Marawi hostage steps up to help others recover

Jason's story has become a model for other survivors to confront their experiences
Marawi hostage steps up to help others recover

Jason (not his real name), a volunteer for the Catholic Church's rehabilitation program for victims of the Marawi conflict, recalls his ordeal after being captured by Islamic militants at the start of the five-month conflict in Marawi in the southern Philippines in 2017. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

More than a year has passed since terrorists attacked the southern Philippine city of Marawi, but for Jason (not his real name), who was taken captive by the gunmen, it was just like yesterday.

His experience in the hands of his captors left deep scars. "I have nightmares. I am afraid that it might happen again, and they will come back," he said.

Despite the fears, the young man is stepping forward to be a symbol of hope and courage to others who, like him, became victims of the nightmare.

Jason volunteered for Duyog Marawi (One with Marawi), a rehabilitation program set up by the Catholic prelature in the devastated city and the Redemptorist religious congregation.

He is one of the facilitators of a "healing program" that helps in the rehabilitation of hostages and families of those who died at the hands of the terrorists.

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Jason's story started on the eve of the attack on May 23 when he joined his father and brother in a construction job in Marawi.

While at the construction site, the workers heard gunshots nearby.

"Our employer told us to find cover and wait for the gunfire to stop. He said it was normal and would end in a few moments. But it didn't stop," Jason said.

They remained in hiding with minimal food and little water until their Muslim employer decided to take them to safety.

"He told us that he would vouch for us. He was confident that the gunmen would listen to him and would let us go," said the young man.

They passed several checkpoints set up by the terrorists in the city. At the last one, armed men stopped the vehicle and ordered the passengers to get out and kneel on the ground.

Jason's employer begged and cried for the lives of his Christian employees, but the gunmen threatened to kill the employer's family if he did not surrender the Christians. 

The gunmen took Jason and seven other workers into a building where several hostages were already being held, including Catholic priest Teresito Suganob.

 

Jason's ordeal

"We were told to wear black clothes, like the ones they were wearing. They instructed us to retrieve the dead bodies of their comrades," he said.

Jason and the other hostages had to avoid getting hit by army snipers to reach the dead and wounded terrorists.

A hostage who was told to carry a sack of rice from a ransacked store was killed by a sniper.

"The dead bodies were everywhere," said Jason. Some were beyond recognition.

The hostages were also forced to dig tunnels from one building to another. The wounded were brought to a heavily secured building where a makeshift hospital was set up.

"Most of the time, Father [Suganob] would help treat the wounded and talk to the hostages," said Jason.

He said the time came when he accepted that he would die at the hands of the terrorists. He even prayed for death to come when he heard women crying and begging for help.

"The most painful and terrifying nights were when they raped women captives," said Jason.

He remembered a mother who was begging for her daughter to be spared but was instead tied to a chair and forced to watch while gunmen abused her 15-year-old girl.

"I can still hear their screams. I don't understand why there are people who can do that to young girls or women," he said.

Reynaldo Barnido, executive director of Duyog Marawi, said the conflict caused an "irreversible effect on the victims."

"The experience put them in a state of constant fear. It took a slice of their humanity, and that's what we are trying to heal," he said.

"What broke survivors the most was when they witnessed the death of their loved ones, friends, or relatives," added Barnido.

Jason recalled how he saw a cousin killed by a bomb. "We were just talking, then he suddenly disappeared," he said.

"I don't know why I am still alive. Perhaps God has better plans for me," said the young man.

Survivors of the Marawi conflict receive treatment from a government medical team at the height of the conflict in June 2017. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

 

The escape

On the morning of Oct. 18, Jason found himself in the middle of heavy fighting. Bullets were flying everywhere.

Terrorist gunmen retreated to one side of the city as government troops maneuvered to reclaim a stronghold.

Jason, his father, and another hostage found an opportunity to escape. They stripped themselves naked and crawled away from the firing.

When they reached government troops someone shouted. "Nobody move! Hands up!"

"The military dragged us out of the firefight. They blindfolded us and tied our hands," recalled Jason.

The hostages were taken to the military headquarters where, Jason claimed, they were repeatedly tortured and forced to confess they were terrorists.

"We were subjected to cruelty and interrogation," he said. "Soldiers were insisting that we were members of the terror group."

They were showed photographs of alleged leaders and members of the group, and a map for them to indicate the location of the gunmen and the hostages.

During one interrogation, Jason was badly beaten. A kick from a soldier dislocated his jaw.  

His father, however, was losing his mind. "He attempted to commit suicide twice inside the military camp because he thought I was dead," he said.

On Nov. 2, the soldiers released Jason and his companions after finding no evidence linking them to the terrorist group.

Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy military commander in Marawi, said everyone who came out of the main battle area were "assumed to be combatants."

"That was the reason why we conducted thorough questioning and verification of their identity," he told ucanews.com.

He admitted that lapses on the part of the military might have occurred due to "lack of protocols."

"If there was a failure in the rules of engagement, it was an isolated case, and does not represent the whole picture of our war against terror," he said.

Jason and his family decided not to pursue a complaint against the military.

"A complaint would only worsen the situation. It is something that our family cannot afford. We have nothing and we are nothing compared to them," he said.

 

Moving on to help others

Jason and his family were among the first who underwent the church healing program.

Aside from psychosocial therapy, Duyog Marawi also helped the family re-integrate back into the community.

The program has more about 400 young Muslim and Christian volunteers who, in one way or another, were also victims of the conflict.

"These young people came to us because they want to help in building peace, not just in their city but in the context of Muslim-Christian relationships," said Redemptorist priest Ariel Lubi.

The priest said survivors like Jason "courageously stood up amidst the trauma to help bring other victims."

"We cannot undo everything, but we can help them to somehow ease the pain," said Barnido.

The healing program has already assisted four groups of hostage survivors and their families.

Jason's story has become a model for others to confront their experience. He has helped others realize that they are not alone, and that there's life after the suffering.

He has vowed to do his best to prevent another Marawi incident. "I want to help people get rid of hate and biases," he said.

"It was not Muslims who made us suffer but people who were misled," he said.  

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