The Prelature of Isabela de Basilan in the southern Philippines launched on Monday, May 3, 2021, the cause for the beatification of Claretian missionary priest Rhoel Gallardo, who died while in the hands of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in 2000. The following article is a narrative of the last moments of the missionary priest from the book “Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf.”
“SOLDIERS, THE SOLDIERS are here!” the bathing Abu Jandal shouted from the creek below. “They’re in the cassava plantation,” he shouted.
It was around 3:30 in the afternoon.
“Enemies!” Abu Jandal shouted. “The enemies are here!”
Lydda, who was about to close her eyes, sat still. With Ruben tied behind him, Father Rhoel looked around but did not move. The children stopped playing and immediately sat on the ground.
“When the shooting starts, just drop to the ground,” the priest shouted at the children.
The bandits roared in laughter. Some were still standing, calling on the children to come back and play. Some lay on the ground, while others sat, caressing their rifles. Khaddafy Janjalani, Abu Sabaya, and the other leaders continued talking, ignoring Abu Jandal.
The children saw Abu Jandal running toward them without his shirt on. The other bandits laughed and pointed at him. The children joined in the laughter.
“Nobody move! Drop to the ground!” someone shouted from somewhere. Bursts of automatic gunfire followed and filled the air.
“We’re soldiers! Drop to the ground!”
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We are hostages! We are hostages!” Chary shouted at the top of her voice.
“Shout!” Chary heard Anabelle urging her. “Shout, Chary, shout!”
Lydda saw her husband hit in the first volley of fire. He had not been able to move because one of his arms was tied to an M57 mortar. She lunged faced down to the ground. When she looked up, Lydda saw the soldiers. But two Abu Sayyaf bandits came near her, aiming their guns at her husband.
“No!” she shouted, as loudly as she could. “Don’t shoot my husband, please.” But the bandits didn’t hear her in the din of the firefight.
She saw blood oozing from Rosebert’s body. She crawled toward him and untied his arms. He was grimacing in pain. Then Lydda felt something dig into the flesh of her left arm. It immediately went numb, but she managed to drag her husband to a nearby thicket. Bullets were flying all around; Lydda lost track of where they were coming from. She just wanted to hide with her wounded husband.
Chary saw that her sister Cristy had been hit. She turned her head for help, when she saw something flash and blood spurt from Anabelle’s head. The teacher fell. Her sister, Romela, was crying by her side. Sinangkapan teacher Mrs. Editha Lumame was bleeding nearby; she was also crying.
The young girl saw the bandits run for safety, even leaving behind an M-14 and a Baby Armalite rifle. She wanted to take the guns but she saw her friends Abu Bilog and Abu Hapsin nearby. The two Visayans had told her earlier that they had joined the Abu Sayyaf because they could not find work.
“Chary, go! Escape now!” Abu Hapsin shouted at her.
She started crawling and moved past Father Rhoel. She saw that the priest had been hit; there was blood on his shirt. He was still alive, but he was not moving. Ruben Democrito, however, had a hole in his head. “He’s dead,” she thought.
She saw Abu Jandal next, running up from the creek toward her. When she turned to take cover and hide from the bandit, she saw Abu Ben, one of Father Rhoel’s guards, hit in the buttocks. He tried to recover his gun, but could not come near it because of the gunfire. Abu Ben crawled downhill toward the other bandits.
When the shooting started, Mr. Rubio actually thought he, Mr. Irong, Father Rhoel, and Ruben were perfectly safe. There was a rock just above them and the ground was low. The place was a natural foxhole. Even if the soldiers and the bandits exchanged gunfire, the four of them, who were in the middle, would have been safe if they just lay close to the ground.
The military attacked from the higher ground, from the slope where Rosebert and Lydda were, while the bandits were on the other side, on the lower ground.
When he heard the firing, Mr. Rubio saw the bandits run. The bullets came from both sides. At the first burst, Mr. Rubio tried to untie himself while lying down. He turned to his side. There was a loud explosion from an M57 rocket. A splinter hit him in his left armpit.
He dropped on the ground and shouted to his companions to crawl. Mr. Irong immediately crawled toward the upper ground where Lydda and Rosebert were. Kipyong and Ryan having earlier loosened the rope that bound the teachers, it was easy for both of them to move.
“Let’s escape,” Mr. Irong said. He stood up and ran to one side, toward the soldiers Lydda had seen earlier.
Mr. Rubio was down on his stomach, facing the higher ground. He looked back at Father Rhoel and Ruben. He saw the two move, stand up, and jump over a thicket in the direction of the bandits on the lower ground. They were not able to go around the tree where the four of them were sitting because of the vines and thorns. If they had wanted to move toward higher ground, they would have had to go around the bush and run uphill toward the military.
The school principal thought the priest and the teacher jumped to hide on the other side of the tree. But even in the pandemonium, he knew Father Rhoel and Ruben could not move toward the higher ground. “They will have a hard time,” Mr. Rubio thought. That was the last time he saw Father Rhoel and Ruben.
Mr. Rubio saw Anabelle. She was already dead. He saw the children crawling uphill. He could hear Chary shouting.
“We are hostages,” Chary shouted again and again as she crawled toward the soldiers. The other children followed her. She moved past Lydda, who was crying beside her husband.
“Ma’am, Sir, we’ll go ahead,” Chary told the teacher.
“Go on, look for the military,” Lydda pushed Chary and the other children.
“Help us, we are hostages,” Chary shouted in the direction of a soldier she saw taking cover behind a nearby tree.
Mr. Rubio saw the bloodied body of Editha Lumame near 12-year-old Emelyn Cachuela, who was breathing deeply. He wanted to turn back but his body refused to move. He felt weak. It was then that he realized he was wounded too. It was painful for him to inhale. He went on crawling uphill. Finally, he reached Chary, Cristy, Kipyong, and Marissa.
