Leila de Lima

De Lima comes home to mom in Iriga: ‘I won’t leave you again’

Lian Buan

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De Lima comes home to mom in Iriga: ‘I won’t leave you again’

REUNION. Leila de Lima is reunited with her mother, 91-year-old Norma Magistrado de Lima, in their home in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, on November 15, 2023.

Photo curtesy of De Lima family

'How can I be bitter when I'm surrounded by my loved ones?' says Leila de Lima

CAMARINES SUR, Philippines – Upon seeing her for the first time in four years, 91-year-old Norma Magistrado de Lima made an appeal to daughter Leila: “Dito ka na. Huwag mo na akong iwanan (Stay here. Don’t leave me again).”

The former senator said this was what her mother told her during their tearful reunion at the family home in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, on Wednesday night, November 15. De Lima’s homecoming was another non-negotiable in a very tight security plan following her release on bail days earlier.

So I had to say, ‘Sige, Mommy, hindi na kita iiwanan (So I had to say, “Okay, Mommy, I won’t leave you again).’ She was crying,” De Lima said.

Norma suffers from dementia and was in critical condition in August 2019, prompting De Lima to seek, and gain, a court furlough, to see her. At the time, Norma was “fighting for her life.”

Prior to that, De Lima only saw her mother twice in the almost seven years that she was detained.

De Lima’s cousin, Elma de Lima Gaspi, told Rappler that Norma still believes that her daughter was in the United States all this time for further studies.

Family and supporters welcomed De Lima as a drum and lyre band played in the background. After brief greetings, she hurried to her mother’s room where she kept up the act of having just returned from the US.

De Lima brought out her props – US dollar bills – as she cheerfully told her mother, “Mommy, ito’ng pasalubong ko sa ‘yo (my gift to you is) dollars, from New York!”

De Lima was happy to see her mother in good condition. “Ang ganda-ganda niya, naka-makeup siya, ‘yung kanyang kilay (She looked so beautiful, she was fully made-up, with her sculpted eyebrows). So I feel so good, I feel so great that finally, I have returned. This is where I grew up,” she said, while eating a Bicolano eel dish.

On Monday, November 13, after a Muntinlupa court granted De Lima a P300,000-bail, the family was careful about how to phrase the news to the matriarch. Bruised from past disappointments, Gaspi said, “Ayaw naming mag-expect kasi laging failure. Kung lalabas, pagdating dito, saka tayo maniwala

(We did not want to expect, because we had many failures. If she gets out, when she arrives here, that’s when we’ll believe it.)

But that did not do much to contain Norma’s excitement, said Gaspi. De Lima’s mother supposedly said: “Linisin ang kuwarto ni Leila (Clean Leila’s room).”

Leila is free

De Lima landed at 4:26 pm via a Philippine Airlines flight at the Daraga City airport in neighboring Albay, where she was just given the chance to briefly greet tarpaulin-bearing supporters. She was whisked off to a van, as the convoy drove an and a half hour to Iriga. There was no police entourage to block off traffic.

The first thing she did in her childhood home was to remove the “Free Leila” tarpaulin on the gate – a ceremony that the women in the family believed was symbolic of her much-awaited freedom.

Nature, Outdoors, Yard
FREE LEILA. This tarpaulin hung on the gate of the De Lima family home in Iriga City until it was removed by former senator Leila De Lima on November 15, 2023. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Since her release, De Lima had only talked to eldest son Israel over the phone, the former senator said. Israel, who is in the spectrum, visited his mother at the Camp Crame detention center through the years. Younger son Vincent is a lawyer like her – he passed the 2018 Bar examinations but De Lima was not given furlough to attend his graduation.

Si Israel, hindi pa kami nagkita, nandoon pa siya sa Papa niya. Pero nung nakita na nakalaya nga daw ako, sinabi doon sa nag-aalaga sa kanya, pinahanap daw lahat ng t-shirts na may ‘Free Leila’ kasi gusto daw niya ulit isuot. Sabi ko, nakalaya na ‘ko, bakit mo pa isusuot? He was so happy sa phone,” said De Lima.

(I have not seen Israel yet since he’s with his father. But when he saw that I was freed, he told his caretaker to bring out his “Free Leila” shirt because he wanted to wear it again. I told him, “I’m already free, why would you still wear it?” He was so happy over the phone.)

De Lima walked out of the Camp Crame detention facility on Monday night, November 13, and spent the first two nights of freedom at a secure hotel in Cubao, Quezon City. The next day, she made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan, defying the security advice of her team.

Surrounded by friends and family in her childhood home on Wednesday, De Lima said, “How can I be bitter when I’m surrounded by my loved ones, my family, my sister, my cousins, my aunts, and my other relatives, and my kababayans (fellow Bicolanos)?”

She remains on trial for one last charge of conspiracy to commit drug trading. In the bail grant for this case, Judge Gener Gito doubted the evidence to prove conspiracy.

Must Read

Inside Camp Crame and the courtroom: De Lima’s anxiety and joy

Inside Camp Crame and the courtroom: De Lima’s anxiety and joy


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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.