Former Hostages Recall Life in Bandits' Clutches

Article excerpt

MANILA, Philippines --- For almost eight months, kidnapped television crewmen Ramil Vela and Buboy Letrero virtually lived the life of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bandits-eating with them, traveling with them on foot, and meeting roughly 400 of them all over Sulu.

"We were treated like their children. They did not harm us, we would eat the food they eat, and whenever we want to eat some fruits for instance, we were allowed to for as long as we asked permission from them," said Vela in a press conference at Camp Crame in Quezon City where they were subjected to debriefing.

Constant travel on foot became part of their lives, Vela said, adding that this is an essential survival technique for the ASG bandits who are relentlessly being hunted down by the police and military.

Vela said he and Letrero were able to meet some 400 members of the ASG who alternately guarded them.

"We traveled a lot and in these times, we would be passed from one group to another. Sometimes there were 10 armed, then we would be passed again to another group of 20," said Vela in Tagalog.

In some cases, he said they were both ordered to wear bonnets to make them appear like ASG bandits and prevent locals from identifying them.

Vela narrated that they had just gone from an interview with top ASG commanders in Sulu sometime in June last year when the bandits suddenly barred them from leaving.

Vela was hired by Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, bureau chief of al-Arabiya network, as cameraman while Letrero worked as soundman.

It was when they were prevented from leaving that they realized they were in big trouble.

"During that time we were told that we were already their captives," said Vela.

He said this angered Atyani who was furious at the bandits for taking a fellow Muslim captive.

Five days after they were declared hostages, Vela said Atyani was separated from them.

"We never saw him since then," said Vela.

Senior Supt. Renato Gumban, commander of the police's Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), said the ASG has been demanding US$3 million from the relatives of Atyani.

In fact, Gumban said the information they received was that the family of Atyani has been in contact with him and his captors. …