In 2009, my family opened a computer shop in a low-income neighborhood in Las Piñas. My sister opened the shop because we wanted to somehow teach kids computer literacy. I was 21, and I spent my time there when I wasn't studying in one of the colleges in Manila. I'd always felt like an outsider, and I had nothing much going in life aside from school and playing computer games in the shop.
The night of April 15, 2009 was one of those nights where people stayed late and just hung out in the shop. At around 11:30 pm, people started leaving. The only people left there were me, a computer technician, a security guard, my best friend, and my sister.
When five men with pistols entered the shop, I was coming out of the bathroom with my backpack. It happened fast—they held the security guard at gunpoint. They told everyone to all go into the bathroom. Tensions were high, but everyone obliged and kept calm – thinking it was a routine robbery.
I turned around and dumped my backpack in the corner of the comfort room. It had a Swiss Army Knife, a laptop, and some other stuff, and I hid it in the corner. The men took everyone's phones, and started ransacking our cash box.
"Come with us," they told my sister.
"What do you mean?" I asked, in shock. Wasn't this just meant to be a robbery? But then it dawned on me, there were five of them—that's a lot of people trying to get cash from a simple computer shop. "Hey that's my sister!" I yelled when I saw them grabbing her.
"Really? Maybe you want to take her place," said one of them. I obliged.
They locked her and the other three people in the shop's bathroom, saying that if they tried to escape, a hand grenade would explode. After emptying our cash box, they put me in our family car. I was seated in the backseat between two of the men. By then, I was fucking terrified.
The guy on my left started coordinating and telling everyone where we’d go. The guy behind the wheel turned the car on but we didn’t move. He didn’t know how to drive an automatic car. So I did what I thought was the most logical thing—instruct my would-be kidnappers how to drive our Honda Civic with automatic transmission.
I could sense they were driving north. They had me put on a pair of sunglasses with masking tape over the lenses. I could still see through the sunglasses because of the gaps along the bridge of my nose.
"Where are we going? What’s happening?" I asked. I continued asking questions, holding their wrists as I did it. I thought this way, I could anticipate if they were to move their arms to point their guns at me and pull the trigger.
I told them I had a heart problem. I figured If I presented myself as non-threatening and if they recognized their authority over me, they would treat me better. They started asking questions: How much money does my family have? What do we do? I told them that my family didn't have much. We took a bank loan to fund the shop. The cars parked outside the shop weren't ours. I told them I went to a public university.
We arrived in Norzagaray, Bulacan about 70 kilometres from the shop but of course, I only found this out much later. They kept me here, in a room, overnight. They put me in a small corner where they had someone watching me. I sat on a chair with a piece of plywood boxing me into the corner of the wall. My adrenaline kept me from falling asleep. As I pretended to sleep, I listened to my captors talking about their plans, naming names I didn’t recognize. At around 6 am, they took me back to the car, and drove for almost 200 kilometres north, to Pangasinan.
We arrived at a new location, and this time I was locked inside a room – a makeshift cell. There was a bed in the middle of the room, and a shower caddy on one of the walls. I spotted a long nail in one corner of the room, and I kept it. This would be useful, I thought. I opened the school notebook that they gave me after I begged for one. I said I was an artist, and that drawing calmed me down. On the pages I saw names. They were names of the child who owned this book, the child's father, and other names. If they found out I saw these names, they would kill me right away, I thought. I tore that piece of paper out, and on another small piece of paper I wrote other names I could remember. I rolled the paper up and stuffed it in the flap of my shorts that I cut using the nail I found. I also kept small notes inside my shoes. Everything else in the notebook I flushed down the toilet.
I never thought this situation would happen to me. I thought this just happened to ultra-rich businessmen or the children of politicians or celebrities. Not some random dude from the south of Manila that had nothing to do with anything, to anyone. I had no enemies. I haven't done much with my life yet. If I died now, what did I live for? I said a little prayer. “God,” I said, “if you want me to survive, send your angels down.”
Inside the room, day and night, I tried to keep sane. I wrote. I did some origami. I did pushups and even tried shadowboxing a little, just in case I needed to fight someone. My five kidnappers were later joined by several others. I counted 10, maybe 11, different voices in total.
Each day, they kept saying that I would be released the next day. Each day I was fed leftovers that were covered in ants. I drank water that smelled like fish. Three days passed and nothing happened. They asked me how much my family could pay for my release, and they were telling me to just tell my dad to pay.
They forced me to call my dad to transfer them money for my release, so I did. I talked to my dad in Tagalog. My father knew I don’t normally talk to him in Tagalog which showed that they were telling me what to say. They were asking for 20 million Philippine pesos, or almost $500,000 USD.
I thought about escaping a few times. The first was in the first car ride, where I thought I could open the car door fast enough to jump out and shout for help. The second was in the Bulacan safe house, where there was a .38 pistol in arms reach.
