A Catholic priest held hostage for almost four months by Muslim militants in Marawi city in the southern Philippines says he still believes in inter-religious dialogue despite experiencing horrors that included seeing a fellow captive gunned down in crossfire and another one killed during an airstrike.
Teresito Suganob, 57, was the most high-profile captive during the country’s biggest security crisis in years when pro-Islamic State (IS) militants seized the predominantly Muslim Marawi in May 2017 and engaged security forces in a vicious five-month battle.
“Whatever has happened to me, however it may have hurt, I still believe in inter-religious dialogue,” Suganob told BenarNews in a lengthy interview in Mulondo, a remote southern Philippine town where he had taken part in a religious outreach program.
“We need to help bridge the understanding between Christians and Muslims,” he said.
But during his captivity, Suganob said, religion mattered less than survival.
He said his captors forced him to convert to Islam at gunpoint and ordered him to work as a cook, along with four others. He was even tasked to help make improvised bombs, he said.
“If you did not follow the order, you would be killed. So when you are told to help make a bomb you just follow,” Suganob said during the interview on Aug. 26. “You could not do anything – you just follow orders or be killed.”
In June 2017, the bearded Suganob was seen in a militant propaganda video begging the Philippine military to cease aerial bombardments. Gunmen abducted him and dozens of civilians when the militants attacked Marawi, where he had served as vicar-general of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
“Until now, I’m scarred by it,” said Suganob, who is now based in Iligan city, about 38 km (23 miles) north of Marawi. “Psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors are helping me grapple with my fear.”
He said he was a fearful captive for 117 days.
But fear came in the form of bombs dropping down from air force fighter jets, more than the threat of being beheaded by his captors, he said.
Once home to more than 200,000 people, Marawi was ravaged by air strikes in the fighting that killed at least 1,200 people, mostly militants.
Praying in the middle of fighting
What Suganob saw during the clashes astonished him, he said.
The militants were fearless and were getting killed in the name of their religion, yet “they stopped to pray [with] the Quran in the middle of fighting,” Suganob said.
“When we saw them getting hit, it also pained us. They had bloody ears, and wounds everywhere,” he said. “In a ground fight, they were two inches away from you.”
The circumstances of Suganob’s escape were never discussed at length during the BenarNews interview.
In September last year, military officials said Suganob scampered away from his captors as troops clashed with pro-IS members of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups who were holed up in a mosque. The military said then that amid the confusion, Suganob escaped and was picked up by soldiers who immediately took him to safety.
Dozens of other captives with Suganob were later either freed, escaped or were believed to have been killed in crossfire.
Among the hostages were teachers seized from a local college, a baker, waiters and carpenters. Their ages ranged from the early 20s to 60s, Suganob said.
Suganob said that the oldest hostage, whom he identified only as Rufi, 64, was hit in a crossfire and died, while another was killed during an airstrike.
“There was also another one who was 48 years old who chose instead to join the militants because his sons were forced to be fighters, as well,” he said. “I did not know what happened to them.”
BenarNews could not independently verify that claim.
Interaction with Hapilon
During his captivity, Suganob recalled, he soon found out that his captors' leader, Isnilon Hapilon, wielded power among the militants, including fighters from Southeast Asia. The militants held Hapilon, the leader of IS in the Philippines, in high regard, he said.
Hapilon was on the U.S. government’s list of most-wanted terrorists. He carried a $5-million reward for his role in abducting 20 hostages from a resort in the southern Philippines in 2001, including three Americans.
Military officials announced Hapilon’s death, along with the killing of Omarkhayam Maute, another militant leader, in October 2017, effectively ending the siege of Marawi.
Suganob said Hapilon called him and the rest of the captives “brothers” and often asked about their welfare.
“He once asked me how I was holding up, and I said I couldn’t do it anymore,” Suganob said, referring to Hapilon. “He answered ‘just do it’ and never be afraid of the cannons and bombs because Allah is with you.”
Suganob said he was perplexed by the militant commander’s answer.
The priest recalled that his captors once instructed him to call President Rodrigo Duterte and plead for his life and ask the military to stop the airstrikes.
“But I can’t call Duterte because I don’t have his number. We are not text mates, and I only recently met him before this siege,” he said, smiling.
He said he managed instead to call church leaders and warned them that all the 120 hostages with him would be killed one by one if the military airstrikes did not stop.
Now, 10 months after the fighting ended, Suganob has made working for an interfaith dialogue his main mission, he said.
He was also going around the south to campaign for a better understanding of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which was signed by Duterte last month.
Under the BOL, four million Muslim Filipinos will be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas of southern Mindanao and nearby islands, where five decades of insurgency have left more than 100,000 people dead.