I left David Jr., Elpido, and Elpido’s band of separatists the same way that I arrived: led out blindfolded and on foot. I had my stories, one I’d write and one I’d tell the Constabulary if I ran into them. They were different stories. Although I had enough material to write a long piece, there was still a lot that I didn’t understand.
“There are a few more questions I have for David Jr.,” I said to Nick the next time I saw him. “I don’t know why he didn’t escape. I have a few hunches why … why he didn’t escape, but they’re merely hunches. He clearly has a stake in Sulu. He grew up on Mindanao … born and bred there. We didn’t talk about Marcos, except in connection with the Corregidor Massacre. Then there’s his fishing business out of Basilan.”
I continued to communicate with Fr. Deon and continued to follow the conflict on Mindanao and in Sulu, as the conflict festered. I worried about Elpido whenever I heard about trouble on Basilan. And as tension between Christians and Muslims grew, Fr. Deon however felt safe. He felt safe because of his relationship with the Muslim community … with former students and parents of students, students who attended Christian Notre Dame. And long ago he placed his life in the hands of God and was determined (with all his being and God’s help) to keep the school open and to maintain peace on Tawi Tawi.
Fr. Deon wrote me to tell me that our friend Elpido was sitting in a military stockade in Zamboanga and for that he was thankful. Elpido could’ve easily been killed. Too many had been killed since the start of the government’s offensive. I kept track and knew that too many were killed. And I was happy to learn that Fr. Deon and Elpido were still alive and that the American had gone to bat for his former kidnapper. And Fr. Deon wrote that he was praying for Elpido’s release and a return of civility and stability. Fr. Deon was caught in the middle. He was aware of the aspirations of the separatists and how most people around him were hitching on for the ride. He also realized that he was considered an outsider and assumed the American on Basilan was going through the same thing.
Fr. Deon also shared the contents of a letter Elpido wrote from prison. It was written for his mother. He reassured everyone that he was in good health and that he wasn’t being mistreated. He also reassured everyone that he was taking care of himself. He was exercising and eating. There was stimulation, and he had time to think. And he was hopeful … hadn’t given up. Why should he have? But as he waited his fate, he received little news. And as he was kept in the dark, he hadn’t been to court yet. The judicial system! He was learning about it.
There seemed to be two judicial systems. He had no visitors except his interrogators. And except for Fr. Deon, who brought him a few things. Other people tried to see him but were turned away, or so he was told by Fr. Deon, which didn’t make any more sense than being held without trial. Yes, held without trial. The hardest thing was that … especially waiting and without a hearing and no progress. He didn’t have a book until Fr. Deon brought him a copy of the Koran.
Fr. Deon said he’d get him a lawyer. But he wasn’t sure what good a lawyer would do. He urged people not to come see him, while he assured them he wasn’t dead yet. Fr. Deon reassured everyone that he wasn’t dead yet. He wasn’t sure but that he might be sent somewhere else … somewhere far away from Mindanao and the Sulus. Who knew where he would be sent? Who knew if they would then see him? It had been more than a month since they were captured, that fateful day in the rain. He thought he’d be shot. It surprised him that they weren’t tortured more than they were. He wanted his father and mother to know what he was trying to do … that he was trying to stand up for what was right. He wondered whether they were prepared for what could happen to him. He wanted them to remain strong … not to worry too much. He wasn’t dead yet … was treated well … was treated better than he expected. They shouldn’t worry because Allah was in control.
The American talked to someone on Elpido’s behalf…it was in the beginning and he vouched for his kidnapper. After that Elpido was treated better. The torture ended and it hadn’t been too bad. He was told the American said he’d come see him. If he had it to do over again … the kidnapping, given the circumstances and after the Jabidah Massacre (the Corregidor Massacre of 1968), whether he’d join the separatist and take to the jungles of Basilan again or not, he wasn’t totally sure he would. There wasn’t much to do in prison, without his books. Of course, he had the Koran Fr. Deon brought him, and his prayers. As regard to the Koran, and while he had the time, he set out to memorize the whole thing and complete his education.
As time wore on…and out of frustration, Fr. Deon continued to communicate to me about Elpido. When I realized that he was being held indefinitely and was denied his legal rights, I began to feel guilty that I hadn’t intervened. It seemed inappropriate for me to get further involved. I also knew that if I did I’d incriminate myself more than I had with my article and have to answer questions about what I was doing on Basilan and why I hadn’t alerted authorities. So that was where my involvement ended: with me resisting the urge to jump in. Yes, I felt an urge to stick my neck out, but I never understood why Fr. Deon and Elpido’s family thought I could do something. I was an American, an outsider. How could I as an outsider and an American influence anyone? Yet pressure was exerted on me to do something.
But I think Elpido’s time in prison benefited him. It gave him time think. During Elpido’s time in prison, I thought about how much easier it must be to take a certain course, endure setbacks, or survive deprivation when a person has the guidance of Allah or God. But even with guidance of Allah, Elpido had doubts, sown by his relationship with a Catholic friar. Elpido clearly looked up to Fr. Deon and looked to him for advice. The conflict caused by this dynamic must’ve been exceptional, though it proved to be inconsequential.
A footnote from BBC News: The Abu Sayyaf emerged in 1991 as the latest in a number of militant groups which have waged a 30-year campaign for a Muslim homeland in the south of Roman Catholic Philippines. The seeds of conflict were sown in the 14th Century, when Arab traders crossed the Indian Ocean and established Islam in the southern Philippine islands.