POSTSCRIPT / December 30, 2021 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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PH envoys’ suicide pact in Iraq bared

SIX Filipino diplomats in Baghdad agreed at the height of the ISIS rampage in Iraq in 2015 that in defending the embassy in the besieged capital they would rather die fighting, or even commit suicide, than be captured alive and publicly executed by the marauding jihadists.

The agreement to fight to the death was disclosed by Consul General Elmer G. Cato, one of the six diplomats, in a program on Dec. 10 marking the 125th anniversary today of the martyrdom of Jose Rizal with focus on his writings in La Solidaridad that first saw print in 1889 in Barcelona.

The Knights of Rizal New York Chapter and the Philippine Consulate General organized the program featuring the works of Pulitzer Prize winner photo-journalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer, and the recollections of Cato, a former journalist, of the conflicts in Libya and Baghdad.

The program honoring the two journalists was led by KOR-NY Mariano Aquino Jr., Dr. Romulo Aromin Jr., Rogelio Penaverde and Aprille Aquino, in cooperation with NY-based nonprofit Eagle Eye Charities Inc. whose president is Dr. Aromin.

Diaz Meyer, who immigrated to the US with her family in 1981, was one of the few female photographers to cover the early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.

The 53-year-old Fil-Am journalist has also been acclaimed for her documentation of the adversities facing women around the world. In addition to her coverage of world events and issues, she lectures widely.

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CATO was serving at the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC, in 2015 when he volunteered for duty in Baghdad as chargé d’affaires en pied. Five days after he arrived in May, an ISIS car bomber blew himself up in front of the hotel where he was staying.

After three years in Iraq, he offered to serve in another conflict zone, Libya, where he headed the mission for two years. In both assignments, his focus was to locate and assist Filipino workers in distress.

Embassy personnel in Tripoli braved rocket and artillery barrages to look after Filipinos there when civil war broke out in 2019. This was complicated by the pandemic, but they managed to move more than 300 Filipinos to safety.

Of Baghdad, Cato said: “On the average, ISIS carried out five bomb attacks daily at that time. Five days after I arrived, one such attack targeted the Babylon Warwick Hotel where I was billeted. I was in the hotel when it happened. More than 20 Filipinos working there survived. Ten individuals did not.

At some point in the embassy’s planning against possible attacks on the chancery in Baghdad, Cato said that he and five fellow diplomats have agreed to not allow themselves to be captured, taken hostage and displayed by ISIS before decapitation.

“We all agreed to take our own lives, reserving the last round of the guns issued to us and shoot ourselves in the head,” he said. It seems that their agreement was never reported in the media, to higher authorities, nor to the home office, and not even to the diplomats’ families.

Cato explained to us later that Baghdad was a “non-family post”. “It was one of the most dangerous cities in the world at that time,” he said. “ISIS was then already in the city of Ramadi, about an hour and 30 minutes from Baghdad, and the capital was also creeping with ISIS sleeper cells.”

“The Philippines was among a handful of countries that kept their embassies open. The instruction from Manila was to keep the embassy open and to make sure we get to respond to requests for assistance from distressed Filipinos who were still there.

“We knew diplomats and embassies are high-value targets. We had to make sure we were prepared for the possibility that the chancery would be stormed. ISIS would certainly want to make a spectacle – a pro-western embassy in flames and its diplomats either dead or taken hostage for beheading in front of the camera later.”

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CATO recalled: “Before I took in Vice Consul Jom Sadie, a fellow Angeleño from Holy Angel University, I messaged him: ‘Iraq is not for everyone. We are all on death row. All of us here.’

“There were six of us diplomats from Manila, the others being Vice Consul Andrei Bauzon (who was replaced a few months later by Vice Consul Sadie), Lito Ruedas, Jerome Friaz, Richard Billedo, and Joji Adaya. We had three Iraqi drivers and a small detachment of Iraqi diplomatic police outside the chancery which was surrounded by anti-blast walls and sandbags.

“Unlike other embassies, we had no security officers from the Armed Forces or the Philippine National Police. We did have some firearms that were left by Filipino troops who had served under the American-led coalition in Iraq.

“It was over dinner when we posed the question to ourselves: ‘What will happen if ISIS storms the chancery?”

“I told them I will fight. They said they will, too. I told them whatever happens I will not be captured alive. I said I will reserve the last round of my firearm and shoot myself in the head than be taken. They said they will do the same.

“If I would not be able to do it in case I was wounded or ran out of ammunition, I told them to shoot me. I cannot be taken and seen later on television in an orange jumpsuit begging for my life. They said that is what they also wanted. None of us will be taken alive.

“We had a similar conversation when Vice Consul Sadie arrived a few months later.

“By then we had moved to a new chancery but the scenario remained the same, especially when ISIS affiliates in the Philippines attacked Marawi.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 30, 2021)

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