77 days of captivity with a rosary

MANILA, Philippines — A rosary gave her strength during her captivity. Now, finally free, Mary Jean Lacaba needs expert counseling to help her move on, officials say.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) worker, freed Thursday night after being held hostage for 11 weeks by the Abu Sayyaf bandits, will undergo a “critical stress debriefing” so that she, as well as her family, can slowly return to normal life, Sen. Richard Gordon told reporters yesterday.

Lacaba’s hellish ordeal included scampering for her life during a gunbattle between soldiers and the kidnap gang, according to Gordon.

An ICRC doctor from Geneva has been flown to Manila to treat Lacaba and her family, Gordon said, adding the doctor had said the recovery process could be complicated.

This is the reason Lacaba has been kept away from the media glare, at least for now, said Gordon, who is also chair of the Philippine National Red Cross.

Gordon said Lacaba, an engineer, had been wrenched from her normal life — where she was in full control — and then subjected to Abu Sayyaf threats for 77 days, leaving her with a sense of powerlessness.

“Mary Jean will undergo plenty of checkups and debriefing so that she can slowly ease into her normal life,” Gordon said. “They [her captors] ordered her around, she could not move without their permission. When she (will) decide to talk and who to face … will be her decision.”

“She has to learn to make her own decisions again.”

Familiar people

Owing to her extremely stressful ordeal in the jungle, Lacaba might suffer symptoms of posttraumatic disorder, Gordon said. She could have nightmares and sleeping problems, or suffer anxiety, depression and feelings of guilt, among others.

The ICRC doctor also recommended she be shielded from media attention and that she be surrounded by familiar people and her family, Gordon added.

“The doctor’s advice was that no one talks to her for at least eight hours,” he said.

The ICRC refused to disclose Lacaba’s whereabouts since her arrival in Manila on Friday.

In the jungle, her faith kept her going.

“She said she never lost faith as she showed us the source of her strength, a rosary from Rome wrapped in plastic given to her by a friend,” Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson of Task Force ICRC, said by phone.

“She said she was happy she was alive,” Arevalo said. But he added she was also sad her two ICRC colleagues, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni, remained in captivity.

Gordon said during his talk with Lacaba, she told him of how difficult it was to be in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.

Caught in the crossfire

The senator quoted Lacaba as telling him in Filipino: “It was really very hard. You had no control of your life, you could not sleep, you were always ordered around, even when it came to eating, to doing your toilet, to taking a bath. There was the worry, the stress, and then there would be a sudden outbreak of fighting. In fear, you would run, and then you would stumble, and there was no rest.”

Gordon said the most traumatic experience for her and Swiss and Italian friends was when they were caught in the crossfire between the Abu Sayyaf and the military.

“Pinagbabaril sila” [The group was shot at], Gordon said. “That was during the attack and this incident occurred just recently before the threat of beheading was issued,” he said, referring to last Tuesday’s 2 p.m. ultimatum the Abu Sayyaf gave for a military pullback, or they would decapitate one of their captives.

Gordon said it was fortunate none of the hostages, who scampered away with the Abu Sayyaf, were hit.

Borrowed cell phone

One of the first things Lacaba did after she was handed over on Thursday night by Abu Sayyaf leader Abdul Gafur to Sulu province Vice Gov. Nur-anna Sahidulla, who had fetched her, was to call her family in Davao City, Arevalo said.

She had to borrow the cell phone of Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command chief, to make the call.

“She later asked for lukewarm water and noodles,” Arevalo said.

Lacaba apparently did not starve while in captivity.

She showed the military the contents of her backpack, which included, among others, biscuits and noodles — apparently what was left of the provisions the kidnappers had given their captives.

The Inquirer tried to talk to Lacaba in Zamboanga but she begged off, letting Gordon speak for her.

Shortly before she was freed, Gordon said Notter and Vagni asked Lacaba to relay a message to him.

“They were asking me to please … help ease up the military operation, that they are really very tired and really suffering,” Gordon said.

Vagni on a cane

Gordon said he would have wanted the operation to stop “but you cannot tell the military to stop the operation, they have their own duty and we have our own duty, too.”

Gordon said Vagni was the hostage walking on a cane seen by Parang farmers early Thursday.

Sulu Rep. Yusop Jikiri, who is helping in the release efforts, had said farmers told him they saw some 300 armed men with three other people in Pansul in Parang town.

Gordon said Vagni could be suffering from some illness and he had asked Sahidulla that medicines be sent to the area.

Family reunion

Before leaving for Manila, Lacaba had a reunion in Zamboanga with her husband Manny and son Christian, whom Gordon had fetched from Davao. Then she boarded a Learjet to Manila with Gordon.

The private plane touched down in Manila at noon but the media were kept away. Gordon said it was a “deliberate” move “to protect” Lacaba.

“We don’t just expose our people who have been in detention,” Gordon said.

Anastasia Isyuk, of ICRC-Manila’s media office, declined to talk about Lacaba’s specific location or her condition.

“Let us respect the privacy of Mary Jean. We’re happy that she’s back with her family and with the ICRC,” she said.

Julie Alipala, Kristine L. Alave
and Jocelyn Uy, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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Published in: on April 4, 2009 at 3:18 am  Comments Off on 77 days of captivity with a rosary  
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