Basilan in the southern Philippines province of Mindanao has been called an island paradise, rich in resources and natural beauty.
For decades, however, it has been a hub of insurgent activity by various factions of extremist Islamic groups that have waged a campaign of terror on local communities and foreign visitors.
Kidnappings are common, and the risk of violence for anyone working in the area remains high.
Such was the case for two Filipino volunteer teachers working with a Claretian mission school that provides free education to the Badjau, or Sea Gypsy, community in the village of Maluso.
Frederick Banut, 24, and Cherben Masong, 25, were sitting down to dinner on September 4 with two young students and a visiting mother in a small oceanside hut that serves as the community’s literacy center, when they heard a motor boat approaching.
The woman opened the door to inquire after the visitors and was confronted by more than a dozen men dressed in police uniforms with shoulder-length hair and long beards.
They pushed their way into the hut and barked out, “where is the priest?” in Tausog, the language of neighboring Sulu province.
“There are no priests here,” said Frederick, holding out his wrists for the handcuffs that quickly appeared.
The men demanded that they accompany them to headquarters and bundled the volunteers into a Malaysian boat known as a jungkung.
“It was not an arrest. It was a kidnapping,” Cherben said. “I kept asking where they would take us, but they just pushed us into the boat.” It soon became apparent, he added, that these men were not police officers but members of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group notorious for high profile kidnappings in the southern Philippines.
“I thought I was going to die. One of the Abu Sayyaf men wanted to get hold of the cross that hangs around my neck. I removed it and threw it into the water,” Frederick said.
The Claretians, a Spanish missionary order, have been targets of the militants before. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf members killed Claretian priest Father Rhoel Gallardo at the end of a six-week hostage crisis that involved four teachers and 22 students of Claret School in Tumahubong town in Basilan.
The Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, is believed to be holding at least 10 foreign nationals and even more Filipino hostages in their strongholds in Sulu and Basilan.
After a six-hour journey, the two teachers disembarked at the village of Talipao in Sulu province, where they were handed over to another group of armed men.
Wet, hungry and frightened, the teachers were interrogated by their captors.
“We were threatened. We were asked about our work. They wanted to know if we were rich and how much our families could pay for our freedom,” Cherben said.
The next morning, the captors went to work on Frederick. They first tried to convince him to convert to Islam and become a mujahidin (Islamic warrior).
“They wanted me to marry a mujahidat, or woman fighter,” Frederick said.
Next, they began beating him.
“I told them to just kill me, but that I would not abandon my faith.”
Frederick and Cherben were held for 43 days before their freedom was successfully negotiated on October 18. Authorities have not divulged any details of the negotiations that led to their release.
Speaking to ucanews.com shortly after their return, the teachers were grateful to God for their freedom.
“I think I still have a lot of things to do for Him,” Frederick said, adding that he would continue working for the Church and for the benefit of the Sea Gypsies of Basilan.
“Threats to our lives are normal, expecially if we are serious about being followers of Christ,” Frederick said.
Cherben’s experience in captivity was slightly different.
He could not help but smile when he recalled how the wife of the commander in whose home he was forced to live got jealous of his presence there.
“She was pregnant and was asking her husband to get something for her, but the commander ignored her. She got mad and attacked him,” Cherben said.
“She told her husband to go and live with me because it seemed like the husband preferred to be with me,” he recalled.
The commander subsequently pulled out his gun and fired into the ground.
“I ran away. I did not want to be in the middle of a marital spat,” Cherben said with a smile.
Friends and relatives have advised the two volunteer teachers to leave Basilan, but they have both refused.
“I have learned to love my work. The challenge and the adventure is here,” said Cherben. “Aside from that, I have learned to love the Badjau people.”
The Badjau (also spelled Bajau) are an indigenous ethnic group of maritime Southeast Asia. They continue to live a seaborne lifestyle, making use of small wooden sailing vessels for their homes, or living along the coastal areas of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines.
Frederick says he will never forget his experience in captivity, and that he even prays for his captors “so that they will be enlightened because they do not know what they are doing”.
Local residents in Zamboanga told ucanews.com that the boat that spirited away Frederick and Cherben to Sulu was part of a flotilla that brought some 300 Moro National Liberation Front rebels during a failed attempt to seize the city on September 9.
The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people, the displacement of about 120,000 others, and the total destruction of an estimated 10,000 homes.
Thank you. You are now
signed up to our Daily Full