The third was when the door of my room suddenly swung open. A young child slowly peered in and saw me. He looked puzzled, probably wondering who I was and what I was doing there. I assumed that the notebook the men gave me was originally his. If I left and went out right now, to what I assume was the middle of nowhere, how was anyone going to find me? We’d driven so far from where I originally was. I was surrounded by rice paddies and carabaos, so far from the city. How could anyone find me? After some time he left, and I closed the door.
I could never imagine what tomorrow would bring. I was promised I was going to be released by tomorrow. Tomorrow would come, nothing would happen, and they would promise again. This went on and on and on. The dread was sickening. I wondered what would happen to me.
I tried to build a relationship with my kidnappers. One guy was baptized by Mormons, one was in the military because we both talked about guns. One was fat and loved to talk, another was quiet and had a mustache. Getting to know them helped me believe that they would let me come out of this alive.
I learned that some of the men were growing irate with the five men who kidnapped me from the shop. They were nervous the five men were cheating them out of the money promised to them. They were right. It was getting dicey.
On April 19, at around 6 am, 4 days since my kidnapping, I noticed the men who I was trying to befriend were acting strange. They weren't talking to me as usual. I figured something went wrong, or something was about to happen.
I wrapped the nail that I took with a piece of cloth, and tucked it between my knuckles. Then I waited by the door.
I thought of all the ways they would kill me when they entered the door. Nothing happened. What do you do when you’re ready to face death and nothing happens? I gave up and started to lie down on the bed.
There was silence. Then, a sharp barrage of noise. Gunshots. I panicked. I pushed the bed towards the door to block anyone from entering.
"They’re here! They’re coming!" several men shouted in Filipino.
I could hear people rushing into the house, knocking over tables and cabinets. The sound of gunshots didn't stop. Then someone barged in wearing a plain shirt and jeans and pointed a rifle at me. “Who the fuck are you? Hands on the ground!” he shouted.
“I’m Julian! I’m Julian!”
“You’re Julian?" the man said. "Come with me."
I grabbed my shoes, and he pulled me out of the room.
Outside, five bodies were lying on the floor. They were the people I was talking to just the day before. My kidnappers. I was escorted to a car while the gunshots went on.
I assumed this person who grabbed me was yet another kidnapper, part of the network of people who initially took me. I followed in fear, not wanting to further agitate him, especially after what I saw he had done to the other kidnappers.
When I entered the car, it was full of guns. Someone in the car introduced himself as a member of the Special Actions Force in behalf of the Police Anti- Crime and Emergency Response. It had been a rescue operation.
We drove away for 6 hours to Makati, where I reunited with my family. They told me what happened after I was kidnapped.
After the kidnappers left with me, those left in the computer shop used my Swiss Army Knife to shimmy out of the bathroom and find help. Eventually, my father and my brother got the police to track me down. When the police had intel of my whereabouts, my father gave the approval to the police to get me back.
It turned out I wasn't the only victim. With my family's help, the police performed a string of operations to take down the affiliates of my kidnappers, the fragments of a kidnapping syndicate. Before me, they'd held other people in the same makeshift cell I was in. Soon, my kidnappers and people like them were all over the news.
Afterwards, my family and I were afflicted by paralyzing paranoia. We came home to a Metro Manila without any semblance of feeling safe, where we always had to look over our shoulders. We kept tabs on each other at all times through texts and calls. I became the head of security for my family. I made a documentary film about kidnapping in the Philippines based on the experience of others and my own.
Since then, I've given several talks on my experience and on what to do when something similar happens to you in behalf of the police. We initiated a lot of campaigns to promote anti-kidnapping and to find support for people who were kidnapped before and the loved ones of those left behind.
After two years, I still suffered from depression because of the trauma, which I mitigate through my line of work. Today, I head an initiative that fights plastic pollution. My stress and paranoia with other human beings, a decade later, transformed into a love of the outdoors, and a way to sometimes get away from people. I’ve become an advocate for survivalism. While I was held for ransom I was broken down as an individual, like a jar that was smashed to the ground. It was hard to rebuild. But after all that, it's like I was tempered back to a stronger, more resilient version of me.
I remember the people who took me from the computer shop. They were shaking while they held their guns. I think of the people who died when I was rescued. They all had families.
In a way, my kidnapping was the best thing that happened to me. It led me to an existential crisis. While what they did to my family and I was evil, I realized that the circumstances of these people who are forced to become kidnappers to make a living is due to a lack of education, opportunities, and care. By addressing the root cause of all this, I hope we can solve the issue down the line.
While going through the phone belonging to one of the dead captors, the police found a text. It said: "Kill the pig," referring to me. April 19 would have probably been my last day alive, if the police didn't come on time.