Hostaged Filipino recalls terrifying experience in Algeria

Posted at 01/26/2013 10:34 AM

BATAAN, Philippines - "Very, very lucky."

This is how Joseph Balmaceda describes himself after surviving last week's harrowing hostage crisis at a gas field in Algeria that left dozens of foreign nationals and several hostage-takers dead.

Speaking with Kyodo News from his hospital bed on Thursday, exactly a week after escaping death in the Sahara desert where he had been working since 2005, Balmaceda, 42, said he never thought terrorism was a realistic possibility until "it happened to me."

Three attackers stand guard in front of foreigners that were taken hostage, while Algerians are left alone at an accommodation unit of the plant at a gas plant in In Amenas, in this photo secretly taken by one of the Algerians held hostage on January 16, 2013 and released by Kyodo on January 23, 2013.

"I can't believe I'm still alive. It was terrible, I don't want to remember it anymore," the BP employee said of his two-day ordeal as a hostage of the Islamic militants who stormed the facility of the In Amenas gas field in east-central Algeria on Jan. 16.

Balmaceda was preparing for work with four other Filipinos around 6 a.m. of that day when they suddenly found themselves in the middle of crossfire, or so it seemed to them at the time.

The workers hid in their residential camp's guardhouse, staying flat on the floor, for around five hours. But then they mistakenly revealed themselves to the militants, thinking that they were members of the Algerian government forces that had come to their rescue.

"It was from the terrorist group. They asked for our nationalities, so we told them 'Filipinos.' Then they tied our hands and feet with cables, and brought us to where many other hostages were gathered," Balmaceda narrated.

At the open area where they were herded, he recalled seeing at most 12 hostage-takers carrying a variety of weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles and mortars, and around 30 hostages of different nationalities.

He confirmed seeing employees of Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. there, including six or seven Japanese nationals. One of them, about 2 meters away from him, was having his wounds treated by a medical worker on orders of the hostage-takers.

Balmaceda said one Filipino hostage learned from the militants that they were only after Americans and French nationals.

While he did not hear the hostage-takers identify themselves being associated with the al-Qaida terror group, he noticed they were carrying two flags -- one white and one black -- with some writings on them.

Balmaceda did not actually see any of them use their weapons against the hostages, recalling them having said things like, "We will not do anything to you if you follow our orders."

He said one of them spoke English and described him as "kind."

The militants offered them food, like biscuits, bananas, apples, and juice, but not much so much so as to minimize the hostages' need to go to the toilet. But when necessary, they escorted him and his fellow hostages to the toilet.

They also provided them with pillows and blankets that first night.

"It was minus-zero that day so I felt very cold. We just waited through the night. I did not sleep. And I could not see anything because it was dark. Electricity was cut off," he recalled.

"Of course, I remembered my family, my kids. I started to pray to my god, 'Please give me security, that I can still go home because I need to see my family'," the father of four added.

Balmaceda said he was aware the government forces were trying to negotiate with the hostage-takers, but he knew no details.

At around 10 a.m. on the following day, Jan. 17, the militants moved them in front of an Internet cafe where they were ordered to raise their hands and serve as human shields, to deter the Algerian government forces from attacking.

After that, he and eight other hostages were led to a Land Cruiser that he suspected would take them to the gas plant's central processing facilities.

Balmaceda said that besides himself, there were two other Filipino hostages, at least two Japanese and one Malaysian in the vehicle with him, under the control of two militants. The militants and some of the hostages were rigged with C4 explosives.

He said he was initially kneeled on the floor in the cargo space at the rear of the vehicle, together with another Filipino and the Malaysian, while there were five hostages in the middle seat and one up front with the two hostage-takers.

But when heavy gunfire erupted as the car started to move, he curled up his body and stuck his face on the floor.

Then there was a loud blast.

"I just covered myself in the midst of the gunfire and the blast on our car. After the big blast, I sat still for 5 minutes and then I ran towards the direction of the Algerian forces. They saved me and brought me to a hospital," Balmaceda said.

The long-time overseas worker, who began working abroad at the age of 25, with experiences in central Africa, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, confessed it was the scariest moment of his life.

"I was so nervous and very tensed. The tension was very high. After that, I can't sleep well. I can't eat. I'm so afraid," said Balmaceda, who suffered a head injury, hearing difficulty and intermittent chest pains due to the blast.

On his arrival in Manila last Monday, Balmaceda said he shed tears of joy and relief when he was reunited with his family as he was so "very, very happy" to be home in one piece.

Aside from treatment for his physical pains, Balmaceda is currently receiving counseling for his psychological trauma.

"I need to recover first and then take some rest. If I'm assured that it's already safer there, that the security is already good, and I have no other job options here or elsewhere, then I'll go back (to Algeria) for sure. But that's my only last option," he said, noting that his youngest child is still an infant so he needs to provide for his family.

The hostage crisis ended after four days, leaving at least eight Filipinos dead and one still missing, the Philippine government said Friday.

There were more than 1,780 Filipinos working in Algeria at the time of the crisis. So far, more than 40, including Balmaceda, have been repatriated for safety reasons.

==Kyodo