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This is what it’s like to be held hostage by Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines

Five years ago, Warren Rodwell was kidnapped by the Islamist militants who held him hostage for 472 days. He shed light on what it's like to live under constant threat, and the people who were his caretakers.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jun 15 2016, 3:50pm

Photo de Warren Rodwell lorsqu'il était otage.

Wearing only a pair of shorts, Warren Rodwell stood outside his nearly completed house in the southern Philippines, where he lived with his wife in December 2011. It was 6 pm on a Monday evening and the sun had nearly vanished.

A crashing sound startled the Australian, and two men appeared about an arm's length away, dressed in police uniforms and brandishing assault rifles — one of which displayed police and Islamic stickers. "Police! Police!" they yelled. One of the men immediately shot Rodwell through his right hand, and he swore at his attacker. Then the men handcuffed him.

"I was dragged across rice fields for about 20 minutes then into a boat and out to sea," he remembers. "That was it, that was how it happened."

It was the start of a 472-day ordeal for the former soldier, who was held in the jungle nearly five years ago by Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group whose notoriety has soared in recent months with the kidnapping and brutal execution of two Canadian hostages.

Rodwell bears the scars on the inside and out: His right hand now has only three fingers and a thumb, and he suffers from PTSD.

His story, told to VICE News through a series of interviews from his home in Brisbane, is a window inside a group that's making international headlines today with its hard-ball style of kidnap and ransom.

On Tuesday, Abu Sayyaf published a video showing the brutal beheading of one of the Canadians, Robert Hall, a former actor and welder who bought a boat and sailed overseas to make a new life for himself in the Philippines. His killing this past weekend followed the April 25 execution of his fellow captor, John Ridsdel, a Canadian mining contractor who had just purchased a boat and was planning to sail to Indonesia.

Reacting to his death, Hall's family remembered him as a dreamer. "But more than that he was an achiever," a statement from his family says. "He didn't sit around and dream about sailing the world; he got up and did it, made it happen."

The Canadians were kidnapped from the Holiday Oceanview Marina alongside Hall's Filipina partner Marites Flor and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, both of whom are still being held captive.

In proof-of-life videos, Abu Sayyaf members stand over their hostages, armed to the teeth with assault rifles in front of an Islamic State banner, punctuating their ransom demands with "Allahu Akbar!" Fueled by funding from kidnap and ransom, the group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in the Southern Mindanao, where it enjoys some degree of support from majority Muslim locals.

Now deceased Canadian hostage Robert Hall, right, and Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad are seen in this undated picture released to local media. (Erik de Castro/Reuters)

But Rodwell's story, which has been well documented in media and in a book, shows a different side of the group.

At the time he was captured, Abu Sayyaf was an al-Qaeda affiliate. But the young men who guarded Rodwell were in it only for the money, and weren't as hard-line Islamist as the group would have outsiders believe, according to Rodwell

His guards were mostly younger locals with no fighting experience. They were instructed to keep him alive. They spoke only fragments of English and had about a fifth grade education.

"They mentioned to me that the money they needed was first to be able to buy a rifle for their own protection, and next to pay a dowry so they could marry a Muslim girl."

His guards were only 19 or 20, he said, and full of testosterone.

"They said they liked the Christian girls because they were dirty. They played around."

During those 16 months, his captors moved him 28 times to avoid police, locals and other groups looking to steal hostages. They moved under cover of night to evade the military, racing by boat from island to island in the Southern Philippine archipelago.

Abu Sayyaf have the advantage in the region over the military because they know the tides and the jungles and they keep moving, he said.

"When they were out at sea in the boats, they would be loaded down with ammo and machine guns, and great big belts with bullets all over them, and rocket launchers and grenade launchers," Rodwell recalls.

He would stay low in the boat to stay safe and avoid the ocean spray.

"They try to look after you. You're human cargo and you're valuable."

With nothing but water for kilometers around, escape was impossible.

When they weren't moving, they were hiding in the dense jungle.

One guard was tasked with taking care of him, though this person would change every seven to 10 weeks. This person was like his babysitter, Rodwell says. He cooked his food, washed his clothes and helped him bathe.

