Prayers kept us alive."
Thus said SN1 Rod Alain Pagaling as he and SN2 Gringo Villaruz, both of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), recounted their four-month harrowing ordeal in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
Pagaling and Villaruz, who were abducted in Dapitan City, Zamboanga del Norte, in May. They managed to escape from their captors in Sulu on Wednesday during a military operation to rescue them.
"What we went through was very difficult. We just prayed to God to keep us alive," Pagaling told reporters upon their arrival in Manila from Zamboanga.
Pagaling became emotional as he was welcomed at the PCG headquarters in Manila by his wife Judith and three-year-old daughter Allaina, who travelled from Cagayan de Oro.
Villaruz's family was expected to arrive in Manila yesterday afternoon as their fllght from Dipolog City was delayed due to bad weather.
Also present to welcome Pagaling and Villaruz, who were both sporting long beards, were their PCG colleagues, Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and PCG officials led by PCG Commandant Adm. Rodolofo Isorena.
In a brief interview, Pagaling said they saw the opportunity to escape during the firefight between the Abu Sayyaf and the government troops which started at around 5 p.m. on Wednesday.
"They lost focus on us. We got separated, he (Villaruz) saw a hole while I fell off a cliff," Pagaling said in Filipino. Villaruz said they just kept on running until they were finally safe.
"We just kept on running. The fighting was so intense. There was no time to think hard. We just kept on running while there was chaos all around," he said, adding that there were around 200 ASG members at the hideout before the gun battle.
The two Coast Guard men were later rescued an hour apart in Indanan, Sulu. They only saw each other Thursday at a local military hospital.
Pagaling and Villaruz were abducted in Dapitan City in Zamboanga del Norte on May 4, along with Aliguay barangay chairman Rodolfo Boligao, whose decapitated body was found by police in Maimbung, Sulu last Aug. 11.
Pagaling said they only learned of Boligao's death on Thursday following their escape, saying the barangay chair was held separately from them.
A source at the PCG said the abductors were in police uniforms when they took their hostages in Dapitan last May 4.
"According to them, they went from one place to another using motorboats, at one point staying in an island, until they were taken to a jungle," the source said.
"The Abu Sayyaf practically made them 'strikers' making them do most of the errands, they cook, they carry things. They practically did everything the Abu Sayyaf ordered them to do. Nakisama silang mabuti," the source added.
"But they earlier agreed that they would really escape should there be an encounter. Bahala na si Lord, sabi nila," the source said. Isorena said that Pagaling and Villaruz would undergo debriefing and take a rest before they go back to work.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, denied they paid ransom to the Abu Sayyaf in exchange for the freedom of their two personnel. "Definitely no, kasi may no ransom policy ang government," Isorena told reporters.