ONCE he steps down from office next month, Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario will always be remembered for taking the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute to arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
However, del Rosario said the pending case is just but a small part of the work that they do with Filipinos abroad as their main concern.
“We do other things at the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs]. A very small part of our time is really on the West Philippine Sea. A good part of our time is our assistance to our countrymen because it becomes personal. The President’s mandate is very clear. He told me before and after I was sworn in to take care of our people,” del Rosario said.
Del Rosario, 76, is stepping down from public life on March 7, hounded by poor health after serving the government for 10 years, five years as Philippine ambassador to the United States and the other half as the country’s top envoy.
Del Rosario relates three episodes that reveal the inner man who braved civil strife, tribal conflict, bombings and ambushes in forbidding lands to snatch the threatened lives of overseas Filipino workers (OFW).
He said these stories never reached the media because “we are preoccupied or maybe the media is not interested in knowing that we gave a lot of time to saving our people.”
Barely 36 hours after being sworn in on February 24, 2011, del Rosario flew to Tripoli, Libya, to extricate some 400 overseas Filipinos out of the war-torn city, into the Libyan-Tunisian border.
In addition to Libya, he had been, several times, to Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt, having a hand in the repatriation of over 24,000 Filipinos in these countries torn by civil strife, devastated by natural and other disasters, and affected by pandemics.
From 2011 to 2015, the DFA extended assistance to over 80,000 overseas Filipinos and members of their families.
In one of those forays to Libya, gripped by violence involving militias that spearheaded the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, del Rosario went to Misrata, 187 kilometers east of Tripoli, to search for 10 missing Filipino nurses.
Upon arrival in Libya, del Rosario asked the foreign minister if he and his staff could go to Misrata to search for the 10 missing nurses.
“Absolutely not, because you will not come out of there alive!” his counterpart told him.
Del Rosario asked to talk to him in private: “You know Mr. Minister, we have 10 million people who work overseas. Many in dangerous places like your country, eking out a living. And behind these people are 10 million families who are united in terms of making sure the government takes care of their people.”
He then added: “If you do not accede to our request to go to Misrata, you and I will remember this for the rest of our lives and they will keep reminding us what we should have done and that we did not do.”
“Ok, Ok,” the minister said, and assigned a Libyan general to take the group to Misrata, which, at that time, was in the hands of rebels.
“The general took us to the gates of Misrata and he told us this is as far as I go,” he said.
“Maybe you can point us in the right direction as to where this hospital is,” del Rosario pleaded.
The general said: “You are crazy, come down I want to show you something.” They came down from his vehicle and the general said: “Look around you. Our people are surrounding you completely.”
“What is the purpose of this?” del Rosario asked.
“We are shielding you from snipers,” the general replied and, with finality, he stomped his feet and said: “I cannot take you to Misrata because we will catch too much attention.”
Del Rosario replied: “No, I am not asking you to go with us. Just point us in the right direction.”
As the two were arguing, somebody from the bushes sprung shouting, “Nato [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] planes are coming! Nato planes are coming!”
“I turned around and saw this guy and then when I turned around to the general, he was no longer there. He is diving into his car to get out of the way,” del Rosario said.
“So, everybody did their thing in terms of getting out as fast as they could, and I stood my ground and I did not know what to do and so I just stood there,” he said.
Del Rosario said the event made it to the pages of the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, announcing the bravery of the envoy from the Philippines.
Later on, he said he run into the Associated Press reporter, who told del Rosario he was the writer who marveled at his courage. “You are so brave, so courageous.”
“Why do you say that?” del Rosario asked.
“Because you stood there, brave, courageous,” the reporter replied.
And del Rosario revealed the truth: “No, no, you must know I had bad knees. It takes me forever to think about what direction I’m headed.”
Then there was Yemen, which has been in a state of political crisis since 2011. Del Rosario dropped by to look into the affair of a Filipino manager of a power plant who was kidnapped for ransom.
He said the foreign minister there was not attentively listening to him, probably distracted by other matters.
Del Rosario asked to talk to the employer. They discussed out-of-the-box solutions to save the OFW.
“How about I turn off the power in that sector of the city?” the employer volunteered, knowing the tribal behavior of Yemenis.
“It’s a great idea. Can we turn it off? And in a couple of minutes, he had it turned off,” del Rosario said.
“Two hours later, we were seated in front of the foreign minister, and other ministers asking us to why we turned off the power and asking us to turn it back on,” del Rosario said.
“I made a commitment to the Philippine minister, only he can decide whether we can turn the power on,” the employer replied. The Yemen envoy and his staff turned toward del Rosario and pleaded with him to order the power back on.
Del Rosario pretended not to listen, looking at the ceiling and “practicing strategic silence,” until the request was repeated. “Mr. Minister, we need this power, so give this gentleman your instruction the power should be turned on,” his counterpart said.
“Ok, Ok,” del Rosario replied.
“What we will do is keep it turned off one day and the next day after that we will arrest one man from that tribe,” the Yemeni government official said.
The next day, they arrested one man. The following day, they released the Filipino manager who was kidnapped.
“Life is cheap in some of these places,” the Filipino manager told del Rosario while adding, “And they told me that tomorrow ‘we will cut off your head,’ and tomorrow was today and they decided to release me because you are here, internationalizing the situation.”
Happy at the outcome of the situation, the Yemeni envoy invited del Rosario to dinner.
“We walked into this restaurant and everybody cleared out, I guess for security purposes. And there is this long table with just the two of us,” del Rosario recalls.
“Then the food arrived. There was so much food. There was no inch spared on the table. So I figured out they have to make out for the revenues that they lost when they cleared out the people from the restaurant,” he said.
While seated, the Yemeni envoy got a call and del Rosario observed that he was agitated and his color is turning “into yellow-blue-green.”
“After he hangs up he said: ‘I just got fired.’”
“The president fired his own Cabinet, so I said,” del Rosario quipped. “Good grief. Who will pay for all this food?”
And then there was Indonesia, where a few days before Mary Jane Veloso was to be executed last year, del Rosario spent the whole morning with her in prison.
He had lunch with her spiritual adviser to get a fuller sense of what Veloso was like, and then flew back to Jakarta. In evening, he had dinner with her lawyer they had appointed to provide legal guidance.
At the time, Veloso remained behind bars in Yogyakarta, duped into smuggling 2.60 kilograms of heroin to Indonesia from Malaysia.
Del Rosario said Veloso asked him for scholarship fund for her children.
“I did not think I could get those funds anywhere from the government, so I committed a scholarship fund for her and that scholarship fund is now operational,” del Rosario, who never touched his salary but gives them away to DFA subalterns, said.
Under del Rosario’s leadership, the DFA has consistently ranked as one of the top government agencies in terms of efficiency and effectiveness as reflected in surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations and the Makati Business Club.
Del Rosario recalled that President Aquino, in appointing him to head the DFA, believed that he was someone who would fight for the country’s democracy.
But at the end of his term, del Rosario said that he would like to be remembered as a patriot.
Image credits: Alysa Salen