As his kidnappers took him in a speeding boat toward a notorious militant stronghold in the south Philippines, Ivan Sarenas decided that he would die if he didn’t try to escape. When he saw some fishermen, he took his chance, diving deep and hoping his armed captors wouldn’t shoot.
The Filipino wildlife photographer, seized with two European tourists during a bird-watching trip, escaped on Wednesday and spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday. The tourists Sarenas was guiding, Dutch Ewold Horn and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, remain missing.
“I am still traumatised,” Sarenas said. “I have guilt and concern for the welfare of my companions.”
Sarenas said he, Horn and Vinciguerra arrived in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, on Sunday in search of the Sulu hornbill, said to be the most endangered hornbill in the world.
Tawi-Tawi is famed for virgin beaches surrounded by crystal blue waters but, like the most of the restive southern Philippines, it is undeveloped for tourism because of years of violence, including ransom kidnappings, bomb attacks and fighting between troops and Muslim rebels.
After spending three days in a mountain forest, the three were heading back to the provincial capital of Bongao by boat on Wednesday when five rifle-toting gunmen on another boat fired warning shots and intercepted them, Sarenas said.
They were transferred to another boat, then a third boat. About two hours later, around 2.30pm Wednesday, Sarenas decided to jump over after he realised they were being taken north, in the direction of Jolo Island in the adjacent Sulu archipelago, the stronghold of the brutal Abu Sayyaf group.
“My assumption was we were heading to Jolo. That’s why I became scared because my life would be worthless once I reach Jolo,” he said, recalling reports of the militants’ atrocities, including beheadings of hostages.
He said he informed Horn and Vinciguerra of his plan. “They said, ‘Go. Good luck’,” he said.
He got his chance when they were about 700m from the shore. He saw three small boats with fishermen. He said he gambled that the gunmen wouldn’t shoot him with so many witnesses around.
He removed a tarpaulin cover over him and his companions. An M16 rifle fitted with a grenade launcher was lying on the boat’s floor; he held the muzzle to prevent the weapon from being pointed at him. Then he said he quickly rolled over to the side of the boat.
“I made a deep dive because I was afraid they would shoot me,” said Sarenas, a triathlete.
The kidnappers did not fire and left him in the waters where fishermen soon rescued him. He was brought to a village in Languyan township and later to a police station.
Sarenas said Vinciguerra worked as a taxidermist for a museum in Switzerland and Horn as a freelance taxidermist.
“Some of the birds they have mounted they wanted to see in the wild,” Sarenas said.
Muslim insurgents have been fighting for minority self-rule in the predominantly Christian nation’s south, and the Abu Sayyaf is the most violent group. The militants have been holding an Australian man abducted in December, as well as a Japanese and a Malaysian.
Tawi-Tawi govenor Sadikul Sahali said that the birdwatchers were accompanied by a town councilman and an unarmed police officer because the foreigners refused armed escorts.
After seizing them, the gunmen ordered the councilman, the policeman and the skipper out of the boat before escaping with their captives. — Sapa-AP