A September Affair to Rememember
(Excerpts from a piece “Assignment Iran”)
by Rodolfo A. Arizala
(*Mr. Rodolfo A. Arizala is a retired Filipino Diplomat)
02 September 2011
I. Arrival in Tehran
When I arrived in Tehran in September of 1977, from my posting at the Philippine Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I noted a country at the doorstep of transition - from an ancient country formerly called “Persia” toward a modern Iran under the rule of the Shah.
I learned later that there are thousands of Filipino workers in Iran hired as doctors, nurses, engineers, technicians, hotel employees and some work as domestic helpers. When I reported the next day of my arrival to the Philippine Embassy, I noticed a long line of Iranians in front of the Embassy’s Consular Section applying for student visas so that they could pursue further studies in Philippine universities.
II. Extremely Busy Consular Section
Because of such desire of many Iranians to study in the Philippines, as well as the presence of thousands of Filipino workers in Iran, the consular section of the embassy was always extremely busy. It had to attend to the consular needs of Filipinos and foreigners as well. At that time, there were around 15,000 Filipino workers and dependents in Iran scattered throughout the country. They worked in hospitals, hotels, factories, ports, and oil fields of Iran. As early as 5:00 o’clock in the morning, there were already long lines of Iranian students at the embassy gate waiting for their turn to be interviewed by Filipino consular officers.
III. Spark of Civil Unrest
When the Iranian civil unrests, which started at first as students demonstrations in October 1977 inside university campuses and then spread out to the streets and public squares of Tehran became a violent bloody revolution towards the end of 1978, the Philippine Embassy was besieged by many phone calls and visits by Filipino workers and members of their families asking protection and assistance to enable them evacuate to the Philippines or to a safer place.
The embassy implemented its emergency plan code-named “Saddleback”. The Embassy’s initial policy was for the safe, orderly and gradual departures of all non-essential Filipinos from Iran and bring them to the nearest place of safety, if not directly to the Philippines. Then when the revolution became worse, we decided to evacuate all Filipinos from iran. We were able to arrange with friendly neighboring countries of Iran such as Pakistan and India to allow Filipino evacuees temporarily settle in said countries until they could be brought safely to the Philippines. However, we were able to bring most of the Filipinos from Iran directly to the Philippines via commercial airlines. The first to be evacuated were women and children followed by non-essential Filipino workers. At the request of the revolutionary government, however, essential Filpino workers such as doctors, nurses and technicians on voluntary basis were allowed to stay behind during and even after the revolution with the understanding that the new Iranian government would guarantee their safety and well-being. Out of 15,000 Filipinos, about 1,000 opted to remain in Iran under such arrangements.
IV. Interesting Highlights
During the revolution, one day I went to pick up my eldest son from school who was caught inside the classroom during a street demonstration. On our way back home from Angelicum School, we met a huge crowd of Iranian demonstrators wielding sticks, clubs, knives, iron chains and all sorts of home-made weapons. My son who was sitting beside me in our car looked at me terrified and asked: “Papa, will they kill us?” “No,” I replied and quickly added: “Do not worry, they are our friends.” The leader of the group carrying a huge stick approached our car and asked: “Japanese?” “No, we are Filipnos!”, was my reply. “Ah, Filipini!”, he exclaimed and added: ‘You know I have a brother studying in Manila and he wrote me he is being treated well by Filipinos in your country.”
The he shouted orders in Farsi to his group. The crowd made way for us and let our car passed unmolested.
Another experience of mine was after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and held as hostages around 21 persons including two Filipinos on 4 November 1979, I received instructions from Manila to work for the release of two Filipinos being held as among the hostages. Being the Charge d’Affaires, a.i., or acting head of mission, (Amb.Rafael Ileto at that time was in Manila for consultations), I went to the Iranian foreign ministry and then to the American Embassy in Tehran where the revolutionary guards were keeping the hostages. To my surprise, one of the revolutionary guards recognized me because before the outbreak of the revolution he went to my office and applied for a student visa. I told him of my mission seeking the release of two Filipino hostages and conveyed to him the request of the families of the two Filipino hostages to allow them spend Christmas with them in the Philippines.
The following day, on 22 November 1979. at about noontime the two Filipino hostages were delivered to me at the Philippine Embassy by the Revolutionary Guards.I reported immediately to Manila the release of the two Filipinos indicating the date, hour and flight number of their scheduled arrival in Manila.
When Ambassador Ileto was able to return to Tehran and reassumed his post as Ambassador, under Despatch No. 1460 dated 21 March 1979, he strongly recommended, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Manila that I be bestowed the Gawad Mabini Award , (Rank of Dakilang Kasugo), as stated in the proposed citation:
“For selfless dedication and devotion to duty at a great personal sacrifice, particularly in the period of September 1978 through February 1979, during which Iran was confronted by difficult, critical and trying times as a consequence of the civil strife and violence in that country;” and:
“For having efficiently supervised the development of a workable information system that linked the Embassy with various Filipino groups across Iran which, supportive f the measures instituted by the Embassy under the contingency plan, essentially precluded any panic, untoward incident or the loss of life among the Filipinos during the conflict.”
Said recommendation was acknowledged receipt by foreign miniser Carlos P. Romulo in his letter to me dated 23 August 1979, stating:
“I would like to assure you that the recommendation of a Mabini Award for you is presently under consideration. Your performance in Iran as attested by Ambassador Ileto, is certainly to be commended and I am positive that it would be given proper recognition at the appropriate time.”
Looking back, while I never received the Gawad Mabini Award, I am happy that I was able to do my duty to the best of my abilities in helping our countrymen at the most critical moment in the history of our Embassy in Iran. And modesty aside, I believe that my son and I were saved from the violent demonstrators during the Iranian revolution and I was able to secure the release of the two Filipino hostages at the U.S. Embassy not due to diplomatic skills, but simply due to the observance of good basic human relations.
While First Secretary and Consul General in Tehran, I tried my best to deal with everybody with fairness and courtesy. I never tell them a lie on consular matters or promise them anything which I could not fulfill. . .I tried to help them within bounds of reason and I implemented rules and regulations not to obstruct or make difficulties for those needing my services but to facilitate appropriate assistance. I remind always my co-workers to observe courtesy and bear in mind we are sent abroad to serve everybody to the best of our abilities and project good image for our country and people.
Indeed, as I look back today, my arrival in Iran one day in September in 1977 and assignment at the Philippine Embassy was “an affair to remember which I will never forget as part of my checkered long diplomatic career.
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