Kidnap: An ABS-CBN Special.
First of three parts
As I made my way through the wild fern and thick vegetation in the depths of Sulu, little did I know that I was to cross the line from a reporter chasing a story to becoming the story—and make headlines for many days.
As we walked for about three hours in the oppressive heat that fateful June 8, I did not feel threatened. But as it turned to dusk and after our “ safe conduct pass,” as Professor Octavio Dinampo referred to our guide, Juamil “Maming” Biyaw, disappeared, I began to feel a heavy sense of foreboding. Juamil was called by two armed men and was brought away.
When I asked the professor why this had happened, he told me Juamil was just being brought to “our man,” referring to Radulan Sahiron before our audience with him. Juamil was a relative of Sahiron and accompanied Prof. Dinampo in an interview he had with Sahiron in February 2008.
The professor had told me no harm would come to us as long as Juamil was with us. Prof. Dinampo had told me he had known Juamil, who was with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) for more than eight years, and was aiding him in his peace advocacy work.
I began to worry about the diminishing light for our interview, but as things turned out, it was the least of my worries. By this time, the armed men, around eight of them, who were to escort us to the interview, took all our things, except for the camera and camera equipment. We were told that we were nearing our destination. We walked as it was getting dark, even when it was raining. I thought to myself, “Is this story worth it?”
It was almost a year and a half since Dinampo, professor at the Mindanao State University in Sulu, and I had explored the idea of an interview with the new amir of the Abu Sayyaf. This was shortly after the death of Khadaffi Janjalani was confirmed in early 2007.
I was in Sulu in January of that year after the Army’s Special Forces killed Abu Solaiman, a top leader of the group and believed to be the mastermind of the Dos Palmas kidnappings in 2002.
The AFP said the Abu Sayyaf was nearly finished and it was only a matter of time before they wipe out the notorious group responsible for a series of kidnappings and bombings in the country.
Who would be the new leader of the Abu Sayyaf was the question on everybody’s minds. I had asked the professor to explore the possibility of an interview with Radulan Sahiron. That began our quest for Sahiron, whom Dinampo believed would be the amir of the Abu Sayyaf.
Sahiron is said to have been wounded in an encounter with the Philippine Marines in September 2006 where Khadaffi Janjalani was mortally wounded. He is also believed to have lost his son Ismin, in that battle.
There is a lot of legend that surrounds Sahiron, also known as Commander Putol. He is said to have lost his right arm during the height of the MNLF fighting in the 70s. He is looked up to as a brave warrior and a skilled horseman despite being having only one arm.
A top military commander based in Sulu believed him to be sick and ageing, and that he was almost 70. However a US Treasury report in 2005 puts his age at 53. In 2005, the Arroyo government suffered a major embarrassment in its anti-terror drive when it crowed about his arrest, only to retract it. The man they had captured lost not his right, but his left arm.
But while Sahiron’s exploits in battle are legendary, the warrior was also quietly making overtures for surrender to the government. Shortly before our scheduled interview, a Mindanao legislator informed me that Sahiron had written a top security official with ties to the MNLF, exploring the possibility of surrender.
The legislator told me Sahiron’s overtures had been discussed in a meeting between President Arroyo and a handful of legislators from the area. One legislator from Sulu asked the President to pursue the matter and was given the go-ahead by the chief executive.
Prof. Dinampo told me our interview would just be in the town of Indanan, the town next to Jolo, the capital. Privately, he said it was his hope our interview would signal the possibility of peace talks between the government and the Abu Sayyaf. It seemed an incredible idea, but he had said even a military general had already been communicating with Sahiron, whose ascension as amir of the group is believed to have moderated the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf ready to put down their arms?
All these factors convinced me that the time was ripe for the interview. But we were never to see Sahiron.
My crew, Jimmy Encarnacion and Angel Valderama, and I, together with Prof. Dinampo, ended up captives for nine days, held by armed men with no ideology, only cruel force and the lust for money.
While in captivity, the nights seemed endless. By 6:30 or 7 in the evening, we would be in our hammocks, ready to go to bed. There would be no light of any kind, save for the tiny light at the end of the lighter, just in case one wanted to go to the comfort room, which was any spot in the vast jungle, but near enough to the camp to assure our captors we would not attempt an escape.
We feared another group would take us. The professor had warned me the group could get bigger, wanting to get a piece of the action. He said that would complicate matters for us.
While trying to sleep, I could hear all sorts of strange sounds from the jungle—bird calls and insects. Ordinarily, the sounds would send a chill through my spine, but I got used to them.
At night I would constantly wake up and look to the horizon for signs of a new day. One night, I woke up at midnight thinking it was already daybreak.
The armed men would begin the day in prayer, just before the break of dawn. I would be awake before then, impatient to begin the day. As they prayed, I would pray silently with them, counting the Hail Marys on the rosary with my fingers. After the prayer, I would get my coffee, often from an old man with a limp, who I later learned was only in his forties.
Prof. Dinampo told me he had seen the man before with the MNLF. The old man was tasked to prepare our meals and keep house, later on assisted by a boy who told me he was 17.
The old man seemed pleased that I liked my native coffee strong without any sugar. He said it was the best way to have it. And it was the best thing I had in our captivity where meals were limited to noodles and rice, or rice and soy sauce.
On some days we had dried fish or sardines. The fish was salted and tiny, smaller than the thumb. Each one among us had two or three pieces each. The sardines were an occasional treat, one can which the four of us shared.
One day, a one-armed man, who seemed to be in charge, would tell me that the people of Sulu could not afford to eat the fish from their seas. I told him they should fight for their right to fish in their municipal waters and not the huge fishing boats. It was an attempt to educate them, that there were many local causes worth advocating.
On our eighth day of captivity, Sunday, we were served beef! This sent the men in the camp into fits of excitement, hollering about the prized meat.
Biscuits and crackers
While those tasked to cook breakfast would be busy gathering firewood and cooking rice or noodles, our guards would busy themselves cleaning their handguns. They carefully wiped them to a sheen and would handle their weapons for hours. I would look away and carefully position myself away from the barrel, lest an accident happen.
In between lunch and dinner, there would be crackers and biscuits of all kinds. The armed men loved to munch on these and the jungle floor would be littered with wrappers. Jimmy, Angel and I would always try to keep the place clean, putting the litter in one pile or in a plastic bag, but the men just throw their trash anywhere.
Every time I was given my share of crackers, I would hide them away in my bag, just in case food ran out, or just in case there would be a chance to escape so I would have supplies.
Water was kept in plastic water gallons, fetched from a spring below the camp. This was where we got our drinking water or water to clean ourselves. I would transfer water from the plastic gallons to two empty plastic bottles I kept in my bag.
Our guards who were not tasked with any housekeeping work would stay in their hammocks all day, chatting or taking naps. The commander would lie in his hammock, playing with Prof. Dinampo’s cell phone.
One time I remarked I wish I had a book and asked them if they were interested in reading and if they had a library. One guard remarked that he was slightly interested. The only book I saw some read was the Koran.
I thought they seemed content to stay idle, lounging in their hammocks. They did not perform military drills or exercises. The more menial tasks like fetching water or gathering firewood were assigned to the younger ones.
One boy, who kept guard when I took my first bath in a pool of water with a spring and a mini waterfall, told me he was only 12 years old. Another was only 15. And another, who was skilled in cooking was 17. They all told me they never went to school. One time I asked the 17-year old why he never went to school. His reply broke my heart. He said he didn’t want to because he “may end up an engineer.”