I knew of Merlie “Milet” B. Mendoza 10 years ago, before she knew me. The evil kidnapping menace was rampant then, in Metro Manila as well as in Mindanao. Mendoza was abducted and held for 61 days, together with her fellow social worker, Esperancita “Espie” Hupida, in Basilan on Sept. 15, 2008.
Both of them were working for depressed communities in Mindanao at that time. Her twin sister, Mirali “Choy” Mendoza, sought help from our group, Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order. We told her frankly that our tried and tested strategy works only for kidnap-for-ransom victims in Luzon and Metro Manila but does not work in Mindanao. We, however, monitored developments through the anti-kidnapping task force, then known as Police Anti-Crime Emergency Response or PACER.
Other people would easily have given up after the traumatic ordeal of being hostaged for 61 days (see sidebar story on her powerlessness), but not Mendoza. She rose where she fell and even did much more. She continues to go back and forth to Jolo, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, to work with and for the indigents, marginalized and depressed communities. She got involved in those communities while working with Tabang Mindanaw through the Assisi Development Foundation, Inc.
She continues to be engaged in humanitarian, peace and development work, which takes her to the halls of Malacañang Palace as one of the convenors of the peace process, to local and international fora, to rebels’, police and military camps and many less traveled areas in the country. She teaches social work and is a regionally recognized expert, trainer and practitioner on disaster risk reduction and management.
Her own journal of her harrowing abduction experience is a compelling read. The entire piece was published in Mindanews edited by Carol Arguillas and a portion published as “Post Lenten Reflection – My Captivity Story” published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer Easter Sunday (2009).
In it, her recollections of the ordeal, her personal recovery after release, her insight into the work attitudes of her captors and our own government forces, offer deep understanding and sharp analyses of the greater picture of the constant menace that has a stranglehold on our southern provinces.
Through it, there is an undercurrent of deep compassion for the characters and personalities involved, offering a balanced view from both sides of the bandits’ camp: within, and in society at large.
It was a lucid account of her personal journey from hope in the early days of captivity that she would soon be rescued, to despair then emptiness and powerlessness, when days, weeks, months passed without any glimmer of being saved.
Her resilient spirit kept her going, as she noted in her journal, that in her emptiness, fear and despair, drained of any sense of self, she found God and allowed His love to fill her emptiness. This sustained her, she recounts.
She notes similarities between people in the villages and towns and in her captors’ community. The families in the Abu Sayyaf camp where she was held contained the beauty of relationships between husbands and wives: the sharing of domestic chores, such as cooking and laundry, the fears of the wives with young children, that trouble between their group and the military can only spell danger for the families and perhaps death for their men.
Similar fears reside outside that community, where villagers fear that clashes with the Abu Sayyaf would lead to danger, fighting, killings and displacement.
“More importantly, Mendoza observes the lack of support from the national and local government for those victims rescued from, or released by, their abductors. Worse, politicians often show up for self-serving media mileage, ignoring victims’ need for quiet time and recovery from trauma and insist on photo shoots with media.”
The presence of kidnappings is proof that those on the public payroll are not doing their jobs very well basically due to lack of coordination.
In the end, it was a private individual who reached and spoke with the Abu Sayyaf commander for her release. They paid a much lower ransom than what was demanded, but they paid, the amount raised by friends.
On the other hand, the Abu Sayyaf play for high stakes. Its leaders demand “mag-focus kita 200 percent” from their followers. At stake is their goal to “generate the resources needed to strengthen their organization and advance their cause. (Thus) they live, breath and dream about kidnapping.” The focus is intense.
In the midst of these observations, Mendoza’s heart goes to the little people who have been kidnapped: school teachers, construction workers, farmers and others whose employment bring in meager salaries.
There is no safety net for them, nothing to help them recover from the violent disruption of kidnapping.
A true humanitarian, Mendoza’s harrowing experience has brought her closer to the place of her torture. After her own recovery from the trauma, she returned to Mindanao to continue her work for peace and development. It is an undertaking she began 25 years ago.
She now has deep empathy for the victims, and a deeper realization of their needs after rescue, and the failure of society and government in meeting those needs.
Her two current advocacies are with the AKAP orphans of extra judicial killings in the anti-drugs war, victims in the Diocese of Novaliches in Quezon City and north Caloocan, as well as documenting the cases of children of war wherever they are.
For this, she was chosen to be the 2018 recipient of the award from Lawrence Trust Fund for Volunteers.
Involvement and occupation
Since 1989, during the administration of the late president Corazon Aquino, Mendoza served for a decade in various presidential departments, including the Peace Commission and the National Unification Commission.
She then assisted the government peace negotiating panel for talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front, organizing peace consultations to understand the issues facing those in conflict areas.
From 1998 to 2007, she was executive coordinator of Tabang Mindanaw (Help Mindanao), a multi-sectoral coalition of business foundations, church-based social action networks and civil society groups for peace and human security programs for the marginalized sectors in Mindanao.
While also coordinating the Assisi Foundation’s Free the Indigenous Peoples Program, a legal assistance organization affiliated with the Ateneo Human Rights Center, Mendoza facilitated the release of 12 indigenous people unjustly imprisoned for life.
From 2008 to the present, Mendoza independently continues her peace building and social development engagement in Mindanao, and remains actively engaged in institutional policy engagement, including the internal security reforms of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Mendoza sees the good in the hearts of people in Mindanao, Muslims, Christians and Lumads alike, and continues to believe firmly that the promise of peace can be achieved only if each person realizes the need to take individual responsibility for making it happen.
Mendoza has been invited to speak at various international and local fora – including twice at the United Nations General Assembly – to share her ground-based experience in humanitarian work and peace building in complex environments, and has also facilitated and organized trainings related to the subject.
Mindanao in her heart
Mendoza is a founding member of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network in 2002 and was an Executive Committee member until 2013.
The network is an alliance of more than 30 national and local humanitarian and social development nongovernmental organizations in 16 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, where more than half of the world’s disasters have occurred over the past 50 years. She co-authored ADRRN’s first publication “Challenges to Human Security in Complex Situations: The Case of Conflict in the Southern Philippines.”
She has carried out research projects on peace building and humanitarianism for the Consuelo Foundation, the Asia Foundation, the Manila Observatory, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and others. She is an on-call faculty and resource person of Miriam College, Department of Social Work, where she coordinated the annual Humanitarian Executive Course Series until 2016.
She currently consults with the AFP Office of the Army on Gender and Development in the review of operational protocols towards gender and culture sensitivity.
Her commitment to those affected and displaced by any disaster has been a common thread in her work.
“Peacemaking and conflict management go beyond the rational,” she believes. “They touch on the sacred and the divine. It is a combination of art and a science. It is about goodness.”
This cover story on Merlie Mendoza is based from an interview published by Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice and culled from a personal account published by Asia Mindanaw (2014), a publication of the Research Center of Ateneo de Zamboanga University, edited by Albert E. Alejo, SJ.—Ed.