One Hostage's Escape from the Maute (Victory in Marawi, Part 2)

“They would brainwash us by saying that that if we escaped, the soldiers would only kill us."
IMAGE Bobby Lagsa

Iligan City, Northern MindanaoHis name was Rapsan. He was big burly tattooed man, covered in black from the boots on his feet to the mask he used to cover his face. He was draped in ammunition and wore them like accessories. There was a 45 caliber pistol strapped to each leg, grenades and bullets in his bandolier, and an armalite in his hands.

Diego Lapus* heard that Rapsan had just gotten out of jail for hijacking cars and who knows what else. Lapus remembers Rapsan most for the sadistic pleasure he took in tormenting him.

“He was always picking on me. He would hit me, punch me because I didn’t work fast enough. He would put a gun to my head or an armalite to my mouth and ask, ‘Do you want to live or die today?’ He would make me walk around and take aim with a gun, pretending to shoot,” said Lapus.


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Lapus, 24, has the demeanor of a quiet man, to whom emotions like anger or joy come in small doses. Everything about his body frame is narrow, lithe, and pointy—like his high cheekbones and angular jaw. He would be gaunt if not for the defined muscular cuts of his biceps.


He apologizes for his slightly halting speechhe had just learned Tagalog; Visaya is his native tongue. His face remains calm when he speaks of Rapsan but the tensing of the muscles in his neck and the clenching of his fists speak of his bottled up rage.

On October 23, exactly five months after ISIS- affiliated jihadists laid siege to the Islamic City of Marawi, the military declared the war officially over. Leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were shot dead and the last remaining 30 to 40 stragglers had been reportedly neutralized by government forces.

Rapsan may be dead by now. Lapus hopes not. “I wish he weren’t so I could be the one to kill him. I sometimes dream of stabbing him over and over again.”

Lapus was held captive by ISIS Maute fighters for three months. Every day of those three months, he only thought of one thing: escape.


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Held captive by ISIS
Lapus lives in Iligan, about an hour away from Marawi, but like many other people, he found better paying work in the Islamic City. He was one of the construction workers renovating a house owned by a prominent Muslim family in preparation for Ramadan.

They were 42 workers all in all, including women who worked in the canteen.

On May 23, from the third floor of the house that they were working on, Lapus saw a Hi-Lux flatbed truck loaded with what looked like guns and bombs. A man dressed all in black began shouting something in Arabic over a megaphone. Then chaos. People running for cover, men in black burning buildings and gunfire all around them.

The workers decided to hide in the building. It would just be a few days, they thoughtlike the usual clan wars and skirmishes that happened from time to time. Besides, there was no way out. Some people who had tried to escape came back saying ISIS had set up check points around the city. Some militant fighters were dressed as security forces and people were confused.


“Our boss was in contact with us and said we would be rescued but when the aerial bombing started, it was no longer possible,” recalled Lapus.

They took refuge in a building and lived on whatever food they found in the house and collected rain water for drinking. The food lasted a week. Lapus and the other hostages become weak and dizzy. If a bullet didn’t kill them, hunger surely would.

"Some of the other hostages began to believe them. I didn’t. My only thought was of escape.”

They hung a white scrap of cloth from a window to identify themselves as civilians waiting for rescue, but as the Maute began torching buildings around them, the white flag only exposed their hiding place.

On the ninth day, the Maute found them. A band of men in black rounded them up while three other men whom Lapus recognized as workers at a bakery were ordered to rummage through the house to look for food, guns and ammunition. Their cellphones were confiscated, the batteries taken out so they could not be tracked or traced, and their SIM cards destroyed.


The hostages were brought to the underground of a mosque which Lapus explained as being bigger than a basketball court. It had what looked like classrooms judging from the desks and chairs. There were well over 100 hostages, recalled Lapus, including priest Father Chito Suganob.

