Hostage: A Rappler documentary

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines  – Their sons have been killed, their homes have been razed, they wake to nightmares and run at the sound of helicopters overhead. They don’t blame the military. They don’t blame the rebels. Mostly, they blame themselves.

“We shouldn’t have gone through Lustre Street,” said Jeorge Ando, father of 2-year-old Eithan, who died of a bullet in the head in the crossfire between Moro National Liberation Front rebels and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Ando and his partner Michelle Candido had jumped into a manhole during the worst of the fighting, but not even the cement cover could protect the small boy.

“We should have passed another way,” said Ando. “Then they couldn’t have held us hostage.”

One year after over 300 rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) marched into Zamboanga City, the men and women who stood as human shields between rebels and soldiers still struggle to cope with the choices they made.

Ando and Candido were captured along Lustre Street after being asked if they were Muslim or Christian. (WATCH: Blood from the Sky).

“When we lost Eithan,” said 28-year-old Candido, “I cried every night. I didn’t want anyone to know.”

Very little was left of the house after the siege. The walls were pocked with bullet holes, most of what they owned had been burnt to the ground. Ando spent months saving to rebuild the house.

Candido said her relationship with Ando was strained after Eithan’s death. She was emotional, she said, and he had turned temperamental and unwilling to share his feelings. Stress debriefing helped, she said. 

“At first, there was no one else I could blame other than the government and the military. I didn’t understand why they were shooting at civilians while we were screaming for a ceasefire. But I’m not angry at anyone now. I have my faith in God back.” 

Both are attempting to find work overseas. Ando has been unsuccessful finding work as a carpenter in post-crisis Zamboanga. They miss Eithan – the naughtiness, the laughing, the songs he sang in the night. They intend to have another child, but someday, not anytime soon. They don’t have the means to raise a baby.

The second war

Ando and Candido are luckier than most. Although stress debriefing has been promised for all hostages, very few have actually been processed.

“I can’t hear a helicopter overhead without being afraid,” said 58-year-old electrician Carlos Baricua Jr. “I keep thinking, it’s going to happen again.”

Baricua was home with his family in their Lustre Street home when he heard shooting on the street. He left to bring his family to safety, but returned for his teenaged son. Both were taken hostage, but the two were separated into different groups.

Baricua was ordered by rebels to accompany an injured hostage out of the battle zone. He never returned, but his son Jeffrey took days more to escape. Baricua watched live video of his son being forced to stand as a human shield. 

He still weeps when he remembers his son ducking from flying bullets.

“That’s what I regret,” he said. “That I left my son behind.”

Jeffrey, said Baricua, was screaming at his father when they finally met.

‘Give us anything’

Baricua is one of many Sta Catalina residents who gather often to speak about the trauma of the hostage crisis. Sometimes they laugh about their escape, most of the time they weep.

Some, like 66-year-old Teodora Romero, still carry the physical effects of the urban battle. She had been shot by the military in her attempt to escape, and is now still unable to walk without assistance.

“I don’t know who is to blame,” she said. “All I know is that we were civilians and we were dragged into it.”

Romero said that although the government paid for her hospital bills, her family is barely able to afford the medication she still requires. Her house has been razed to the ground, and she is unwilling to stay in the appalling conditions of the Enriquez Grandstand, where more than 11,000 individuals still live after being displaced by the siege. 

As of Monday, September 8, about 22,954 remain internally displaced from the siege of Zamboanga. 

The city government, according to Romero, has offered raw materials to rebuild the house she lost. She does not have the means to finance the actual rebuilding. 

Lost opportunities

Monica Ramos Limen, a 52-year-old school photographer, lost her son on September 13. He had been shot in the forehead while standing as a human shield.

“Some of the students told me my son was dead,” she said. “I loved that boy, and I knew someday he would be the one to help the family. He’s the only one who graduated. Now he’s gone, and I miss him so much.”

She has no home, and her cameras have been lost along with her house.  

“If the government can give me a Kodak, or anything at all, then I can work again.”

Like many of the hostages, Limen has received P5,000 in assistance, roughly a little over $100. She now lives in Putik Village with relatives, hopeful she will be granted a new home.

She does not know who is at fault, but she has accepted it is God’s will.

‘They were my friends too’

It is 20-year-old Jojo Balaoro who is occasionally wistful when he thinks of the siege. The MNLF rebels have become his friends, he worries sometimes how they are, and is glad the 4 he is closest to are alive.

Balaoro was 19 when he was captured. He stood as a human shield, was terrified while he stood in line waving a white flag.

“They pressed the muzzle of a .45 at my head. I was waiting for the trigger to click. I was afraid if the MNLF got hit, I would die.”

On that day, the 13th of September 2013, it was Balaoro who was handed a bleeding Eithan by Candido as she and Ando struggled out of the Lustre Street manhole.

It was after Eithan was shot that Balaoro decided to volunteer as a guide for the rebels.

“I knew if I didn’t play guide for them, if the MNLF were pulverized, we’d be pulverized along with them.”

The best solution, he thought, was to let the war drag on as long as possible, and thus extend the lives of the hostages. He is proud of what he did. He was not only the MNLF’s guide inside Sta Catalina and the other villages, he was also the man who led the successful escape of 60 of the hostages.

Aftermath 

A full year after the siege, Balaoro said he understands the MNLF’s cause, although he doesn’t agree with them.

“I kept asking them why they were doing it. They said they were angry at the government and said that they owned Mindanao. It’s okay to be angry, but they can’t own Mindanao. We’re people, none of us can.”

Balaoro was in college at the Zamboanga State College of Marine Science of Science and Technology at the time of the siege. He has since dropped out, because of the war, and is working odd jobs in the city.

He hopes to enter the Philippine Navy.

The hostages are unwilling to apportion blame for the siege – although several will say government and rebels are equally at fault – but many of them feel victimized by the city government.

Promises have been made, they said. Very few have been fulfilled. – Rappler.com