ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Fear remained etched on their faces even after village officials and military officers assured them that they were in safe hands.
Retired Police Insp. Usman Sali, 60, cried as he looked at his sons Albar 25, Habier, 19, and Muhammad Nur, 20.
“My sons dragged me away from the rebels,” he told the Inquirer minutes after they escaped from their Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) captors on Sept. 12.
At dawn on Sept. 9, he said, armed men went house to house in Santa Catalina village, breaking doors and windows and taking residents as hostages.
Sali called it “house arrest or house detention,” as the gunmen did not force the hostages to move with them.
Sali lives on Lustre Street, where a big number of MNLF gunmen are positioned.
The Salis’ nightmare began on the night of Sept. 8. Sali said he and his family heard gunfire, but thought there was a raid somewhere.
“We just ignored it but at dawn on Monday, armed men barged into our house,” Sali said.
He said three men entered the house while many others stood outside.
“All of them were very young—aged 20 to 30—and I saw some familiar faces—local drug addicts. They tipped the armed men that I have a brother who is a policeman and the gunmen asked where we hid the firearms,” Sali said.
Sali and his children described the gunmen as a “bit friendly” on Monday and Tuesday. The Salis thought they were not going to be harmed, as they spoke the same language, Tausug.
They were wrong.
On the third day, the gunmen became hostile.
“They kept on poking their guns at us and threatened to shoot us. I kept pleading with them. I told them they could kill me but, please, spare my sons,” he told the Inquirer.
Sali’s house helper showed signs of trauma, always lying in a corner in a fetal position, as if trying to protect herself.
“They were demons. They had no respect for us. They were animals. They desecrated our mosque. They were not real Muslims,” Sali said.
Sali settled in Santa Catalina after escaping war in Sulu in 1973.
“This is the worst I’ve experienced and I thought I brought my family to a safer place,” he said.
“I fought hard in Sulu. I am a Tausug Muslim but [who] we encountered here were not Muslims, they were demons,” he said.
After being held for three days, Sali, his three sons, the house helper and friend Bobby Ahmad escaped from their captors on Sept. 12.
Sali said they escaped after most of the MNLF gunmen guarding them left to reinforce another group who were fighting government troops.
Seizing the opportunity, they made a dash for freedom.
First to be freed
On Sept. 9, the MNLF gunmen first freed a hostage, a 10-year-old boy from Talon-Talon village. Gunmen holed up in Santa Catalina freed the boy at the start of negotiations led by Col. Jemar Johnson Aseron, commander of the Army’s 32nd Infantry Battalion.
Aseron talked with Ismael Dasta, leader of the MNLF fighters from Basilan province. Aseron said he met Dasta when he was based in Lamitan City in Basilan.
“I asked him to free the two boys, aged 12 and 10, but Dasta said they could free only one,” Aseron said.
The boy was turned over to Talon-Talon village officials when no one from the city’s crisis management committee or the social welfare department came to get him.
The boy said the MNLF gunmen did not hurt him.
But at least one hostage—Reymundo Cepada Jr.—was shot when he tried to escape from his captors.
Pinky Viray, Cepada’s niece, said her uncle was hit by a bullet in the stomach.
Jimmy Villaflores, village councilor of Santa Catalina, said soldiers saw the bloodied Cepada running away from the MNLF position.
The soldiers took Cepada to the hospital but he died while receiving treatment. Cepada’s wife remains in captivity.
City Councilor BJay Guingona said 34 freed or escaped hostages were going through screening and debriefing at the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
Guingona said the screening was necessary to determine if the 34 were “real hostages, evacuees or belonging to bad elements.”
“Our concern is the security of everyone,” Guingona said in an interview.
The government could not say how many hostages remained in the hands of the MNLF gunmen.