The men were put to work as cooks, cleaners or food runners. They were sent out to look for or deliver food to other militants with bombs tied around them. Escape was not an option during these food runs. The bombs could be detonated by remote. They were forced to take up guns and shoot at government forces.


“They would brainwash us by saying that that if we escaped, the soldiers would only kill us. Some of the other hostages began to believe them. I didn’t. My only thought was of escape.”

At night, Lapus and five other men were made to dig up graves to bury the dead fighters. “Those who died in the morning would have to be buried at night. Other fighters stood watch and I was always afraid that they would shoot us and throw us into the grave with their dead.”

One of the women who was may be 17 or 18 years old was always crying. She said she was raped by one of the rebels. When one of the leaders found out, he beat up the perpetrator and made the other hostages watch. There would be no mercy for anyone who stepped out of line.

“They thought I had died. My wife searched all the funeral homes for me. My parents had given up hope and were already holding novenas to pray for my soul. They thought I had come back from the dead.”

Lapus, with three other men from Zamboanga, escaped in August. One of them had stolen a cellphone from a cadaver on the road during a food run and used it to call his wife who in turn kept in contact with the Navy. The men slipped past sleeping ISIS guards and made a run for Lake Lanao.


Lapus, who is not such a good swimmer, used a drum as a floater. It took him two hours to swim about a kilometer of Lake Lanao to reach a Philippine Navy Outpost. “The water was so cold and smelly. The water lilies made me itch.”

He was the last to arrive. The other three men were already smoking cigarettes with the soldiers.

With the military, they first had to be processed which meant being stripped of their clothes and searched to make sure that they were not carrying or wearing any bombs. They were also interrogated. At first, Lapus didn’t tell the truth.

“What if, based on what I say, they will think I’m a Maute fighter, and shoot me? They were gruff in their questioning and had so many questions but the soldiers never hurt me. I understand that they had to make sure I wasn’t a Maute fighter. It’s not as if you could ask those questions nicely,” Lapus rationalized.


Finally, on August 12, Lapus was reunited with his family. His wife, his parents and in-laws were all there to meet him at the City Hall. Lapus shed tears when his three-year old daughter said to him, “Papa, you’ve come home.”

He was grateful to be alive. Lapus estimates that seven other workers who were taken hostage are still missing to this day. Numbers shared by the military indicate that more than 1,700 civilians were rescued; an estimated 47 died but many expect this number to increase as more bodies are recovered from the war zone and identified.

“They thought I had died. My wife searched all the funeral homes for me. My parents had given up hope and were already holding novenas to pray for my soul. They thought I had come back from the dead.”

Now, Lapus is settling back into his old life. There was no offer of psycho social support or counseling--not that he wanted it. “What would people around here say? They might think I’ve gone crazy because of what happened to me.”


Lapus just wants to move on and forget.  

Most of the time, he drinks. “I can still control myself so I don’t think it’s a problem. But I need to drink so I can sleep.”

Sometimes, it is his friends and relatives that won’t let him. “When they see me, they will all say jokingly, ‘O, here comes the Maute” he said, a look of annoyance flashing across his face.

“It’s irritating. And it makes me nervous. What if someone hears them and begins to suspect me of being a Maute fighter? It’s still Martial Law here. What if I am suddenly arrested?”

To avoid the ribbing that has begun to grate on his nerves, he simply avoids his friends especially those he knows will ask the same prying questions that conjure up memories of the days when an ISIS fighter named Rapsan determined if he lived or died.

Most of the time, he drinks. “I can still control myself so I don’t think it’s a problem. But I need to drink so I can sleep.”


In his sleep, memories haunt his dreams. “Once, my wife jolted me awake because my body had gone rigid. She thought I was going to punch her. “

She had to remind him that she was his wife, and that he was finally home.

*Name has been changed to protect the individual.

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Ana P. Santos
An independent journalist based in Manila, Philippines. Her work focuses mainly on gender issues, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health.
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