divine retribution. Suddenly, I heard rapid gunfire of different calibers, indicating that fierce gunbattle was now in the town proper. For a priest to hold a gun, I knew it was unreasonable, but I took the courage to ask and use the .45 caliber pistol of Chief Alcazar to protect myself against the rebels who held the municipality in trouble for almost twelve hours or so. While freeing myself from the horror that haunted me for about seven hours, another horror tried to snatch my sanity away from me. Jayson told me that his four fellow seminarians who were in the Holy Cross Parish for exposure were missing. I was so confused, unable to figure out what must I do right at the moment. A parishioner quickly helped me to locate them. I broke into tears when I learned that among those who were ruthlessly strafed by the rebels while on board the motorcycle were the four seminarians. As a result, the two fresh Philosophy-graduate seminarians, Nono and Rubymar, were killed. Claude was declared missing and believed to have been taken away by the rebels and made one of their human shields. And Ralph was lucky enough to run away unharmed. Jayson and I were confused on how to locate Claude. Before noontime, news reached me through a military informant that Claude was severely hit on his right leg but was later rescued by responding soldiers and evacuated to Zamboanga City on board the rescue helicopter for medical treatment. My sorrow over the parishioners was relieved! Chief Alcazar, Jayson, and five civilians helped me retrieve the dead seminarians. It was impossible, but in front of me were my two kababayans, Nono and Rubymar, two very young men dedicated to heed God’s call to preach the message of lasting peace and reconciliation in a battered soil – now breathless and immobile! And the rest was a tragic history!
The Holy Cross parishioners deeply mourned the loss of Nono and Rubymar and all the hapless and innocent victims. The rebels had severely inflicted a knee-jerking pain to our diocese and sacrilegiously harmed the Holy Cross Parish that ever zealously sows the seeds of life among the Christians, Muslims, and Lumads.
CONCLUSION: “Love your enemy.” This is fundamental to the mandate of Christ and it is the basic principle of Christian discipleship. It manifests forgiveness. Forgiveness is the product of mercy. Hence, without mercy, forgiveness is impossible. I demand forgiveness (in view of the violence committed to the civilian communities in Siocon), but forgiveness that is the product of justice and the laws of the land. Forgiveness without justice violates the dignity of the person and is tantamount to tolerating the violence committed. The MILF, the accomplice, and the masterminds of the Siocon siege must be held accountable for what they did. They must be put behind bars, at all cost!