“Sir, my sister is wounded,” Chary said, pointing to Cristy. Mr. Rubio saw the blood.
“I’m sorry, I cannot carry her. I have no strength anymore. Just crawl,” he said.
“Sir, I’m thirsty,” Cristy was crying. “Please, sir, give me water.”
“No. Just crawl, all of you,” Mr. Rubio said. “Chary, look for something to tie your sister’s arm,” he ordered.
Chary left and then came back. She handed the school principal a piece of cloth. He tied Cristy’s arm.
Then Kipyong carried Cristy.
The firing continued.
A soldier grabbed Chary’s shirt and dragged her to safety. She looked around and saw Kipyong carrying her sister. Marissa was crawling beside them. They went inside a nearby hut.
“Out! Out!” a soldier called to them. “To the cassava plantation,” he shouted.
The fighting went on.
Chary thought lightning and thunder were hitting them from all sides. Running toward the cassava plantation, she saw the wounded Emelyn, crying. Chary crawled back to get her friend, but a soldier grabbed her and carried her into the middle of the cassava plantation. There she saw Marissa, Kipyong, and Cristy.
Chary cried as she wiped the blood off her sister’s arm.
Mr. Rubio saw that the soldiers who were withdrawing toward the cassava plantation already had some children with them. Abu Sayyaf bandits were running here and there, shooting at the soldiers and the children.
The school principal lay down on the ground and closed his eyes. He could no longer move. He heard three bandits come near him.
“Let us kill this one,” one said.
Mr. Rubio prayed and prepared himself.
“No, let us come back for this one later,” another said.
“Leave him, he can no longer walk,” the other said.
Another volley of fire came from the soldiers. The three bandits scampered in different directions. Mr. Rubio hid under a bush. He could hear Lydda and Rosebert talking to each other.
“Bap, don’t leave me, Bap,” Lydda cried, holding her husband’s hand.
“Dang, don’t despair. Live, Dang. Animo lang, Dang,” Rosebert answered.
They had been crawling toward the soldiers, but they had already lost a lot of blood and were too tired.
A soldier came near them when the children were rescued.
“Those who are not wounded, drink,” they heard a soldier tell the children. “Those who are wounded, don’t drink.”
Lydda and Rosebert continued crawling for a few more meters. But they were too tired. The couple lay still. Then they heard voices again.
“Dang, the soldiers are back,” Rosebert said. “We will live.”
“Don’t move yet,” Rosebert said. “Let us make sure that they are not bandits.”
Then silence. The moving sounds stopped. The shooting stopped. When Lydda looked at her husband, Rosebert did not move.
“Bap, speak to me, Bap,” Lydda shook her husband.
“I can’t do it, Dang,” he whispered.
“Let us pray,” she urged her husband.
He did not answer. She cried. “If we die, we die together,” she sobbed.
“Nobody dies together at the same time,” Rosebert joked even as he gasped for breath. They held each other’s hands.
“Dang, I can’t take it anymore,” he said.
“No, no, please!” she cried.
Then he was silent. Lydda held on to his hand tightly.
“Dang, look at the birds,” he said.
Lydda heard the helicopters coming.
Then they heard a man’s voice.
“There are more dead here. I think these two are dead.”
Lydda tilted her head and saw a soldier examining the bodies on the ground. Before she passed out, she managed to croak, “We’re not dead. We’re still alive.”
MR. RUBIO was planning to hide under the thicket until it was safe. He saw some bandits pass behind him. Later, the soldiers came back. “Secure the area, secure the area,” a soldier shouted. Mr. Rubio remained where he was. “Maybe I will die here,” he thought. But he saw no blood on his clothes. “I will live,” he said to himself.
“Secure the area, secure the area,” he heard the soldier again.
“I am safe. The military is here,” Mr. Rubio thought.
“Sarge, I’m here. I am a hostage,” the school principal shouted.
“Stand up,” someone shouted back.
“I cannot stand,” Mr. Rubio answered.
“Stand up,” a soldier shouted angrily.
“I can’t. I’m wounded. I’m Mr. Rubio, the principal.”
“The principal is here,” someone shouted.
* * * * *
Then the helicopter arrived.
Mr. Rubio told the soldiers that Father Rhoel was hiding in the bushes.
AS THE HELICOPTERS LIFTED OFF from Mount Punoh Mahadji to bring the wounded to the hospital, villagers in Tumahubong held a procession to observe the feast day of San Vicente Ferrer, their patron saint. Unlike previous fiestas, it was a solemn affair.
Their children were still on the mountain, and their priest, they feared, was being tortured; he was nowhere near to carry the censer that burns the incense.
The faithful sang songs and recited the rosary as they walked slowly around the village, the saint’s statue on the shoulders of four men, followed by the women and their flickering candles.
As the congregation made its way back to the church, the head of the statue suddenly fell over. Everyone gasped; the crowd shuddered. “It’s an omen,” an old woman said.
In Isabela, on the other side of the island, tears rolled down the cheeks of the blind woman Dolor. She had just seen another sign, another red mark, this time on the hands of Mr. Rubio’s wife. “Let us pray,” she told those beside her.
Three days later, Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes of the Armed Forces of the Philippines visited Mr. Rubio at the Infante Hospital in Isabela.
“How are you, Sir,” the general asked Mr. Rubio.
“I’m fine, thank you,” the school principal answered. “Where are the other hostages?”
“They’re in the hospital in Zamboanga,” General Reyes answered. “The priest was not fortunate.”
Tears filled Mr. Rubio’s eyes. It was only then that he realized the worst had happened. Father Rhoel had not made it.