June 3, 2003, BusinessWorld, Controversial Lamitan hostage drama recalled, by Rey Luis Banagudos,
ZAMBOANGA CITY - "By today, I could have been two years without a head," Lamitan assistant parish priest Fr. Rene Enriquez reminded his townmates in jest during his homily yesterday in the town's main church of St. Peter.
His Sunday Mass audience laughed, but the grim humor reminded everyone in a town that cannot forget for even a day since then how a small band of Abu Sayyaf bandits laid siege to this predominantly Christian community for two days two years ago.
The bandits occupied the same St. Peter's church and the adjacent Dr. Jose Ma. Torres Memorial Hospital while dragging along with them a dozen hostages they kidnapped two days earlier from Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan province.
Bizarre as that was, what was even more shocking to the Lamitenos was how the same terrorists - with Mr. Enriquez, Ediborah Yap and several additional hostages from the church and hospital in tow - were able to march out of the hospital compound in broad daylight without the government soldiers firing a shot or stopping them in any way.
"I was totally surprised when I found out ... that the Abu Sayyaf escaped with only one casualty and even more hostages," remembers Fr. Cirilo Nacorda when interviewed yesterday.
Mr. Enriquez and a couple of other hostages were themselves able to escape during the brief confusion when a few CAFGUs (Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units) fired on the escaping bandits as they were about 150 meters from the back of the hospital, an area with some houses and witnesses around.
Messrs. Nacorda and Enriquez on Sunday officiated the unveiling of a "marker" which summarizes the highlights of the infamous siege, engraved on a 3x2.5-meter span of the concrete fence of the church facing the hospital.
The marker pointedly mentions the names of the officers thought responsible for the escape of the bandits, and also how one top local government official aided the bandits, too.
"This marker," Mr. Nacorda said, "will be a permanent reminder of the injustice and evil that was committed against the people of Lamitan. It is dedicated to those who died and were taken hostage, and to those who have bravely given testimonies since then to how the military connived with the Abu Sayyaf."
"We are still grieving, and the wounds are as fresh as two years ago. Although we are hoping still, many are resigned that government will not give us justice in this case," he added.
The Senate defense committee has recommended the court martial of three military officials in the center of the controversy, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Malacanang, said Mr. Nacorda, have failed to take "serious action" on the Senate findings.
The recommendation is the result of the testimonies and affidavits given by as many as 30 civilian witnesses. A similar investigation by the Congress defense committee only found out "operational lapses" on the part of the soldiers.
But Mr. Nacorda is buoyed up by the revelations made by former Dos Palmas hostage Gracia Burnham in her book In The Presence of My Enemies, where she tended to corroborate the priest's allegations of collusion between the military and the bandits.
Ms. Burnham told the Philippine Department of Justice investigators last week that she is willing to come to the Philippines to testify in any official investigation on the case.
"If she will do that," said Mr. Nacorda, "then she is responding to her calling as a Christian missionary. She is responding to Christ's call to always speak the truth. She will be a modern prophet."
Ms. Burnham and her husband Martin - who was killed together with the Lamitan nurse Yap during an attempt by AFP Scout Rangers to rescue them in Sibuco, Zamboanga del Norte, in June of last year - were American missionaries who worked for years in the country. They were vacationing in Palawan when kidnapped.
The simple green-painted marker faces the tomb of Ms. Yap, who was buried on the lawn of the hospital where she worked, beside the tomb of the hospital's founder.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo hailed Ms. Yap as a heroine, after she reportedly refused to desert the Burnhams despite opportunities to escape during their yearlong captivity mostly in the jungles of Basilan island.
Mr. Nacorda continues to monitor death threats on him and can move around the town only with one CAFGU security, who guards him even when inside the church compound.
Two days ago, he said, he received word again from Muslim and Christian friends that a killer identified with a top government official who he implicated in the Lamitan siege has bragged that one of the three persons he is going to assassinate soon is Mr. Nacorda.
Some men of this government official, Mr. Nacorda said, harass him by sometimes hanging around aboard their vehicle parked in front of his church.
If Ms. Burnham will come to the Philippines to testify, Mr. Nacorda said, all the other former hostages including those in the Sipadan incident, who have also made similar reports, will be encouraged to come out in the open.
Still he is not too optimistic because he said "many of our political leaders are afraid of the military."
He said he is not against the military when he accused some officers of connivance.
"There are still many junior officers," Mr. Nacorda said, "who are idealistic and loyal to their country and serious enough to serve the people."