[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo talks with day care center pupils who were held hostage in a bus near Manila City Hall the other day. After meeting with the President, the children and their parents were treated to merienda at Malacañang. - Photo By WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, MARCH 30, 2007 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - A day after the hostage-taking incident involving 26 pre-school children in Manila, President Arroyo invited the kids and their parents over to Malacañang for a tour of Palace grounds and some merienda.

The Malacañang appointments office initially announced that the President would visit the Parola, Tondo day care center after lunch to meet with the children, but later said the children were to be brought instead to the Palace for snacks with the President.

The reason behind the change of plans was not clear, but Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said some of the children and their parents and guardians were already at Manila City Hall yesterday morning and since they were in the area, they were brought to the Palace.

The children seemed oblivious of the danger they were in Wednesday as they were held hostage by civil engineer Armando "Jun" Ducat Jr. and were in high spirits during the crisis. They were in high spirits too when they visited Malacañang.

Ducat owns the Musmos Day Care Center in Parola, Tondo, Manila where the children were studying free of charge. The suspect also reportedly provided them with free uniforms.

The children were seated on small cushions on the floor of Malacañang’s normally formal Heroes Hall, while their parents sat on chairs on a platform just in front of them.

Upon her arrival at Heroes’ Hall, Mrs. Arroyo sat on the floor with the giggling children and interacted with them while posing for photographs.

It was revealed that the children, whose ages ranged from five to seven years, were brought to the Jollibee restaurant on Kalaw St. for lunch before proceeding to Malacañang.

Some of the children were still holding chicken bones from their meal at the fast food restaurant, while a number of parents brought with them plastic bags of takeout food from the same restaurant.

The children and their parents or guardians were apparently unaware that they would be going to Malacañang.

Five-year-old Raymart Moreno told his uncle Michael that he wanted to take a swim in the Pasig River near the Baseco Compound in Tondo, where they live.

But since they were going to Malacañang, Michael had to explain to his nephew that swimming would have to wait for another day.

Michael, clad in basketball shorts, t-shirt and slippers, said he had to accompany his nephew because Raymart’s mother, Clara Mae, had to go to work. Clara Mae is a saleslady in Manila’s Divisoria district.

Upon seeing the bus where Ducat held the children hostage on television at 10:00 a.m. yesterday, he immediately proceeded to the Lawton area.

Overall, Michael said, Raymart showed no signs of distress over the hostage incident and just wanted to go swimming.

In Malacañang, some of the children wore t-shirts printed with "Jun Ducat Tulong Sulong" apparently provided for them by Ducat, who also financed the operation of the day care center in Parola.

One of the girls present, Cristy Lyn Pacliban, was conspicuously wearing a "Vote Gloria for President" cap that was probably a remnant of the 2004 national elections, when Mrs. Arroyo won the presidential race.

After getting the names of some of the children, Mrs. Arroyo had merienda with the kids, snacking on food fit for a children’s party: spaghetti, hotdogs, lumpiang shanghai, fried siomai, french fries, sandwiches and cake.

After eating, the kids were each given a pack of assorted chips and snacks from Oishi.

‘Insignificant effects’

Having been held hostage by their benefactor may have "insignificant effects" on the school children, Cabral said, but she added that explaining the incident to the children will be like explaining sex to them.

Cabral noted there "did not seem to be any major psychological problem" detected by the psychologists and social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the City of Manila who conducted "post-traumatic stress debriefing" sessions with the children.

The sessions were held in the audio-visual room of the Ospital ng Maynila, where the victims were brought right after the hostage-taking incident. Beds were set up there as well.

"They were in good physical condition but they were visibly tired. Most of them preferred to lie down or sit by the side of their parents. Others were still so very active and they were playing and running around (the room)," she said.

Cabral added the children were oblivious to the danger they had been in but, in case they start asking about the incident, their elders should talk about it as if they were "explaining sex to them."

"We should use words that they can easily understand and it must be done in a manner that is not threatening. They have no idea about what was happening then," she said.

Four of the children were observed to be "silent" during the debriefing sessions, so psychologists will talk to them again.

"We do not know if the children were normally silent or they were just sleepy at that time. But (generally), our premise is that there’ll be insignificant manifestation among the children," Cabral added.

The social workers will continue visiting the children for three to four months to ensure that they have not been traumatized by the hostage crisis.

During the debriefing sessions, the children were asked to narrate what they thought they went through so the psychologists could assess their states of mental health.

Cabral admitted that, in some cases, victims develop symptoms of trauma late, so the social workers will have to continue monitoring them. The symptoms are usually manifested by repeatedly dreaming of the experience and by becoming less communicative.

She said it helped that the children were very familiar with the hostage-taker and that he treated them well during the 10-hour standoff: "(Ducat) had done non-threatening things, otherwise they would have reacted. The children were still able to play inside the bus. They did not go hungry, they had their toys with them and we also provided them with (plastic chamber pots)."

"I think it is also because of their age," Cabral added. "They are so young and very innocent. They were unaware of what was happening and they did not know that they were in grave danger."

She added that the children did not feel any threat, although Ducat was armed with a gun, because he told them the gun was just a toy.

Cabral also said she was unable to ascertain how the victims interpreted the presence of policemen, journalists, onlookers and their own parents outside the bus. The DSWD personnel who conducted the debriefing have yet to complete their reports on the matter.

She advised the former hostages’ parents to shield their children from questions by curious people in the meantime.

Cabral said the teacher, teacher aides and the parents will also be given debriefing sessions to enable them to return to their normal lives. – with Sheila Crisostomo

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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