Her military captors tried to break her will and her spirit, but she became stronger in the end.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – How did a 66-year old woman political prisoner combat her enemies inside prison walls? How did Angelina Bisuña Ipong remain whole after many hours of interrogation, sexual molestation and six years of detention?
Ipong, a former lay missionary and peace advocate was taken by combined elements of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and Southern Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on March 8, 2005 in Lumbayao village, Aloran, Misamis Occidental.
Ipong was slapped with a string of trumped-up charges, including arson, double frustrated murder and frustrated murder. All of these charges were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence. She was released from Misamis Occidental Provincial Jail in Oroquieta City last Feb. 17.
“I am very happy to be with you today,” a smiling Ipong greeted her supporters and colleagues in a simple get-together at the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) office in Quezon City. “Prison walls and barbed wires can only imprison the body but not our principles.”
Ipong admitted that at first, she felt fear of the unknown and of death. For 14 days, she was held incommunicado and nobody among her family and colleagues knew where she was. She was first brought to the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Tabak Division of the Philippine Army in Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur.
“I was tortured. My captors beat me up. The worst part was when they stripped me. I am already old and I’m a woman,” she said, adding that she could not do anything at that time because her hands were tied and she was blindfolded. Ipong was 60 years old at the time of her arrest.
“My fear was enormous but when I have come to overcome it, I grew stronger,” she said.
For 12 days, she went on hunger strike. “I refused to eat, taking only water. I remembered what Ernie Baron said about water therapy,” Ipong said, laughing. “It [hunger strike] became my weapon. They [soldiers] were afraid that I would die, they would offer me food. I told them what I want is my freedom and respect for my rights.”
Ipong was later transferred to the camp of the Southern Command. There, she endured long hours of interrogation. Later on, Ipong was transferred to a regular detention facility in Pagadian City.
At the Pagadian Reformatory Jail, Ipong shared a cell with eight inmates. She was the only political prisoner. Others are facing drug-related cases and minor crimes such as theft.
“My blood pressure shot up. I think it was stress-related. It was noisy and suffocating inside the cell. It took time before I adjusted,” Ipong recalled. Upon her request, she was allowed to sleep inside the chapel. “I was able to breathe fresh air. I saw a vacant space and thought of gardening.
‘Bloom Where You are Planted’
Ipong then started planting, and invited her fellow inmates to do the same. Together, they cultivated an organic vegetable garden. They grew cucumber, tomatoes, onion, pechay and other vegetables. “Planting became our regular exercise and we were able to eat nutritious food,” Ipong said.
Later, the garden became a source of livelihood for the detainees as they were able to sell some of their produce.
Ipong also made cards. She would press flowers and let it dry. Her cards were sold by her supporters for a minimum amount.
Ipong and her inmates also ventured into a small garments business. They had an old sewing machine fixed. They sewed pajama, shorts and other clothes. The livelihood projects, said Ipong, financed their daily needs. More importantly, these activities made Ipong fight boredom, self-pity and other negative emotions.
“Bloom where you are planted,” Ipong said. “If you let yourself to be engulfed by self-pity, sadness or boredom, the enemy would prevail.”
“It would be better if I could escape but because I could not, I looked for ways to be productive,” she added. Those “small things” have kept her whole and fighting. “The prison is but an extension of what is happening outside.”
She spent more than four years in Pagadian City before she was transferred to Misamis Occidental. She left behind the garden that she nourished and the friends she earned in prison with a heavy heart.
Better Conditions for Detainees
At the Misamis Occidental Provincial Jail, Ipong joined 13 other political detainees. There, she transformed a garbage area into a vegetable garden and also taught inmates how to sew. She solicited three sewing machines from an international NGO.
For the first time, too, the inmates at that detention facility, held a Christmas party last December. “we were all very happy,” said Ipong. One inmate even told her: “It’s like we are not prisoners.”
Ipong and the other political detainees also started a literacy program inside the jail. Ipong, a natural teacher, also taught values education and women’s rights, among others. They also campaigned for better conditions such as adding another visiting day, extending days for sun exposure, better food for prisoners, among others.
These small things, said Ipong, have helped the detainees, especially those who could not be visited by their loved ones. “Comprehensive ministry is important for prisoners. More than food and supplies, what they need are counseling, possibilities for livelihood to keep them busy and assistance with their cases,” she said.
Freedom came unexpectedly, said Ipong. Although most of the charges filed against Ipong were on their way to resolution, she had been waiting for so long for her release.
One day, not a visiting day, her lawyer Emil Deleverio went to jail. When she saw him, she already knew the good news.
Ipong said she spent her first hours of freedom with her family and relatives who supported her all throughout her detention.
Asked about her plans, Ipong said she would continue teaching women of their rights. “We need to empower women and other sectors, too so that they can contribute to building a better society,” Ipong said.