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The Good Doctor

Every year in a job like this, when you look back and consider those whose faces you've stared into, whose stories you've told and worlds you entered, there is often a dizzying array of standouts. But for all his complexities it is Dr. Nilo Barandino whose tale haunts the most. He's a man of the most peculiar contradictions; a healer and killer. His stethoscope clutched with the same fervour as his Second World War carbine rifle. Ask which he prefers and he hesitates.

We met Dr. Barandino one hurried, humid afternoon in his Isabela city home on the fraught island of Basilan in the southern Philippines. It was an encounter barely half an hour long; a rushed attempt to understand life's ugliness for those who call these deceptively beautiful islands home. They are a people tormented and hunted by the terror group the Abu Sayyaf. Kidnapping for ransom is the group's trade and no one seems safe. A victim's fate almost always comes down to one ugly choice. Paying the ransom or dying by beheading. So, residents rush and hide. Strangers almost never show up. Fresh faces can mean fresh prey.

Dr.Barandino knows both sides of the hunt. Nearly 20 years ago he was the target; seized along with his wife and nine of his children by dozens of armed men. They were marched into the jungles; bullied, threatened and abused.

His stethoscope, he figures, might just have saved him. That's because while he was being held one of the young kidnappers slowly realized the two men had a connection. Barandino had been the doctor who rushed to the captor's aide when he was a child. The boy had stepped on a broken coca cola bottle that had horribly carved into his foot. Dr. Barandino was the man with the gentle hands who sewed him up and sent the little guy off with a smile.

Now, in the jungle, Baradino sensed that the memory was making the kidnapper soften. The doctor saw his moment and got the young man talking. Barandino wanted to absorb as much as he could about the other kidnappers; their names, contact details, where they lived, their relations to each other.  Over his captivity, he made copious notes. Not until the last days of his detention was he clear what he'd do with that information.

Weeks into the kidnapping he managed to muster the resources for the ransom. But once the money arrived his captors said they wanted more. Dr. Barandino snapped. Then he played a dangerous game. "I told them 'If you don't want this, if you are asking for more, I'm not going to give any more to you. You can have my wife and children. I have sixteen children. I can have another wife, I can have more children.' I said 'With this money I can buy firearms. I'll use this to hunt you.'"

Here he chuckles a bit and says "My wife was mad at me then." No kidding. But the doctor had read his greedy kidnappers well. Not wanting to be burdened with captives any longer, the men decided to take the money and run. The family was freed, leaving Dr. Barandino with his seething rage and his notes. His research had turned into a hit list.

But did he really mean he would HUNT his captors? "I did" he said calmly. More than hunt them, he planned to kill them.

Some questions aren't easy to ask. And as I listen back to the tape of our interview I hear my own cowardly stutters.

"Q: Do you know how many men kidnapped you and your family?

A: Actually, in my list, there were 24.

Q: 24 men.

A: Yes.

Q: So did you decide that you wanted to get, and maybe kill, all of those 24 men?

A: Only six are living now.

Q; Only six are still alive?

A: Yes.

Q: And did you...uhhh...did you k-k kill all the others?

A: Not all."

Not  ALL. He said some were killed by the military after information he obtained led soldiers right to kidnappers. He spoke of three men he shot dead outside his house as they were trying to snatch his neighbour. He has no ethical pause about killing this way, insists he is saving lives in the end.

With a creaky fan and the bone-rattling street noise of small motorbikes shifting gears to get up the steep, narrow hill it was almost impossible to hear him unravel these tales.  It was chaotic and claustrophobic; every moment emphasizing that this man and family were trapped.

He lives with his wife and children in a homemade bunker, perched truly on the edge of the road. Thick concrete walls, metal bars on windows, quarters so cramped it required chess-like strategizing to move a metre. We sat so close our clothes were touching. I never did figure out how he maneuvered in there in his wheelchair. He needs that chair because his legs have been amputated. It wasn't illness that took them, but an attack. He says the men he hunted tried to get revenge with a grenade. They only seemed to make him more intent to pursue his form of justice.

Dr. Barandino doesn't have a computer. He has only a manual typewriter and on it, over the years, in his isolation and anger, he pounded out what may amount to a local encyclopedia of the Abu Sayyaf. With a physician's eye for details he collected as many biographical nuggets as he could remember of the kidnappers and their lineage. He has their ages, heights and weights. He also managed to draw them from memory, careful to include distinguishing marks. All of this paperwork kept in a series of albums shoved into a red sports bag. He flipped through them so fast that day it was hard to digest it all. What flashed by were pictures of dead militants.

For logistical and safety reasons we had to move quickly. There were apologies all around that we could not talk longer. "I understand" he told us and said he would have traveled to meet us were it not for a bounty on his head. The Abu Sayyaf apparently wanted to ensure he did not testify at an upcoming trial. They'd rather he die than talk. "Go, go" he said. And we did. Quickly. We left him with his mission and his anger and his curious kindness. Such a mix. Men like this you never forget.