‘Morong 43′ Recall the Nightmare and the Struggle

From the time of the raid and their subsequent arrest to the nightly interrogations, they were told that they did not have rights. But the “Morong 43” struggled on internally and against their captors, interrogators, and eventually their prison custodians.


MANILA — Last year, in the morning of Feb. 6, a participant to the health training where Lydia  “Mama Del” Obera was one of the administrative staff pointed out to her an incredible scene unfolding outside of the seminar house. “I just woke up then,”  Mama Del recalled. “It was cold in Tanay. I thought there was a shooting. Why was everybody running?”

“Outside there were too many soldiers. The green of the trees was overshadowed by the green fatigue uniforms of the soldiers.” The soldiers climbed up to where the health workers were staying in the rounded, glass house.

“The soldiers were forcing the door open. To prevent the glass panels from breaking, we just opened the door to them. They poured in and ordered us to lie on the floor.” Soon the soldiers ordered the health workers to file out of the room.

“Outside we saw that the entire house had been surrounded by the soldiers who wore no nameplates.”

What happened next had been reported to the world and duly condemned. The 43 health workers were handcuffed and blindfolded and driven for an hour to what they would later know as Camp Capinpin. For 36 hours, they were  blindfolded with used, smelly clothes covered with what seemed like duct tape.

“It was not an arrest; it was an abduction,” said Gary Liberal, a head nurse in the operating room of a big public hospital who was one of the resource persons in the health training. The soldiers ordered Liberal to sit in one corner with the other participants that morning, while the military “searched” or “planted” guns and explosives inside the conference rooms.

After the military “searched” the house and failed to bring in the Mario Condes, the person stated in the warrant, they took in custody the 43 health workers instead. “When the soldiers forced us to ride in their vehicle, I was reminded of the Ampatuan massacre,” Obera said. It did not help that when they arrived, she heard gunshots and someone shouting in Filipino, “Are you finished digging?” and “Bring them over here.”

At Camp Capinpin, “we were interrogated numerous times, one interrogator after another came, asking the same questions,” said Liberal and Obera. The interrogations were always done in the evenings.

Mama Del (left) narrates her ordeal to Bulatlat.com during this live webcast, a few days after their release. Watch the video.

“You could sense the interrogators walking in the hallway,” said Liberal, adding that he didn’t understand why the interrogations were always done at night till the wee hours of the morning.

The most tense moments were perhaps the first three to five days in captivity, Liberal said. For three days, the detainees were very quiet in their own jail cell. No one spoke.

In the morning, Obera said everything was so quiet, the only sound she could hear was the chirping of the birds outside.

During the first 36 hours when they were blindfolded and their hands were handcuffed behind their back, “I wondered if my friends knew we were taken by the military? Did my relatives know? We could end up dead somewhere,” Liberal recalled. Or, he also thought, they might end up as additions to the growing number of victims of forced disappearances in the Philippines.

“My hands were wounded because every movement cut at the skin,” Obera said. She was interrogated eight times during the 36 hours they were handcuffed and blindfolded.

Whoever was guarding them would have to spoon-feed them and help them to the toilet when needed. Later, “They put a diaper on me,” complained Obera, when presumably the guard grew tired of escorting her to the toilet. Guards to the younger detainees appeared amenable, however, to repeated toilet trips.

Female detainees said they didn’t hear the toilet door being closed when they relieved themselves.

Liberal chose to lessen his fluid intake to reduce his need to go to the toilet. “I didn’t feel like eating, anyway, given the circumstances. I just swallowed a few mouthfuls then no more,” he said.

In times like this, Liberal said, you would think of your family, your job, all your concerns in life. “When they arrested us, there was no Miranda doctrine in force. This is abduction, I thought.”

In fact, when they asked for a lawyer,  the military told them “What lawyer? There are no lawyers here. No human rights!” Obera recalled the commanding soldier as telling them.

A Visit, At Last

To be handcuffed with your hands behind your back for 36 hours is a very uncomfortable proposition, one guaranteed not to induce you to sleep. And it  seemed to serve the military fine as they went about interrogating the Morong 43 health workers during the first five days of their captivity.

The interrogations began with the health workers’ personal details, repeated over and over. Obera told her eighth interrogator: “Don’t you remember my answers?” She said that was the time her pillow fell off the cot. Hidden in it were some receipts and medicines and her P560.40. Along with her pearl earrings, she did not get these things back.

She said she refused to answer anymore the interrogators’ repeated claims that she was a member of the New People’s Army. Answering them back would only prolong the interrogation, she reasoned.

For Liberal, he had tried to compensate for the uncomfortable and insecure position by thinking of  pleasant things. “I imagined I was in Boracay, to get my mind off my numbed shoulders and worries.”

If Obera was accused of being an NPA, Liberal was accused of being a member of the CCP. His interrogator kept asking Liberal why he was chosen by the group to be at the seminar. “You must be a CPP member, because you’re a union president,” the interrogator told him.

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