Hostages, bandits said goodbye like buddies

MANILA, Philippines — Mary Jean Lacaba’s 77-day ordeal as a captive of the Abu Sayyaf was capped by a bittersweet farewell to her fellow hostages and even to the kidnappers that had threatened to behead her.

Recounting at a press conference Lacaba’s last moments as a captive, Vice Gov. Nur-Ana Sahidullah of Sulu province said Friday the Filipino engineer “embraced” Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni, as well as the kidnappers’ leader Albader Parad, before she was released on Thursday night in a mountainous area in Indanan, Sulu.

“They hugged one another. ‘Parang barkada sila.’ [They were like a group of buddies.] She was sad but also happy,” Sahidullah said.

The other hostages told Lacaba, “Don’t worry, we’ll see you soon,” Sahidullah added. She said she also heard Lacaba tell Parad to “be good.”

Even the armed men guarding the hostages “waved” goodbye to Lacaba, whom they called “ate” [elder sister], Sahidullah said. “They even told her, ‘We will miss you.’”

Sahidullah, who chairs the Sulu chapter of the Philippine National Red Cross, had traveled to Indanan for a meeting with the kidnappers.

She said Lacaba was turned over to her at around 8:30 p.m.

Lacaba was weeping on the ride from Indanan to Jolo, but she was not hysterical, Sahidullah said. She said Lacaba had wanted to call her family but could not do so because there was no phone signal in the area.

The vice governor escorted Lacaba up to the Jolo town proper and finally to the Marine headquarters in Barangay Busbus.

Emissary with a message

The events that led to Lacaba’s release went very fast, Sahidullah said on the phone on Thursday night.

Past noon on that day, an emissary of the Abu Sayyaf came to her house in Jolo with the message that the kidnappers wanted to see her in Indanan.

She had no idea what the meeting would be about, but she immediately called Sen. Richard Gordon, the PNRC national chair, and told him about the message.

After getting the green light from Gordon, Sahidullah quietly gathered a number of soldiers and policemen to escort her to Indanan.

That done, she coordinated with Col. Eugene Clemen, the acting head of the Armed Forces’ Task Force Comet, so that the Marine forces on the ground would be duly informed of the trip that she was about to make.

It was a brief meeting between herself and two Abu Sayyaf commanders, Sahidullah said. She was surprised and delighted that apart from the kidnappers’ demands, the agenda also included Lacaba’s release.

Sahidullah said it was the Abu Sayyaf’s choice to release the hostage. But before then, she was told that it was Lacaba whom the kidnappers had earlier threatened to behead.

The other good thing that resulted from that meeting in the Indanan jungle was the actual validation that Notter and Vagni, Lacaba’s colleagues in the International Committee of the Red Cross(ICRC), were alive.

On the run

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno also said the meeting between Sahidullah and the Abu Sayyaf was quick.

“It wasn’t a very long meeting. There were only a few exchanges of words and then [the kidnappers] immediately left. So they are clearly on the run,” Puno said at a news briefing in the national police headquarters Camp Crame.

The kidnappers appeared to be having a difficult time moving around with Lacaba in tow, he said. “They really don’t have too much time to stay in one place.”

Puno said Lacaba was released to Sahidullah in the area between the villages of Lampas and Kuppong, two kilometers north of Kuppong road.

Showing reporters a map, Puno said that before Lacaba’s release, the hostages were held in the south of Mt. Tukay in an area called Pansul because it was the only place that had a water source.

He said the kidnappers then moved up about 10 kilometers north to release Lacaba.

Puno said Notter, who was earlier reported to have been wounded in a firefight between the Abu Sayyaf and government troops, was in good condition.

“It’s Parad who is wounded but he was seen standing up,” Puno said, adding that the bandit leader’s movements were restrained by a wound in his side that was incurred when his group tried to break through a military cordon about three weeks ago.

(In her press conference with Gordon at the Philippine National Red Cross, Sahidullah said that contrary to reports, Parad was not injured in any of the military operations.)

According to Puno, the number of armed men holding Notter and Vagni seemed to have been cut in half from roughly 120 members.

“The group that is left there now numbers about half of what it used to be. [The kidnappers] are apparently suffering from a depletion of many of their resources,” he said.

Slim, prettier

At the Red Cross press conference, Sahidullah said that when she got to the assigned meeting place, she did not recognize Lacaba right away.

“The last time I saw her, she still had flesh on her. Now she’s slim. I told her she looked prettier,” the vice governor said.

She said that when she finally noticed Lacaba, she immediately grabbed the hostage’s arm “in case [the kidnappers] changed their minds.”

Sahidullah said Lacaba’s release was a “miracle” in that it was “the first time that a hostage was freed without ransom.”

She said she had reiterated to Parad the no-ransom policy of the ICRC and the government, and that the latter had said he was aware of it.

“According to them, there is no ransom [demand],” she said of the kidnappers. “If that is true or not, we will know during the negotiation. But right now there is no negotiation because they are always on the run.”

Sahidullah said she and Parad discussed the group’s demands for a few minutes before she was told that Lacaba would be released to her.

“One thing they demanded was a military pullout, but not as wide as before. It now covers four or five towns,” she said. “If there is a pullout, maybe they could negotiate.”

She quoted Parad as saying that the Abu Sayyaf would release Lacaba to her to show its “sincerity” in wanting to negotiate with authorities.

‘New life’

In her statement to the media on Thursday night, Sahidullah said releasing Lacaba without ransom was the kidnappers’ way of reiterating the message they had been airing since the beginning — that they want something other than ransom.

“[It’s meant] to show that they now want goodness and peace and a new life. That’s what they told me,” she said.

But even Sahidullah admitted that she still had no idea what the kidnappers meant when they said they wanted “a new life” for themselves.

She said they had also mentioned to her certain demands, and that even Lacaba had been told of these.

But she did not elaborate on the “many” demands except to say that “it’s not about ransom.”

So what does the Abu Sayyaf really want, and what does it take to free the other two hostages?

And if it showed that it could free a hostage without ransom, then why can’t it simply release Notter and Vagni?

Sahidullah said she wished she knew the answers.

For now, she said, she was taking comfort in the fact that Lacaba was now free and reunited with her husband Manny and son Christian.

Kristine L. Alave, Jocelyn Uy,
and Arlene de la Cruz, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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Published in: on April 4, 2009 at 3:42 am  Comments Off on Hostages, bandits said goodbye like buddies  
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