June 17 , 2013
At 6pm on December 5, 2011, 55-year-old Warren Rodwell, who was building a house on the Zamboanga Peninsula in the Philippines, had downed tools for the day when four gunmen ambushed him
Warren Rodwell on his kidnapping in Philippines
“RUN and we will kill you.”
When Australian adventurer Warren Rodwell heard those words, he knew he was not simply under arrest.
It was 6pm on December 5, 2011. The 55-year-old, who was building a house on the Zamboanga Peninsula in the Philippines, had downed tools for the day when four gunmen ambushed him
“I’d been on the phone and was just on the outside of the house in an enclosed area. Two guys came around one way pointing rifles at me and shot me in the hand. The other two came around from behind and handcuffed me,” he said.
“When he shot me I swore at him, then he said ‘police’ and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. It all happened too quickly.
“We had to walk two or three kilometres through rice fields. They were behind me trying to hit me with the butt of the rifle and kick me to move me. The guy said ‘run and we will kill you’.
“I was in front and by the time we eventually got to a river and into a boat, I realised I was being kidnapped.”
The gunmen wore military uniforms and their M16 rifles were plastered with police insignia.
The former Australian soldier knew to stay calm and do as he was told when they forced him into a stolen community boat. A similar vessel would carry him to freedom 15 months later.
Sydney-born Rodwell lived a nomadic lifestyle. He had trotted the globe twice and seen about 50 countries when he decided to settle in one of the most dangerous parts of the world and marry Miraflor Gutang, 26 years his junior.
“I was looking at early retirement in the Philippines because it was halfway between China, where I’d been teaching for about 10 years, and Australia,” he said.
“I didn’t have a great deal of money but I’d saved some and this was one place that I could buy a bit of cheap land, put a house on it and it’d serve the purpose for my Filipino wife.”
His plan was for the couple to eventually split their time between the three countries, but by late November 2011 it began to unravel.
He separated from Ms Gutang and she moved back in with her parents. He continued working on their house, in what he said was considered a ‘safe area’.
Two weeks later, he was kidnapped.
Within hours Rodwell realised the rebels who kidnapped him were untrained. After an hour on the boat one of the motors caught on fire and exploded.
“They were kicking the boards that were on fire on to me. Then they were throwing the diesel overboard. As soon as the first guy went overboard so did I. I was in the sea handcuffed. I thought I would drown,” he said.
He was pulled back on to the boat, which his captors then paddled for five hours to an island. It was then apparent they were lost.
“They moored the boat in behind a great big naval ship. The next day the army was there with their military helicopters so we had to hide from them for fear of being shot. Then they took me on an eight-hour boat trip that night. I had to change boats, then the smaller boat hit a rock and it looked like we were going to drown in this raging sea. It was like a movie.”
Filipino police have identified the al-Qaida linked group Abu Sayyaf as being involved in Rodwell’s kidnapping.
For the first three months in the jungle, he thought they were going to kill him.
“I very much so (thought I would die) from having my head cut off. I was going to go crazy thinking about it. I thought the best thing is, just accept it,” he said.
“A couple of times people would cock their weapon and threaten to shoot me and I’d just say ‘Go ahead you f…g idiot … I’m worth 10 million Philippine pesos ($AUD250,000) and you’re worth none so go ahead and shoot’.”
But Rodwell was not the only one who was nervous.
“We got caught at times on the mountains and below us would be civilians coming for water and above us would be the military patrols,” he said.
“The fear was that if the military found our camp, they’d just start shooting. They wouldn’t be looking for me. They’d just shoot anyone they could see.
“Sometimes there were civilians around because they’d come in to do illegal logging or we’d be near a mosque or school. Whenever our presence was found we’d move on. They couldn’t trust anyone because if there was another rebel group they’d try to steal me.”
As his life descended into disaster, Rodwell fought to control his mind by thinking about history, dates and numbers.
“That was the hardest thing of all,” he said. “I had no books or notepads but sometimes the newspaper would be brought in and I’d have my photo taken with it for proof of the date and I’d keep it. I didn’t have any reading glasses but I’d still read the whole newspaper.”
Despite his military experience as a field engineer in the 70s and his acquired survival skills, he never tried to escape.
“I had opportunities but you wouldn’t even call it an escape because there was nowhere I could go,” he said.
“Even if I did get away, the area is all controlled by Abu Sayyaf. That would be like jumping out of the frying pan. It wouldn’t be a smart move at all.”
For the next 15 months Rodwell fought to stay sane amid the constant threat of being shot or beheaded.
He was moved between 30 different locations within the Basilan Islands as his captors tried to evade the military and other militant groups.
Most of the time he was cold and starving. At about 7pm each day, he would climb into his hammock with a roaring stomach.
But he ate as often as his captors. On a good day he was fed boiled rice but at times he went up to six weeks without proper food.
“A treat might have been a can of sardines shared with three or four others,” he said.
“Sometimes it might be one small piece of dried fish. If they added anything to the rice it was one thing only. Sometimes they’d add a shrimp or small prawn but it was pretty meagre.
