THE road leading home on June 9, 2019 was the longest one and the most difficult of all to understand. I am still trying to tell myself that it was over, that the nightmare I experienced that fateful day was nothing but just that: a bad dream.
But then the scenes kept coming back to my memory, like an old playing record (during our time when it was still the in thing) of a song that got stuck in the middle and repeats that same line over and over. I am weary but a part of me refuses to just let it be, wanting to be heard...
I took an early dawn bus trip from Pagadian on June 9 as I had to be at the Laguindingan Airport early evening. I thought the waiting time would be just perfect for me to finish a story I was writing and which I had planned to dispatch to news outlets. Entry to the airport was a breeze, then I started to settle on a perfect unoccupied corner I spotted and waited for the brewed coffee and tuna sandwich I ordered to be served.
What I did not expect however was that a "warrant of arrest" would be served instead.
Even before I could take out my notes from my bag, men started to approach me and I was told that they are serving a warrant of arrest on me. I noticed the other men were taking pictures of me with their gadgets. I was shocked, but the implication did not set in at once. My immediate reaction was outright refusal, instinctively at once, as I told them that I do not know anyone of them and that they were not in uniform. When they started telling me that they are taking me to a police station for questioning, I vehemently questioned their authority, telling them to give me the warrant of arrest so I can read it.
Then a man holding a folder with the supposed warrant flipped it partially open to give me a glimpse of what he was holding but did not really allow me to read it. It was then that I demanded to call my lawyer and my family. In a loud voice this time, I told them I needed a counsel and they have to respect my fundamental rights. But they said I had to go with them to the police station in Cagayan de Oro City where they said I could clear myself.
It felt like cold water poured all over me as chills run through my spine and my mind raced against time, as I insisted that I needed to inform my family about what was happening to me. Eventually they allowed me to call, perhaps in an effort not to attract too much attention as people were already looking towards our direction. I wasn't able to reach my family at once and the next name I saw on my inbox was Sr. Milagros Gimeno of the Missionaries of the Assumption who is a very close cousin.
When she picked up the phone, I immediately informed her that CIDG police were arresting me for multiple cases including arson, murder and frustrated murder. I proceeded to mention the name plates of the police woman in front of me at the security office and another uniformed officer just so if they needed to look for me, they can ask these people. They were hurrying me up and did not allow me to do another call so I went with them grudgingly and was starting to speak out loud again informing those looking around that I was being arrested.
"Huwag kayong mag-eskandalo," a police told me as they were leading me to a waiting private vehicle. As I was trying to turn off my phone, the man seated next to me sternly told me to stop calling on my phone. I told him I was just trying to close my phone, then he grabbed it and opened its back cover. He then asked for the other phones I have and handed these against my better judgment. I had and tried to explain that these phones have different uses. He then inserted the phones on his sling bag, telling me that these were going to be documented ("pipicturan" he said) at the police station.
Several minutes after the vehicle moved out, we stopped at what looked like a police station. The team leader seated in front of the car including the driver and the other man sitting on my left side went inside the facility and I was left in the car with the man who confiscated my phones. Then, another plainclothes police came and took pictures of me.
It took some time before the men came back to the car. I asked the team leader where we were heading and he replied that we were proceeding to Zamboanga. I pressed and asked where in Zamboanga I was to be taken, and he said they were taking me to their headquarters or whatever as they were stationed there. At that point, I thought there was no point asking anymore as I will only get vague answers. But quietly, I told them they were not telling me the truth about their plans, "mga sinungaling kayo," I said.
The next stop was at a restaurant in Initao, Misamis, and the officer seated in front informed me that they're taking lunch. Again, I was left at the car while most of them went inside the resto except one who was guarding me. They were asking what I want to eat but I said I was not hungry. They insisted and brought rice and fish in soup but when I tried to eat, it felt like I would choke and gave up trying.
When the food was taken away, I noticed that the arresting officer went over to a table outside the resto where an elderly man was seated who looked like he was a senior police or military in authority. Though he was not in uniform, it seemed like they were talking about me. My anxiety heightened when I was told later as the car drove off again, that I would be "processed" at the police station in Iligan City.
Once at Iligan police station, I was commanded to don on the orange shirt with "CIDG Detainee" mark on it then mug-shots were taken of me. After which, the finger-printing followed. It was the most humiliating and degrading moment for me, and to my mind, these monsters were really set on making a criminal out of me. I wanted to shout my protestation as my heart felt like bursting with anger, but then thoughts of self-preservation still prevailed.
