MANILA, Philippines - Three months after being released by her abductors in Sulu province and two weeks before the end of her suspension from news network ABS-CBN, broadcast journalist Ces Oreña Drilon is ready to get back on track with her interrupted life.
Friends say she?s never looked better, her skin has cleared up after nine days in the jungle, and, at 46, she looks youthful in her new short asymmetric hairstyle.
Early this week, she had a video taping for the new publicity campaign for ?Bandila,? the late-night news program she will co-host starting Oct. 11. She has been busy meeting people, doing dinners with family and friends, and especially with her sons?a rare happening since she began her career as TV reporter in mid-?80s.
Those who know Drilon from those days agree that she?s the real thing: a dedicated news reporter who will pursue stories wherever they are and whatever they may be. In the ABS-CBN newsroom, which she joined as a Senate reporter in 1989, she is known for her 14-hour days.
She starts as early as 9 a.m. and sometimes doesn?t leave until midnight. Her colleagues respect her for arranging and conducting her own interviews, for being a multitasker and writing her own stories, even after she started hosting her own shows.
These, of course, were the same traits that landed her in a kidnapping crisis last June.
In pursuit of a scoop, she flew to Mindanao to interview Radulan Sahiron, a former MNLF warrior and the supposed new amir of the Abu Sayyaf group.
?My mistake was in being so naïve in hoping that the man I was to interview would present a different view of the Abu Sayyaf. I was wrong. Apparently the message never even got to him. Greed and hatred got in the way. If we are to believe the commander in charge, he just decided to form a team to kidnap us for ransom,? writes Drilon in her story for the current edition of Metro HIM magazine, where she goes in detail about her days in captivity.
?The Muslims? quest for self-determination has been a running story I had been covering since I began my career as a journalist almost 25 years ago,? says Drilon, whose late father, a lieutenant colonel in the Philippine Army, served as a battalion commander in the South.
Through the nine days she was held in the jungle, Drilon was surrounded only by men. ?My only encounter with women was on the second day when we walked through a small community atop a mountain. I would look into their eyes as if begging for help, our kidnappers forbidding us from uttering a word,? she writes in the magazine.
Today, she tells Inquirer she was advised by a psychologist to use the experience in a positive way. ?I love how she said that the experience allowed me the opportunity to look into my wiser and deeper self. She said that I must develop the ability to tap into the deeper and wiser me, and to strive for an internal way of living,? says Drilon.
Drilon reflects on her experience and shares how she is coping with life after the kidnapping.
Is three months enough time to look back at your experience and put what has happened into context? Or are you still processing it?
My experience while in captivity was certainly a life-changing event. While I was prepared for the consequences of my actions and determined to accept accountability for having defied my boss Charie Villa?s instructions, I was initially shocked at the three-month suspension meted out on me. But looking back now, as I am about to return to work, I realize I really needed the time to heal, to assess my life and my career as a journalist, to even pause and smell the flowers.
Accepting accountability is the only way I can claim my profession back. As a journalist, our job is to hold people in public office accountable for their actions, and I must be able to demonstrate that I am accountable for my actions as well.
What lessons have you learned from it, as journalist?
While it was a very fearful experience, I still have the passion to pursue stories in conflict areas, to delve deeper into stories that affect Filipinos as a people, to search for answers in our quest for a better life. I think that is the calling of a journalist. The experience, however, has also taught me the important lesson of being more prudent and discriminating in the choice of my sources.
The experience, however, brought me face to face with the plight of the Muslims. I saw how even children have come to bear arms to fight. The experience, I think, arms me with more sensitivity and empathy as a journalist, not for the bandits but for the circumstances of the downtrodden that drive them to desperation.
How about as a mother?
My sons and my family (mother, brother and sisters) have sacrificed greatly while I would go on field work as a reporter and leave home for days on end. I have taken them for granted in many ways. When I came back I also learned that strong and independent as I am, I need their love and care. I have come to cherish them more for that.
And as a person?
I discovered the well of strength I had as a person and the ability to still be in control in a situation where all seemed hopeless. I realized that I am an optimist as a person. I learned that in the midst of evil, there is always good. I learned that I am not invincible and must surrender to the love and care of other people. I learned that decisions I make affect my loved ones.
Do you think some of these lessons could only have been learned through this experience?
The adage that you never realize the value of something until you almost lose it is so true, in the case of my captivity. During our captivity, I had prepared myself to be ready for death and to take it calmly. Life is so short and can take such a tragic turn. My sons nearly lost me. There were painful realizations which I may not have made, had I not been taken captive.
On your release, you described your experience as humbling. Looking back now, how else would you describe it? How will it influence you now as a journalist?
I was humbled by the prayers said for my safety, from my colleagues, family, friends to total strangers! When I walk around the mall, I am approached by people who had prayed for me, to ask how I am, to convey their sympathy. It is just so touching and enriching. I feel a greater sense of responsibility, more than ever, to be a better journalist, to pursue stories our viewers need to know. To be more prudent but to still have the same zeal in going after a story, to help viewers crystallize their views on issues that affect their lives... I owe this to the many, many viewers who wished for my safety.
Apart from prayers, how did you cope in the jungle?
I kept a journal where I poured not only my observations about our captors and our surroundings, but also my emotions and fears. I would reach for my journal when frustration and fear would be almost unbearable. I also fed a curiosity about our surroundings. I laugh now with Jimmy when I recall how I would watch giant ants and bugs and how they would carry food, just to while the time away in the jungle.
Was it challenging for you to go back to regular life after those nine days?
It was in the beginning. For the first weeks, I would always wake up in the middle of the night. In the jungle the nights seemed endless. Sometimes I would wake up at midnight thinking it was a new day. But it was also so blissful! My sons were more demonstrative, kissing and hugging me more often.
You?ve always been on the go, starting work very early and leaving work very late. How did it feel to suddenly find yourself with nothing to do? Did it force you to plan your life anew?
It was difficult at first to adjust to days where there was no real schedule to follow. But then, since I am writing a book about my experience, I try to be on the computer in the afternoons to just put my thoughts down. But I also savor the freedom of not having anything planned, no agenda, nothing to rush to, which I have not experienced in such a long time and for so long a period!
Most of my appointments have been to the dentist, reunions with friends I had not seen in years, and meals with my mom and sisters. And, of course, dinners at home with my sons, a very rare occurrence when I work.
Would you say your priorities remain the same before?and after?the kidnapping?
The three-month suspension has allowed me time to focus on myself and my family and to fix my life?to provide a better home environment for my sons. Hence, I sold a lot I intended to build my dream house on and instead bought a place in the city closer to where my eldest son works and also where the environment is more secure.
I had always wanted to write a book and so I am starting on that, which will hopefully not only be about my experience but will also bring more understanding on the situation in Mindanao. I have learned that I cannot prioritize my career over my loved ones, in terms of time. While family had always been my top priority, I would always sacrifice time with my sons in favor of a story.
Hopefully, I can achieve a better work-life balance when I return to work in October.
Was the experience worth it, as a journalist? Do you think it was all part of the job?
It?s part of the job, but I wouldn?t wish this experience on anyone. I know it has changed me both personally and professionally. I don?t regret what happened to me. I only hope I have enriched myself and my commitment to journalism because of it.