How Pinoy soldiers befriended their Syrian captors

When they were released, the rebels told them they would be missed

HOME: After over a year in Golan Heights, hundreds of Filipino peacekeepers are home. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – It was a back-to-back kidnapping early this year that worried the entire country. Syrian rebels abducted 21 Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights in March and another 4 from the same team in May. They were released after several days.

Because they are members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), their abduction prompted international concern. But while their families were crying here, the Filipino soldiers were making friends with the rebels. They were showing each other family’s photos. They were served fried chicken upon request because they didn’t quite like the taste of Syrian bread.  

It’s an extraordinary tale of abduction. When they were released, the rebels told them they would be missed.

Against the backdrop of the worsening violence in Syria, contingent commander Lieutenant Colonel Nolie Anquillano feared then that he’d lose his men. “I was worried that we might go home incomplete. Something might happen to them. But then we were very lucky that we all came home,” Anquillano said.

After 13 months, all 332 of them are home. Aquillano and his men on Wednesday, December 18, received their United Nations Service medals. They arrived in the Philipppines in two batches early December. 

The Philippines earlier threatened to stop sending troops to Golan Heights but later reconsidered after the UN met demands to secure the troops. The new batch of 336 Filipino peacekeepers left for Golan Heights in November.

Anquillano is confident the abductions will not happen again. They controlled and monitored troop movements and strengthened the camps. “Our mitigating measures are very much effective,” he said.

First batch

On March 3, Major Dominador Valerio and his men were deployed to the village of Al Jamla to rescue 2 members of the Observation Group Golan, a group that monitors the agreement between Syria and Israel.

Little did they know that 3 days later, they would meet the same fate when they were in the same area to get their food supply. They were held for 3 days, from March 6 to March 9. 

The Syrian rebels stopped them when they were about to enter the village, but they were eventually allowed inside. Valerio said they were given an hour to get their supply. It was when they were leaving the village that the Syrian rebels took them, supposedly for “safekeeping.” Firefight between the Syrian forces and the rebels was ongoing at the time. 

The peacekeepers were not carrying firearms because they know that it is what attracts the rebels.

Did the Filipinos believe they were kept for safekeeping? Valerio said they had mixed feelings at first. The rebels obviously had an agenda. Valerio said they wanted the Filipino soldiers to tell the United Nations to stop government forces from bombing the rebels.

Valerio, as company commander, feared that one of his men would try to steal a firearm and fight the rebels. He said he got even more scared him when they started taking videos of them. They know of many kidnap victims who just disappeared.

But Valerio reminded his men that they were not in the Philippines and that their role abroad was to keep the peace, not fight wars. “Sabi ko, bahala na. Ipagkatiwala na rin natin ‘yung sarili natin sa Poong Maykapal kasi ito yung best way para matanggap natin kung ano ang mangyayari sa atin,” Valerio said. 

The Filipino soldiers eventually charmed their captors. “I was able to prove that Filipinos easily make friends and charm other people. We got their sympathy. When we left, they were sad,” he said. “They did not hurt us. They were feeding us,” he added. 

Second batch

Captain Arlis Jardin escaped the first abduction because his team was separated from Valerio’s. But a few weeks later in May, the Syrian rebels got him and 3 of his menThey were held for 5 days.

Jardin said they were out assessing the damage of the latest artillery attack coming from the Syrian forces when the rebels took them, also for supposed safekeeping. They attempted to resist but they were outnumbered. Unlike Valerio’s team, one of them was carrying a firearm.  They would later try to get the firearm back but it was not returned to them.

By the time they were abducted, Jardin and his men had heard the stories of the first batch of 21 soldiers that the rebels abducted. Jardin said they were more relaxed because they knew that they will not be harmed. 

The rebels were asking them why the UN was not giving aid. Jardin said they had to explain that they were there as peacekeepers. A different UN group takes care of providing aid. Jardin said the rebels eventually understood.

Jardin remembers how they were properly fed by the rebels. They were first offered Syrian bread, olives, and other native food. “They treated us well. We were able to request food from them,” he said.

They asked for every Filipino’s favorite combo – fried chicken and rice.

Like the first batch, they shared stories about their families. “We showed them pictures of our families, which we always carried. I think our dedication to our families touched them. Among the reasons they became rebels, in the first place, was the death of their loved ones,” he said.

It’s an experience they will never forget. Violence in Syria continues but Anquillano, Valerio, and Jardin said they speak for the rest of the abducted soldiers: they’re all willing to go back. – Rappler.com

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