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Sunday June 19, 2011

Sustained by faith and prayer

Filipino humanitarian and peace worker Merlie ‘Milet’ Mendoza was kidnapped by the notorious Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan, Mindanao, and was held captive for 61 days. She relates her story.

IN the clear moonlit night, a terrified Milet Mendoza stared at the machete her young Abu Sayyaf abductor held to her head.

He was going to behead her and she thought, “Oh God, it’s not sharp.”

People in the Sulu communities she has worked with had told her about beheadings, about how the machete is never sharp and how they had seen heads being sawn off. In that near-death moment, the stories came rushing back.

Eating together: Mendoza (wearing hat) at a feeding programme she had organised for internally displaced children in Mindanao. - Picture courtesy of MILET MENDOZA

She relates: “They had me kneeling in the mud. They took off my head scarf, used it to tie my hands behind my back. One man held the machete to my head and another pointed his rifle behind my head. It was a moment of intense fear and I was crying inside. I wished I had more tears to show.

“As they were taping my mouth, I looked at the young man’s angry face and a voice in my heart asked: ‘What monster have we made of this man?’ Here I was – a woman, a humanitarian, unarmed. I could be his sister, his mother, his wife and I wondered what brought him to this point to hurt a woman who could not even defend herself.

“From his face, I understood historical inequalities and missed opportunities. These flashed before my eyes. I realised later on that at that moment, I felt responsibility for that monster. If I were born in this part of the world, I could have been this very angry boy.”

As the young man held Mendoza’s head, she struggled to speak through her taped mouth. “For all the sins of the Christians against the Muslims, I ask for forgiveness,” the words in Tagalog stumbled out.

As the abductors moved to tighten the tape on her mouth, she managed to get out a few more words, thinking they were to be her last.

“I would never lose respect for the Muslim people because so many of them have taken care of me, touched my heart and because of that, I became a better Christian.”

Maybe those words saved Mendo­za’s life. Or maybe the Abu Sayyaf were trying to frighten her into cooperating with them. Whatever it was, they let go of her head.

“We will execute you tomorrow,” the young man told her.

Ambushed

A prominent humanitarian, Mendoza has been doing peace-building work for more than two decades. She spent a major chunk of her time on the islands of Minda­nao, helping Muslim communities. She built a charity hospital ward for victims of the war, helped displaced people with emergency humanitarian aid, and organised nutritional feeding programmes for children.

On Sept 15, 2008, as she and other aid workers along with people from the local government and development partners went around Basilan, the vehicles they were travelling in were ambushed by young men. Their attackers were fully armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Muslims in the group were separated from the Christians and released, leaving five Christians in the hands of the much-feared Abu Sayyaf, which has a history of kidnapping for ransom and beheading non-Muslims.

Of the five, three – two male drivers and a woman from the area – were released the same day.

But Mendoza and her close friend Espie Hupida were not.

They were made to walk through the jungle from noon till midnight and handed over to another armed group. One of the men told them, “We are mujahideen. You will never go home!”

On the eve of her birthday just months earlier, Mendoza had been heartbroken over the gruesome murder of another close friend, Catholic priest Father Rey Roda, in Tawi-Tawi, another island in Mindanao.

Rey had set up a high school on the island, holding classes in the daytime and computer lessons at night. There was even a mosque within the school compound. Locals patronised the school day and night to study and gain knowledge in hope of a better future.

But this apparently didn’t go down well with some quarters, possibly the local government who feared that empowering the locals might diminish their power and control. So, one night as Rey was praying in the chapel, some armed men came over in a boat and dragged him out. They macheted and brutally hacked him to death, and then shot him.

High school students tried to come to his aid, pleading to spare the priest, but the armed men warned them to stay away.

With the murder of Rey still fresh in her mind, Mendoza tried not to panic as she was held captive.

Taking deep breaths, she concentrated on looking at her feet and kept praying as she walked. For the first three days, she and her friend were kept together, which was a small comfort. But on the third night, they were separated.

Mendoza was taken to a small nipah hut where she was held under lock and key. The windows were sealed off with plywood.

In the first week, she could hear drones and reconnaissance flights scouring the jungles searching for them. She prayed they would not drop bombs.

“I came to the islands as a humanitarian helping bombed communities in relief work and I didn’t want to be the reason they get bombed,” she explains.

Mendoza also refused to disclose the PIN to unlock her mobile phone, denying the kidnappers access to her contact numbers.

“One of the first thing captors would want to do is establish contact with people you have emotional attachment with. I didn’t want that. I couldn’t imagine my sickly elderly parents negotiating for me. I felt that would kill them. And my siblings are not familiar with the situation in Mindanao. That was the only way I could protect my family,” she says.

