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Captives: Kidnapping in the Philippines

Publication Date : 09-02-2013


The release of cameraman Ramelito Vela and soundman Rolando Letrero by the Abu Sayyaf should compel authorities to double their efforts to have Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani and other foreign captives of the extremist group also freed. It should also disabuse everyone, especially the Arab press, of the idea that the Abu Sayyaf is a respectre of Islam and Muslims.

The two Filipinos were with Atyani when the journalist belonging to the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network went to Sulu last June, ostensibly to cover the Independence Day celebrations there. It turned out he had wanted to interview the Abu Sayyaf and its foreign hostages for a TV documentary he was making on the volatile South. Not long after Atyani and his crew were picked up from their hotel by Abu Sayyaf members themselves, it was reported that they had gone missing. Their nightmare had begun.

The kidnapping shocked authorities because Atyani is a Muslim and was apparently banking on his religious credential, plus the fact that he had interviewed Osama bin Laden months before 9/11, to secure an exclusive interview with the Abu Sayyaf. But alas, he calculated wrongly.

Why Vela and Letrero were released has triggered tantalising speculations. But it has at least served to remind authorities that Atyani and other foreigners remain in captivity. Many of these foreigners were kidnapped long before Atyani. Australian Warren Rodwell, 54, has been held hostage for more than a year already. The European bird-watchers, Dutchman Ewold Horn, 52, and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, were taken in February 2012. The Japanese Toshio Ito was seized in July 2010!

Brillante Mendoza’s Captive, which is based on Gracia Burnham’s “In the Presence of My Enemies,” her account of how she, her husband, several other foreigners, and Filipinos were abducted in 2000 by the Abu Sayyaf and held for a protracted period, shows that some captives are released in order to renew public concern about the safety especially of the foreign hostages—the better to break a stalemate or a long lull in the negotiations, and the better as well to drive up the ransom.

Not that Atyani’s abduction has been firmly established. Vela and Letrero said they were separated from the Jordanian on the fifth day of their captivity and had not seen him since. In a news conference after their release, Vela said Atyani had not expected that he, too, would be abducted; the cameraman recalled how angry Atyani was that the Abu Sayyaf held them captive instead. “If it were possible for a Muslim to kill a Muslim, Baker would have been willing to kill,” Vela said, contradicting the authorities who had earlier claimed that the Jordanian went willingly with the Abu Sayyaf.

But paraphrasing Vela, would it be possible for a Muslim to kidnap a Muslim? Isn’t this a grave sin according to the Islamic code?

It’s puzzling that the two Filipinos were separated from the Jordanian and were generally well treated, according to their own account. In previous abductions of media members by the Abu Sayyaf, the victims, all Christians, were not separated, nor were they treated well.

TV reporter Arlene de la Cruz was abducted in 2002 and held for over three months. She had gone to Sulu to try to interview Abu Sayyaf leaders, who were then holding the Burnhams. In 2008, an ABS-CBN network team led by reporter Ces Drilon also ended up being held captive in the jungles of Sulu. She and her two cameramen—Jimmy Encarnacion and Angelo Valderama—and Mindanao State University professor Octavio Dinampo, said they were tied up and threatened with beheading.

According to Dinampo, a provincial coordinator of Bantay Ceasefire, “strong pressure” from the Moro National Liberation Front prompted the release of Vela and Letrero. (The MNLF has signed a peace accord with the Philippine government and its army has been incorporated into the Armed Forces.) We don’t know if this contradicts unnamed sources from the military who said ransom was paid for the two Filipinos. We also don’t know for certain if there is truth to the “official” report that hours after the release, there was a “fierce clash” between the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf, resulting in six deaths.

Like everything else in the Mindanao conflict, much about the Atyani abduction seems like the Indonesian puppet show wayang, a shadow play. Now the shadows multiply further and the darkness deepens.


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