"If I needed anything I would just sort of put my hand up, signal, and he'd be nearby. If I needed to empty my bowels or something, we'd sort of, he'd come with me somewhere and dig a hole in the sand, and he'd pour water down my backside so I could clean myself."

Abu Sayyaf leaders Khaddafi Janjalani, 2nd from left in front row, and Radulan Sahiron, 2nd from right in front row with headband, sit with fellow Abu Sayyaf rebels inside their jungle hideout somewhere in Sulu province in the southern Philippines on July 16, 2000. (AP/STR)

Of all his "babysitters," Rodwell became closest with a 40-year-old man he called Uncle. "That's what the others called him, because he was an uncle for someone else." Uncle took care of him for 11 weeks — longer than any of the others.

One day Uncle surprised him by telling him the name of Abu Sayyaf's leader.

"It was all hush hush," he recalls. "He started giving me the names of who the syndicate leaders were on the upper level."

The guard gave him 11 names, which he memorized. Finally Uncle said he wanted Rodwell to know the names because his aunt had been kidnapped and killed by Abu Sayyaf in the past.

"Even the guards and those who work for Abu Sayyaf say, 'Don't trust them, they're bad.'"

For the first three months, Rodwell lived in constant fear of beheading.

Without warning, the camp would fill with new faces, whispering among themselves. Not knowing why new people were there, he pictured them cutting his head off with a blunt blade.

The fear and hopelessness made him contemplate suicide.

Warren Rodwell, after his release. (Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

To survive and stay sane, he told himself he had to wait until they decided to kill him and he would stress about it then.

"If you allow your mind to go there, it affects your body too, and you become weak. You get to the stage that you just blank it out."

Instead, he watched the sun move across the sky, and counted the days, remembering life before his capture and saving thoughts of his friends and family for when their birthdays arrived.

Three times they told him he would be released, but these promises never came true. He decided it was best not to have hope to stave off disappointment.

Meanwhile, ransom negotiations were a clusterfuck.

Similarly to the Canadian hostage story, the Australian government took a hard stance that it would not pay Rodwell's ransom. But behind the scenes, the government provided support to his brother and sister as they negotiated his ransom, and officials imposed a news blackout, refusing to give media information on what was happening.

Related: Trudeau Convinces G7 to Oppose Ransoms, as the Multi-Billion Dollar Kidnapping Industry Booms

But calls would never come in directly from the group. In his case, a provincial governor who was trusted in the Muslim community negotiated the ransom payment. Rodwell's Filipina wife, the Filipino police, and military were also in the loop on the negotiations, and the Australian government deferred to them, Rodwell said.

Lacking cellphone signals in the region and with the authorities monitoring the airwaves, Abu Sayyaf negotiators would talk briefly on their cellphones before throwing their SIM cards away and fleeing the area.

Meanwhile, the Abu Sayyaf members would ask him whether he had friends or relatives who could pay even more, and middle men attempted to take a cut of the ransom payment, he said.

Finally, after lengthy and complex negotiations, Rodwell was released on March 23, 2013.

Initially Abu Sayyaf asked for about US $2 million but his siblings paid about US $100,000 — officially, for "board and lodging." It was a substantially lower amount than the rates asked for the Canadian hostages. In their case, Abu Sayyaf demanded $300 million Pesos, or about CAD $8 million, or US $6.5 million.

Warren Rodwell, displaying the finger he had to amputate after returning home. (Photo courtesy of Warren Rodwell)

Reacting to the news of the Canadian hostages, Rodwell expressed his disappointment and offered his condolences to their families.

"There's no way that they can be consoled at all. But they would understand it's just the reality of the situation," he said.

The former hostage believes Canada's stance on not paying ransoms was nothing but "chest beating" by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In reality, he said, kidnap and ransom is a much more complex ordeal.

He advised Canada to hold a senate inquiry into hostage-taking, as Australia had done before he was captured.

"You're going to have to start looking at future cases because it's going to happen again somewhere in the world to Canadians.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont