‘Alive because of the Lord’: Filipino among freed hostages
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines was among the thankful nations heaving a sigh of collective relief as Hamas gunmen began freeing hostages en masse from the Gaza Strip under a ceasefire agreement, seven weeks into the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group.
The government on Saturday announced the release of Gelienor “Jimmy” Pacheco, one of the two Filipinos reported missing following the reescalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Oct. 7 that had since killed thousands.
“Jimmy is in high spirits and appears to be in good health,” the Philippine Embassy in Israel said of the 33-year-old caregiver who spent 49 days in captivity.
“He is able to walk and move without difficulty and speaks coherently.”
“I’m only alive because of the Lord,” the embassy quoted Pacheco as saying when he was welcomed by Philippine Ambassador to Israel Pedro Laylo Jr. “Even on the day they abducted me, I was really thinking about my family. While I was in Gaza, I just wanted to live for my family.”
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also confirmed that Pacheco, one of the 24 hostages freed by Hamas on Friday, was “safely in the custody” of the embassy.
He stressed that the country was “sparing no effort” to also ascertain the condition and whereabouts of Noralyn Babadilla, the other Filipino who was reported missing early in the conflict.
Pacheco received medical attention and underwent psychological evaluation at Shamir Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, the embassy said.
The father of three has also spoken with his wife, Clarice Joy, who has been in touch with the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) since he was taken hostage on Oct. 7.
“The holy day of Shabbat brought us the wonderful blessing of the release of the hostages, including our ‘kababayan,’” Laylo said, referring to the Jewish day of rest. “We continue to pray for the release of the remaining hostages.”
The embassy thanked “all parties that are continuing to work for the release of the hostages, especially the government of Israel for prioritizing the release … as one of its main goals and for making arrangements.”
In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo particularly recognized “Qatar’s mediation efforts resulting in the release of a Filipino national in Gaza.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also thanked the governments of Egypt and Iran for their “invaluable assistance,” as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross for providing safe transport for the released hostages.
‘Assumed as hostage’
At a press briefing on Saturday, DMW officer in charge Hans Cacdac said Pacheco was at work in one of the kibbutz near the Israeli border with Gaza on the day Hamas attacked.
At the same briefing, Foreign Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega recalled: “I noticed when I was in Israel that there were photos of hostages everywhere … I saw Pacheco but I didn’t see Babadilla.”
“She’s being assumed as a hostage but there is still no assurance,” De Vega said, adding that Philippine authorities continue to coordinate with Qatar to check whether there are other Filipino hostages.
A total of 313 Filipinos, including 14 infants and children, from Israel and Gaza had been repatriated to the country since the war erupted. A 10th batch is expected to arrive in Manila next week, De Vega said.
The Philippine government will extend financial and livelihood assistance to Pacheco should he decide to return home.
“It is up to him since he is already based there, he has a job … he might even consider staying there,” De Vega said. “If his wife wants to visit him there, she won’t need a visa. We can pay for it if she wants to go on a compassionate visit.”
In a statement, President Marcos said: “I salute the work of the Philippine Foreign Service in securing his release, and once again thank the State of Qatar for their invaluable assistance in making Jimmy’s release possible.”
As to Babadilla, “We are sparing no effort to locate and secure her if she is indeed found to be one of the hostages. We pray for the continued success of the truce and for all hostages to be released,” he said.
Masked Hamas fighters freed a first wave of hostages Friday in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, sparking rare scenes of celebration in a seven-week war that has killed thousands of people.
During a carefully orchestrated swap carried out at the start of a four-day ceasefire, Israelis beeped horns and applauded in the street as ambulances took the hostages to hospital for checkups in the late evening, Agence France-Presse (AFP) video images showed.
Hamas released 24 hostages in total, according to key mediator Qatar and an official Israeli list. They comprised 13 Israelis — all of whom were women and children, including dual citizens — 10 Thais and one Filipino citizen.
Israel in turn freed 39 women and children from its prisons. A two-minute video released by Hamas showed masked militants with rifles, wearing military fatigues and the green headband of its armed wing, as they handed hostages over to Red Cross officials.
The captives had been in Hamas’ hands since its fighters smashed through Gaza’s militarized border with Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and seizing around 240 Israelis and foreigners, according to Israel.
In response to the deadliest attack in its history, Israel launched an air, artillery, and naval offensive to destroy Hamas, killing about 15,000 people, according to the Hamas government in Gaza.
DFA, envoys lauded
Hamas is expected to free 50 hostages during the ceasefire in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, part of an agreement struck after talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt, and the United States.
At the House, Kabayan Rep. Ron Salo expressed his “highest commendation” to the DFA and the Filipino ambassadors in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan “for their effective actions” to secure Pacheco’s freedom.
“Their dedication in ensuring the safety of our nationals is truly commendable,” said Salo, chair of the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs.
Speaker Martin Romualdez said the House members were “heartened” by the news of Pacheco’s release and that it “ignites our hopes for the prompt discovery” of Babadilla as well.
“Echoing the Philippine Foreign Service’s commitment during this distressing period, we in the House and the national government vow to persistently engage with international partners and leverage our Middle Eastern assets until every Filipino is safe from the region’s turmoil,” Romualdez said.
He also thanked Qatar for its “pivotal role” and the DFA for its “relentless efforts.”