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Philippine Daily Inquirer: Random act of kindness saved Pinoy in Nigeria

Volt Contreras
IT WAS WHAT ANY PRUDENT person in a strange and restive land would have done.
And Anthony Santos, a 36-year-old Filipino worker then stationed in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta State, did accordingly when a group of weary fishermen stopped by his company barge one day.
The group asked Anthony if he could spare some food-and soon enough he was handing over slices of bread from the vessel's stock.
It was a random act of kindness in just another encounter with the impoverished locals in Anthony's two years of working in the Niger Delta. He had actually forgotten all about it.
Until a black-masked man wielding a machine gun reminded him last month.
On Feb. 18, a militant group opposing oil activities in the Niger Delta abducted Anthony and eight other foreigners employed by the US oil service firm Willbros, holding them hostage in a jungle hideaway for almost two weeks.
The other captives were three Americans, two Britons, two Thais and an Egyptian.
A subplot unfolded beneath the international crisis, showing how the Filipino knack for making friends and generating goodwill served Anthony well during this chilling episode in his life as an overseas worker.
One of the kidnappers, it turned out, was also one of the famished fishermen whom Anthony had helped.
The man recognized Anthony among the captives, and assured the Filipino that “nobody among the other kidnappers could touch him,” according to accounts gathered by the Inquirer from the Department of Foreign Affairs and from Anthony's wife Helen.
He regarded Anthony as someone he should “protect” in case his comrades decided to make good their threat to torture or kill any of the hostages.
The Philippine Embassy in Abuja spoke with Anthony shortly after he was released by his abductors on March 1.
The embassy reported: “Anthony revealed that a small gesture of his in the past helped sustain him in the difficult and tense moments [of his] captivity.
“It was discovered that he had given food to some fisher folk who passed by their barge months before, and it just so happened that one of the beneficiaries of his act of charity [was] one of the kidnappers.”
The embassy said one kidnapper “safeguarded Anthony the whole time and spared him from any injury.”
It said the young man told Anthony that the other kidnappers might have to kill him first before they got to the Filipino.
Anthony thus felt “restless on the days when his friend was not around,” the embassy said.
How it happened
The kidnappers were mainly youths in their 20s belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Per the embassy report, Anthony and his coworkers were kidnapped “in retaliation” for the Nigerian military's bombardment of tribal communities suspected of illegal bunkering operations.
At the time of the kidnapping, the Willbros crew was conducting pipe-laying operations around a Shell oil terminal in Warri City.
The heavily armed MEND militants forced their way into the Willbros barge at about 8 a.m. of Feb. 18. Anthony, who had worked the night shift, was awakened by gunshots.
He and his coworkers were ordered to board a speedboat. About an hour later they found themselves in a forested area near a swamp, where they were held in a “camp” that was powered by an electric generator and had a television set.
Anthony, a father of two, returned to Manila on March 4, or three days after he and five of the other hostages were freed.
The Inquirer reached the family home in Olongapo City but Helen Santos took the call, saying her husband was still too “traumatized” to talk about his ordeal.
She said he had been seeing a psychiatrist since his homecoming.
Nevertheless, Helen agreed to share what Anthony had so far told her.
Contrary to earlier reports that the hostages were not physically harmed, Anthony was actually “hit hard on the right ear” during the abduction.
He is also being treated for that injury, which left him hard of hearing during his days in captivity.
Anthony had forgotten about giving food to a group of fishermen until one of the kidnappers barked at him: “I recognize you!”
Helen confirmed the embassy report about the “friendly” militant offering to be killed first before the others could lay a hand on her husband.
The kidnapper-who appeared to be the group leader-made sure that his brothers in arms knew the little history he shared with the Filipino hostage.
This somehow helped Anthony cope with the psychological torment that he and the others were forced to endure.
For example, the kidnappers often cleaned their guns or fired a few test rounds in front of the hostages, playfully pointing the firearms in the latter's direction.
The kidnappers also spoke loudly in broken English about the plan to blindfold the hostages, hang them from a tree, and shoot them.
“But after a few minutes, they would say they would not really do it,” Helen said.
The hostages were fed-usually eggs or noodles-twice a day. They were given new clothes on their third day in the camp.
On the day Anthony was released, his “friend” was not in the camp. Thus, no goodbyes were said.
Anthony got his name but would not disclose it for security reasons, Helen said.
“Filipinos, I heard, are actually well-liked by the local people in those parts,” Helen said. “Perhaps my husband, who can pass for a Mexican, was only dragged into this because he was mistaken for a member of another foreign nationality.”
She said her own father, younger brother and a brother-in-law were still working with Anthony's firm in Nigeria.
Anthony himself told airport reporters that he was willing to go back to work in the West African nation despite what had happened, to be able to continue supporting his family.
Before working overseas for the last 12 years, Anthony was a crew member of a doughnut shop in Dau, Pampanga. The shop closed in the wake of the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions.
He also previously worked for construction firms in Dubai in the Middle East, and in Louisiana in the United States.
Wherever his next stint will be, Anthony has more than a survivor's tale to tell and a battered ear to show from his days in Nigeria.
“He said so himself: It seems like any thing good you have done, no matter how small, finds a way to give you something in return,” Helen said.

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