To hell and back: Fr. Soganub reflects on Marawi ordeal

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 25) — For the past 23 years, Father Teresito "Chito" Soganub has dedicated his life carrying out the Church's mission in the Islamic City of Marawi, primarily promoting understanding and dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

His work was no easy task.

But nothing prepared Soganub for an experience that would literally make him go through hell when Marawi came under siege May 23 last year.

READ: Duterte to meet with rescued Catholic priest; says Sept. 21 to be a 'day of protest'

'Facing death every day'

"The most painful part were those of the hostages," Soganub explained. "Because (while) buildings were destroyed, they can be repaired....But the hostages, their inner beings were disturbed. And so, it's hard."

He described the harrowing experience as "facing death every day for 116 days."

READ: CBCP confirms Maute abduction of priest, other parish staffers

Of the six people, including himself, who were taken from the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora on the night of the attack, two young male college students who served as interns in the bishop's residence did not survive the ordeal.

He did not say how the two died.

They were eventually herded together with more than a hundred other hostages. They were constantly on the run, seeking shelter in structures that could protect them from the endless hail of bullets and rockets.

Every time he would narrowly escape death, like missing a bullet by a second, or fleeing to another location before their last hideout was bombed, he would always feel like giving up.

'Take this cup away from me'

"Puwede ba, tamaan Mo na lang ako, Lord? Kung tatamaan, deretso na lang ako mamatay," Soganub recalled his silent prayer.

[Translation: If You could let me be hit, Lord? If I get hit, let me die at once.]

But Soganub had to constantly remind himself, he was a man of God and that the other hostages were counting on him as their source of strength amid the most challenging time of their lives.

"Marami kaming hostages, 120. Pero kung pari ka, normal 'yun na mas mahirap (para) sa'yo," Soganub explained. "While I pity myself, naawa pa rin ako sa kanila, kung paano nila i-survive ito."

[Translation:There were a lot of hostages, 120. But if you're a priest, it's normal for it to be more difficult for you. While I pity myself, I pity them more. How will they survive this.]

READ: Palace condemns Maute plan to use hostages as suicide bombers

Soganub had to step up even if he was struggling to deal with his own burden.

"Dinala ko na lang lahat dahil pari ako. Kaya, kailangan maging totoo ako doon sa - my faith (in) God," Soganub said.

[Translation: I took everything in because I am a priest. So I have to be true to my faith in God.]

But even as a religious man, Soganub admitted the physical and mental hardships made him weak.

"Nahihirapan din 'yung spiritual sanity mo," he explained, "Nahirapan ka na kung anong gagawin mo, ano (ang) ipagdadasal mo."

[Translation: Your spiritual sanity suffers. It's difficult to decide on what to do, what you should pray for.]

Soganub said a number of them have developed Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps due to their prolonged interaction with Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters.

"Maawa ka o masasaktan ka, kung meron natatamaan sa kanila or namamatay. Dahil tao din sila. Saka kasa-kasama kami. Kasama kaming kumakain, isa kaming bahay, isa kaming higaan," he said.

[Translation:You get hurt or you feel pity, if one of them gets hurt or dies. Because they're people, too. And we were all together. We eat together, we share one house, we all sleep in one bed.]

He also confirmed reports he was made to gather "black powder" from pyrothecnics and unexploded government ordnance, which the armed men converted into improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The priest said he faced an ethical dilemma since he knew the IEDs would be used to harm or kill pursuing government forces. But he did it anyway.

"Wala ka namang choice. Just like anyone else, kung pinapagawa ka under duress," he said.

[Translation:We had no choice. Just like anyone else, you are made to work under duress.]

He also admitted to having "engagements" with Maute and Abu Sayyaf leaders, especially with the late Isnilon Hapilon, but pointed out these were limited to checking their conditions.

"They were not harsh to me," he said, adding he was instead asked to pray to Allah.

Soganub, however, denied being forced to convert to Islam while he was in custody.

READ: Palace on reported Maute-hostage swap: No negotiations with terrorists

More than six months since he regained his freedom, Soganub spoke to journalists on March 23, to help raise funds for Catholic organizations Aid to the Church in Need (ACN Philippines) and Duyog Marawi.

He says he would use his voice and his experience to draw the attention of donors and the public, to remind them of the plight of war victims, as well as help gather support and "re-establish harmony in Marawi."

READ: Fighting in Marawi City is over

Agony in Marawi

Looking back, Soganub compared his nearly four-month long ordeal in the hands of Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters to a Lenten reflection.

"Ito ang time na [This is the time that] the Lord wants me to join the Sorrowful Mystery. The Lord wants me to join the Stations of the Cross. The Lord wants me to join in the Seven Last Words," he said.

Now going through therapy and slowly trying to get back on his feet, Soganub continues to try to make sense of what he and Marawi City have been through.

He is constantly speaking about the need to overcome the wounds and pains the siege had caused, even if these remain "fresh and very real."

Soganub's discernment of what he has been through tells him he feels "privileged" that his ordeal was God's "final test of his faith."

"Mahirap at hindi ko gusto. On the other hand, parang privilege din ito na pagbigyan ka ng Panginoon, ng ganoong privilege - hindi mo kaya, pero kakayanin mo. It's a test, final test of your faith," Soganub told reporters, his voice breaking.

[Translation:It's difficult and I don't like it. On the other hand, it's like a privilege that God give you that privilege - it's trying but you go through it. It's a test, final test of your faith.]

During the press conference, Soganub wiped away tears several times.

The priest, now in his late 50s, believes through "prayers and miracles," God gave him a new lease on life to continue with his mission.

"Paglabas ko, maraming mga tao nagsasabi, 'kahit saan na simbahan, pinagdarasal ka father.' So, salamat."

[Translation: When I got out, a lot of people said 'a lot of people prayed for you in churches all over, father.' So, thank you.]