Kidnapped Humanitarian Workers Among Five Peace Weaver Awardees

ZAMBOANGA CITY – Three former kidnapped victims and two community workers who were killed in line of duty were hailed as this year’s Peace Weavers awardees.

The prestigious peace award was given to Esperancita “Espie” Hupida of Basilan-based Nagdilaab Foundation, Merlie “Milet” Mendoza, an international humantarian worker, and Sulu-based Professor Octavio Dinampo.

Octavio was kidnapped along with television broadcast-journalist Cecilia Victoria “Ces” Oreña Drilo and her crew during a special assignment in the jungles of Sulu last June, while Hupida and Mendoza were seized during their community visit in Tipo-Yipo, Basilan last September. They were eventually freed after paying ransoms to their abductors.

In a written acceptance speech, Mendoza thanked everyone who were one with her in prayer during her almost two months ordeal with bandit Abu-Sayyaf group in Basilan.

“The power of prayer enveloped us with protection and a strong will to survive,” she said in her speech read by Miriam Suacito, executive director of Basilan-based Nagdilaab Foundation, Inc.

“Many people shared our captivity as they also went through the horrible experience of not knowing what was happening to us. I felt very strongly this bond of love across time and space as I tried to reach out to the hearts of my captors as well. I offered prayers on their behalf so that God will touch their hearts. As you see now, Espie and I are living witnesses to a miracle,” she said.

According to Mendoza, her “love and respect for the Muslim peoples will not change with the ordeal.”

“I would like to believe that I have become a better Christian because I was welcomed into the hearts and homes of many Muslim friends who have shared with me the true essence of Islam as a religion of peace,” she said, adding that “may peace continue to reign in our hearts, and may freedom be won by people who have long been struggling for it in the ways of peace.”

Hupida, who was still in the process of psychological recovery from the kidnapping incident, said there are still more to be done in freeing Basilan from the deeply-rooted biases and banditry.

“I am not yet retiring but I may slowdown, less intense perhaps, but my actual response to this award is to publicly renew my commitment,” the teary-eyed Hupida said, adding that “healing is possible, as I can witness widows, orphans, and the survivors of violence, who move on with their lives.”

For his part, Octavio, who admitted to have been a “violent man— ideologically” – in the past, pledged to continue his work in Mindanao, particularly in Sulu, saying that the risk of being kidnapped is part of the job.

“Now I have realized that I can fight the Moro struggle peacefully by being active in the civil society works,” said Octavio, who is the chairman of the Mindanao People’s Caucus.

“Our calling does not allow us the privilege and opportunity to hate. Our line of work will only allow us to understand this kind of people, such as the kidnappers,” he said, referring to the sentiments of former kidnapped victims.

“These are people (i.e., his kidnappers) you pity but these are also the people that you can hate very much,” he added.

The three awardees, who have been working in community peace building in conflict-ridden areas of Western Mindanao, shared the same award with the late Fr. Reynaldo Roda and Samabadjao leader Jemson Ismael.

Fr. Roda is a Oblates missionary priest who served in South Ubian municipality, Tawi-Tawi province for a long time. But his work, mainly involving a school for the Sama youths there, was cut after he was murdered by a band of armed men when he resisted their kidnap attempt early this year.

Fr. Ramon Bernabe, provincial superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in southern Philippines, who received the posthumous award, described Fr. Roda as “a real friend to his family, to his fellow Oblates, to his scholars and students, to the people of Tabawan, Tawi-Tawi, and to his other places of ministry before.”

“Fr. Rey entrusted in people the ways that were heroic. Fr. Rey gave what he could for others, and constantly invited others to give to his causes, until all that he could give was his own life,” he said.

“For him, the truth about life and death can be expressed perhaps in this way, ‘I live not where I breathe but where I love; I die not because somebody takes my life but because I offer it freely as a friend,'” he added.

The posthumous Peace Weaver award was also given to Sama Badjao leader Ismael, who was noted for his passion in fighting for the rights and respect for his fellow tribesmen.

It is for the same reason that Ismael was gunned down by still unidentified assailant last March, while heading home in his coastal village of Arena Blanco, in this city.

In the citation, Ismael was described to be “an ordinary man, but with an extraordinary attitude towards and sympathy for his fellow, downtrodden Samas.”

Peace Weavers Awards was conceptualized by Peace Advocate of Zamboanga (PAZ) and Interreligious Solidarity Movement for Peace in an effort to acknowledge the people who work exceptionally for peace-building in Western Mindanao areas.

The emotion-filled award’s night was held at the Garden Orchid hotel last November 30 as part of the observance of the Mindanao Week of Peace.

In addition, two organizations and an academician also received special citations for their peace-making effort.

These are the National Samabadjao Movement, Inc., Ayudahan Development Foundation, and Eloisa Ruste, the school principal of Zamboanga City High School-Main.

During the awards night, Young Peace Weavers awardees were given to Carlo Zion Gonzales, graduate of Pilar College; Nouf Hasan, graduate of Arena Blanco National High School; Paolo Lopez, graduate of Regional Science High School; Mila Luna Salin and Rica Sulzo de Soza, graduates of Zamboanga City High School-MEIN; Midzmar Ulani, graduate of Don Pablo Lorenzo High School and Mary Rose Jean Andrada, college graduate of Ateneo de Zamboanga University.

According to PAZ president Father Angel C. Calvo, the Peace Weavers Award is a way to celebrate the individual achievement and contribution to promote lasting peace in Mindanao.

The peace weaver award started in 1998. Its past awardees included prominent local leaders like include Claretian priest Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, who was killed while under captivity of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan in 2000.

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