When I was told to sign the printed output of the mugshots and the finger prints with the name of Elsa Renton with my family name added on it, I thought, my God, why am I signing this stupid paper? Still, I asserted my identity, and told the police in front of me that I know a friend who lives in Iligan and his name is Bobby Timonera. I also informed him that Carolyn Arguellas of Mindanews Service is another friend who can be contacted.
While the other police were talking inside an office, I could not see or hear, I was left with the local police on a desk. Then, noticing that he was tinkering with his phone, I told him to Google Gingging Valle and he would surely find me at SunStar Davao web, as my life is in the internet, I said. Sure enough he immediately saw my name and my stories in the internet. After that, I was again brought outside and into the car that drove away immediately. This time, I started to pray to God to give me the courage and face whatever it was awaiting me ahead.
The men were not talking anymore, after the officer asked me about my family, my children and where they are and their work. I responded quietly, trying hard not to show them that I was not afraid of them. The officer was also asking about my work, about the non-government organization I am affiliated with. I told them I do work with Peace and Equity Foundation.
After that, there was silence. All throughout the long drive from Iligan City to Zamboanga, all of them were either half drowsy or sleeping, the one on my right was even snoring loud. It was crazy but I was actually asking God for an accident to happen, to smash the car so that all of these brutes will die, even if it will cost me my life. But it did not happen and all I could do is look around endless fields of places I've never been helplessly, wondering if I would ever see my children again, and the thought made me miserable. Looking outside the car, sometimes I couldn't see any people walking along the roadsides. All these times dreadful thoughts of abducted victims who had become unknown and forgotten hounded me and kept me on edge.
I dreaded the thought but I wondered where would my body be dumped after they're done with me? Would my family even find my body at all? These thoughts had distressed me so much and yet part of me just refused to give up. Then, after what seemed like eternity, the road started to look familiar as the highway began to make an up and down course, which is what Pagadian City road is like. I cheered myself up, and looked out into the stores and signs, praying hard that I would see a confirmation of my hopes.
After what felt like forever, our vehicle stopped at the compound of CIDG Pagadian. They led me inside and made me sit on a bench. They did not talk to me or gave me any idea about what's going to happen next, nor asked me anything. I was not offered food either, and I was already feeling so weak I could hardly move. Then, I felt I really needed to lie on the bench as I could no longer sit up.
I was thinking that maybe they're going to interrogate me already or whatever, but hours ticked by and nothing happened. Instead, they seemed busy talking inside what looked like an office while the one holding my phones was standing by watching me. At about eight o'clock in the evening, I couldn't hold back my anxiety anymore that was drowning me and so I demanded once again to get hold of my phones. That was only the time that the officer told his companion to give my phones already.
When I was able to call my cousin again, I burst into tears and became hysterical such that she could no longer understand what I was saying. So I passed the phone on to the police standing by and asked him to tell her where I was. By then, it was about eight hours already that they have been looking for me since the time I called her that morning. My head was feeling like it was going to blow up with pain as I cried so loud my voice echoed in that office.
Hastily a police in uniform came to look into my blood pressure while a young woman who said she was not police also approached me and tried to calm me down. The police said my BP was 400/100. And then they asked me if I want to eat. I refused again as I said I could not swallow food.
They wanted to bring me to a hospital perhaps because they were afraid about what might happen to me, and I told them no, I don't want to go anywhere.
Then they offered to bring me back to Laguindingan, to buy me a ticket for Davao, and this angered me all the more. After all that they've done they have the nerve to offer me such! I was insulted again! In my anger, I told them I was not going anywhere and that I would stay in that place even if it means forever.
It was only about 10 pm that some friends with the local press came to see me. They brought with them an inhaler for my asthma as I was having difficulty breathing. Few minutes after 11pm, Fr. Rico and Sr. Tess of RGS came to fetch me. I was relieved but already very weak as I was only able to munch on the last sandwich I made early on that day.
Minutes before we left, the CIDG officer, team leader came and told us he was going to explain what had happened. Already I was my bitchy self. I positioned my Lenovo cam on him as he was speaking and I asked the other media practitioner to record everything that he was saying. He got uncomfortable but I reminded him about the way they treated me at the airport, and at the police station when they took pictures of me.
My anger was getting ahead of me as I bombarded him with questions in the presence of the press people and the religious. He justified the arrest even when they were already caught flat-footed. And he never uttered any apology, even when I was visibly distressed by their misdeeds.
And I thought, I will hold them accountable for putting my life in grave danger.
That night, I haven't slept at all...