The sound of pure, unbridled laughter isn’t one she was used to hearing in recent years.
But on the night of November 13, there was plenty.
Former Senator Leila de Lima sat in the middle of a room, flanked by friends and staff members, and took it all in.
It had been a long, exhausting day—from the Muntinlupa hearing where her bail was granted, to the PNP Custodial Center to pack up her belongings from her detention room, to holding her first press conference in years.
She was tired but did not care. This was a moment she had long dreamed of, and finally, she was living it. Freedom wasn’t something for the imagination anymore.
“Super happy,” was how De Lima described that night in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News.
“Although may mga nagbibisita rin talaga sa akin sa Custodial, but not all of them for various reasons ay nakakabisita. So it’s only now na puwede na talaga silang magpakita sa akin. And I could feel really also their great relief and their joy to see me after all these years,” she added.
“It was great. Iba, iba talaga. The taste of freedom is so, so precious. There’s no substitute for freedom really.”
She had pizza and bistek tagalog for dinner, although she could not fully enjoy it as she was too engaged in conversations.
A former employee asked in jest if they still needed to prepare a pouch, the weekly reports they sent to her while in Camp Crame to keep her abreast of current events.
One reminded her not to fall for cellphone scams.
Another person said he felt like he saw his mother again after so many years. He was ecstatic, but at the same time worried for De Lima’s safety and how she would get back on her feet.
De Lima was well aware of the dangers, especially now that she is out in the open. She also knew of the stack of things she needed to do.
But that night, she just wanted to be with those dear to her. She looked indifferent from all the troubles that lay ahead, because for the first time in almost seven years, she can allow herself a good laugh.
Wearing a striped shirt, her signature scarf, and rubber shoes, the 64-year-old De Lima excitedly boarded a van at 7 a.m. the next day.
She was off to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Manaoag, her first trip that was not for a hearing or a checkup. This was a non-negotiable trip as she promised the Virgin Mary she would immediately visit the moment she regained her freedom.
Prior to being detained in 2017, De Lima frequented Manaoag twice a month as a devotee.
“Nagdadasal ako kay Mama Mary because I have a, there’s an image of Our Lady of Manaoag in my detention cell. ‘Yan ang sinasabi ko, ‘Mama Mary tulungan niyo na po akong makalabas. At paglabas ko po, ang una ko pong gagawin, isa sa mga una kong gagawin, bibisitahin ko kayo uli sa shrine ninyo kasi miss ko na po pumunta sa shrine ninyo,’” she said.
De Lima almost didn’t make the trip because it was too much of a risk, but she was resolute.
“My lawyers and some of my staff were dissuading me because of security concerns. I had to plead to them, iniyakan ko pa nga sila. Hindi ko puwede na i-break ‘yung promise ko na ‘yan kay Mama Mary.”
On her way to Manaoag, the former lawmaker said it felt so surreal.
Her team had been waiting for the decision on her bail petition since September, but when it finally came out, it did not immediately sink in.
She recalled how scared she was the night before the November 13 hearing.
“We were always confident na makikita ‘yung merito ng aming application for bail. So since it was the last hearing for the year, so ‘yun ang thinking namin most probably ilalabas na. So the night before, I kept praying, praying, praying na finally ilalabas na talaga and that it’s going to be positive. So when it happened, ‘Wow, it really happened.’ So hindi pa fully na-imbibe sa sarili ko na nandiyan na pala,” De Lima said.
After about three hours on the road, De Lima saw the familiar streets she used to pass by going to the Manaoag Church.
“Dito na,” she said, and fixed her hair.
Some supporters were already waiting for her. She cheerfully gave out hugs, shook hands, and took selfies.
After exchanging pleasantries, De Lima entered the church.
She walked to the altar where she knelt before the Virgin Mary, fervently prayed, and fulfilled her promise.
Almost seven years is way more than enough time for someone to get into a routine.
This is why for De Lima, it was even harder to wrap her head around the fact that she was free to do and experience things she couldn’t before.
Although she was given a bigger and more comfortable bed, she could not sleep on her first night out.
“Oh, it was difficult,” she groaned. “I was almost sleepless, mga two hours lang ‘yung tulog ko.”
She missed the Custodial Center despite being detained there for a considerable part of her life.
“Na-miss ko rin yung kuwarto ko sa Custodial. Iba rin, at siyempre ‘yun ang what I’m used to. The bed there, and my surroundings there, may mga nakakatabi akong pusa doon so I, naninibago ako. And that’s exactly my problem now, ‘yung adjustment ko,” De Lima shared.
Back in her quarters, De Lima used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. Her daily schedule included praying, reading the Bible, writing messages, cleaning, and even feeding the chickens and turkeys of jail guards.
In the evenings, she wrote in her journal.
What also helped her get through the days were the more than 20 stray cats she took care of.
“They helped me in immeasurable degree, to an immeasurable degree. They kept me company all these years because since I’m alone in the whole compound, I hardly see living souls for so many hours in the day…They kept my sanity intact,” De Lima said fondly.
She is only sorry that she could only take five of them with her.
Another adjustment she has to make is getting accustomed to technology, particularly, using a cellphone. A couple of times during the Manaoag trip, her aide had to help her call or message someone.
She helplessly chuckled it off.
Looking back, De Lima says she never got depressed in spite of her situation.
There were times she cried, especially during her first year in detention, but she did not let it get the best of her.
“I never, never lost hope. Kasi I also have no choice, I have to cling to hope. ‘’Yun lang, yun lang talaga meron sa ’yo eh. In your condition as a person deprived of liberty, it’s the hope that makes you survive.”
She was thrilled to be with her family in Bicol again, especially her 91-year-old mom, Norma, who has dementia.
To avoid making her condition worse, De Lima and her siblings told their mom that De Lima was studying in the United States, which was why she could not go home.
The last time De Lima saw Norma was when her mother visited her in 2018. Norma was told they were at the airport to see her eldest daughter who was on a layover, when in fact, they were at the Custodial Center.
After the bail was granted, Norma was told that De Lima was finally coming home and she couldn’t be any happier.
With Christmas just around the corner, De Lima was quick to say it would be the best, “This is going to be the best Christmas for us, for the family. And that’s one of my prayers.”
Aside from making up for lost time, she is eager to redeem her name and rebuild her life.
“I just have to be myself and pursue further all my advocacies,” De Lima stated matter-of-factly. “I will fight more for my advocacies—justice, human rights, rule of law, democracy.”
“If I continue to do that, if I continue sharing with the people those advocacies, they would see that it is still the same Leila de Lima before they destroyed my name. Then I guess, redemption will come.”
De Lima’s battle is far from over. But if her first day of freedom is any measure — she’s going to spend the next days in her own terms. Because finally, she can.