After the mock beheading and relentless threats for a week, Mendoza unlocked her mobile phone, giving her abductors access to her contacts.

But there was no cell phone signal where they were and Mendoza was made to trek after dark to a hill, surrounded by about 50 armed men, to try and make contact. For many weeks, contact was unsuccessful.

Mendoza was banking on friends in the government, NGOs and the communities she has worked with since 1989 to get her released. But the days turned into weeks and then months.

By then, the ransom-hungry Abu Sayyaf was growing impatient. They saw photos Mendoza had taken in her camera with soldiers at a human rights seminar and wondered if they had bagged a prized catch.

It was a total of 61 days before Mendoza was freed after ransom was paid. Hupida was released 15 days earlier.

While in captivity, she had to ask permission for everything she needed to do.

The Abu Sayyaf provided her with basic needs like food and drinking water. She slept on a mat in a sealed corner of the hut.

There was no toilet so she had to beg for a plastic bag. Furthermore, the area was so remote locals had to hike an hour to bathe and, being a captive, bathing was out of the question for her.

“Without freedom, one does not feel like a human being. They played god over me.”

While her guards were away, she would take water from a jerry can in the hut and clean herself with re-used wet tissues. The wives of some of the Abu Sayyaf men would come over to Mendoza’s corner to talk while their husbands were away. But they told her they couldn’t do anything because “we are just women”.

They gave her two changes of clothes, an old pair of socks and sanitary supplies. For a few weeks, a 16-year-old girl washed her clothes when she went to bathe.

It was only after a month that Mendoza herself was able to bathe – in a river – with the Abu Sayyaf standing guard.

“It was the best coldest bath in the world. I was extremely grateful to God,” she says.

“I think I maintained myself well considering the extreme conditions. I wanted to assert that I, too, need my dignity intact as I see the Abu Sayyaf keeping themselves clean.

“The Abu Sayyaf made me feel that being a Christian, I was haram and dirty.”

She confesses that there were moments when it all got too much and she contemplated suicide as it would be less painful and more dignified than a beheading.

“The Abu Sayyaf can be very cruel. After they pray, they become violent. I didn’t want to be hacked to death like Father Rey. That would be unbearable for my loved ones.”

The group, she says, were “masters at psychological manipulation”.

And she insists the group is not about religion or ideology. “The bottom line is money. For me, they are plain criminals.”

Other than her mock execution, there were other harrowing moments like when younger Abu Sayyaf men – who are less principled, wild and far more dangerous - came into the hut when the commander was away, mimicked him and tried to scare her.

Vivid dreams

Feeling “totally broken, isolated and alone”, Mendoza found strength in her weakness.

“Amidst the violence, hatred and depression, when I closed my eyes, I remembered the good people – family, relatives, friends, strangers, encounters in the Muslim communities, simple acts of kindness – stored deeply in the treasure box inside my heart. I realised strength is about goodness and it would sustain me.

“There is so much war and conflict but we need to plant these seeds of acts of goodness because some day you might need to draw from this treasure box as I did.”

Mendoza also had “help” of a unique kind. The Abu Sayyaff took away her rosary but she “felt the strong presence of Mother Mary and Rey” with her every step of the way. When the captors held her, she felt “Mary and Rey holding her”.

And there were vivid dreams.

In one dream, where Mendoza was trying to escape, Rey showed her that many of his priest and bishop brothers were praying for her and brought her to an altar, telling her that (faith) was her way out.

In her dream, she asked Rey to prove it by asking for a Coca Cola. The next morning, the impossible happened. One of the women’s relatives visited one of the wives with a two-year-old boy. The toddler crawled over to Mendoza’s corner and handed her a milk bottle with Coca Cola inside.

Another time, she asked Rey for an egg. The following morning, her meal was rice with half a slice of boiled egg.

Next she asked for a bird to enter the hut, which would be near impossible because it was locked up. But within minutes, a chick ran in from underneath the hut.

For Mendoza – the dreams, the signs, Rey’s presence – proved that the spirit was larger than the body.

On Nov 14, Mendoza was released. It convinced her that miracles do happen.

Two weeks after her release, the Abu Sayyaf group tried to contact her, using a number in her phone contact list. And she was shaken all over again.

Later, when a broken-hearted friend called up and wanted to talk, Mendoza had to decline.

“How can I help her if I myself am broken? As a humanitarian worker, we work as if we are out ‘to save the world’. Now for the first time in my life, I am taking good care of myself. I need to become whole again so that I can continue to help people and go wherever the Spirit leads me.”

Related Stories:
Plodding on in conflict zones

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