“At times what I would do to flavour the boiled rice is I would use the conjunctivitis from my eyes because I don’t get much nourishment or taste out of boiled rice. When it goes two or three days of boiled rice only, that’s a lack of oxygen getting to my brain and I start getting headaches and disoriented.
“Some of the messengers that would come in were sympathetic towards me and they would smuggle in bananas and things like that.”
His captors also caught wild birds and cooked tree roots.
There was no sanitary and Rodwell went months without washing.
“I had a wash every three or four months with a bit of water out of a bottle,” he said.
“I did acquire a razor and I’d shave all of the hair off my body for cleanliness. That was a way to keep my body clean. It’s an old military trick. Then I wouldn’t get lice or anything.
“Going to the toilet was a problem with the broken hand. The guy would pour water down my back like you would with a baby.”
He spent about 10 weeks in the mountains and the rest of the time in mangrove swamps.
“At the beginning all I had was a pair of shorts but I acquired and stole some clothes. I’d use whatever I could. One sleeping bag was broken so I tore that and wrapped that around me,” he said.
“When I got transferred in boats they’d sometimes put a blanket around me so I’d steal that. I did end up eventually having a balaclava and then a Filipino army shirt.
“The big problem for most of the time was mosquitos. In the jungle swamps we’d be attacked quite ferociously.”
Rodwell’s captors, who spoke no English, were child-like.
“The reason I was treated badly was because they don’t know how to look after themselves,” he said.
“Most of my captors were pretty good-hearted souls but being Muslims they’re not restricted by the 10 commandments. They just see it as anyone who’s foreign as having a market.
“This whole thing is a cottage industry. They’re all second and third generation. I only met one or two people who were jungle fighters. The rest were civilians, around 19-20 years old.”
During his time in captivity, Rodwell was guarded by about 100 different rebels.
Within weeks of his capture, his kidnappers began to soften and signs of Stockholm syndrome set in.
“I bonded enough with my guards that on December 31 they took the handcuffs off and gave me something to shave with,” he said.
“It was a bit scary. The only mirror I had was the handcuffs to look at and I could see all this grey hair appearing on my face.
“I had so many changes of guard that I’d recognise the behaviours in them. The married guy would be in tears because he’d miss his family. A couple of them went crazy.
“With others we’d listen to the noises in our stomach from hunger.”
When a ransom of $94,600 was paid on February 3 this year the captors kept their hostage.
“The delay was that between the different levels (of the group) some people were trying to do a side deal on their own,” he said.
“Apparently it was at the insistence of the vice governor that they must release me otherwise he wouldn’t help them in the future with any cases.”
Rodwell had been told on a number of occasions throughout the 15-month ordeal that he would soon be released.
“I believed no one. I didn’t build up hope. I became emotionless,” he said.
“I started suffering PTSD during the captivity and I started healing myself by analysing the situations a lot.”
Throughout, his militant captors released a series of “proof of life’’ videos as part of their ransom demands.
When the “proof of life” questions increased in frequency, he knew something was afoot.
“They were sending questions through every month instead of every two or three months. I also knew something was happening because I’d been moved very close to a fishing village,” he said.
“It was just a gut feeling and it was that weekend that I actually got released.”
As the tide went out on March 22 and darkness fell, Rodwell was put on a boat. After about two hours at sea, he was transferred to a smaller fishing boat and taken to shore.
“The fisherman paddled it to shore and told me to get out. I was told to start walking and say ‘please help me, please help me’.”
He was spotted by Pagadian wharf workers in the early hours of the next morning and taken to the local police station. It was now March 23 – his dead mother’s birthday.
He was then transported to the US military base at Zamboanga for treatment before being flown Manila to recuperate.
During this time he decided against a reunion with his Filipino wife.
“I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone because I know that when she does talk to me, sometimes it ends up being a heated debate trying to understand and communicate,” he said.
“When I’m dealing with the police and we’re doing interviews about the ordeal, I haven’t really got time for someone (breaking down on me). That’d be like being attacked by a wild animal in the dark.
“I also delayed speaking to my children and siblings for a few days because I wasn’t ready.”
Rodwell said he did not believe his estranged wife was involved in his abduction.
“These Filipinos just love to talk. It’s quite possible that with Miraflor, being a bit loose-lipped, that might have helped with the information being disseminated about me being a foreigner and where I was living. It’s just a lack of prudence but these things happen.”
It has been 18 months since Rodwell was shot and his hand still hasn’t been operated on.
“I’m waiting to go on a waiting list,” he said. “I’ve already been rejected from one waiting list at the Royal Brisbane Hospital because it’s too long and I’m waiting to hear back from QEII hospital.”
He has been diagnosed with PTSD, has damaged nerve tracts in his lower legs and feet and chipped teeth from trying to open coconuts.
But amazingly, he says he is recovering well.
“I’m seeing a private psychologist. Everything is good. I don’t have nightmares. I’ve pulled up pretty well,” he said.
“At the moment I’m still alive and all things considered I’m quite functional.
“I don’t need to see the psychologist for another three months.”
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