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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Story of Australian who survived 472 days ordeal in captivity of same group who kidnapped Canadians

Blood poured from the hole in Warren Rodwell’s hand as the men with assault weapons hurried him through the rice paddies, beating his shoulders and head with the butts of theirs guns.

Then one of them leaned in.

“I’m your friend,” he said. “Do you have a phone with you? Do you have any money in the house?”

Even from the first moments, there was little doubt how Mr. Rodwell’s captors saw him. He was their human lottery ticket. He was going to make them rich, even if it meant waiting 472 days to collect.

The then-54-year-old Australian hadn’t yet figured it out. What he knew was that unknown men had crashed through the front gate of the house he was renovating in the southern Philippines, a place he thought was safe. One fired the round that pierced him, then shouted “Police! Police!” and fitted him with handcuffs.

He was shirtless and shoeless. The men didn’t care. “You are coming with us,” they told him. They threatened death if he ran.

After 20 minutes of bleeding through the paddies, they arrived at a river, where two boats were waiting. “It was only then I realized I was being kidnapped,” said Mr. Rodwell in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail this week.

His seizure in 2011 placed him in the hands of Islamic criminal organization Abu Sayyaf, which has in recent months demanded $8.1-million ransoms for each of the four people – two of them Canadian – taken from a marina last September. That kidnapping took a grisly turn this week, when the head of Calgarian John Ridsdel was found on Jolo Island in the lawless southern Philippines province of Sulu. A body believed to be the dead Canadian was recovered Wednesday; the Philippine military said it could take a week to complete final verification.

But Canadian Robert Hall and his Filipina girlfriend Marites Flor, along with Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and 18 other hostages – some foreign, some Filipino – remain captives of a group whose treatment Mr. Rodwell endured for a year and a half.

He believes his experience is similar to what current captives are enduring – an ordeal that left him too weak to walk and desperate enough that he seasoned food with discharge from his own eyes.

The men put him on the boat and pushed the throttles hard, making for open waters that would take them to stronghold territory where they could hide their prize in relative safety from the military.

“Then, when they got out to sea, the two motors exploded,” Mr. Rodwell said. Mr. Rodwell jumped into the sea, barely escaping the flames.

Still handcuffed, he dog-paddled to breathe. The men put out the fire, dragged him back on board and paddled six hours to shore.

“I thought this must be my lucky day. I’m not going to die today,” he said.

It did little to reduce the terror, made worse by the clumsy hands he found himself in. His captors got lost as they paddled through the dark, and eventually tucked the hamstrung boat into mangroves.

When daylight broke, they found themselves behind a naval ship. They were so close Mr. Rodwell could see military personnel on board.

Safety was right in front of him. But there was nothing he could do.

The men forced him into water up to his chest. “They had rifles pointed at my head. If I made any noise, I would have been shot immediately.”

The first group of men, who he believes were a small-time gang of thugs looking to sell him onwards, made it safely away from the navy ship and handed him over to another group. He was a commodity, with plenty of middlemen looking to profit.

And those in higher positions had little contact with him. Instead they contracted the task to guards, who would not be paid until a ransom was secured. They typically operated in groups of four who would change shifts roughly every 10 weeks.

The guards lived with him in isolation, often choosing impenetrable coastal areas and the hardship that came with them. Surrounded by a coastal jumble of dirt, roots and water, he often had virtually no room to walk. He lived in a hammock, and was plagued by mosquitoes and rats.

He began to dream of how great life would be in an Australian prison.

“I could walk backward and forward in a prison yard. That would be wonderful.”

The isolation weighed on the guards, too. Several took to shimmying up trees and making animals sounds. “After about five hours of this, I’d shout at them,” he said.

Sometimes he made conversation with the guards. They were poor young men, saving for a wife. One said no father would give away his daughter unless he had an M16 assault rifle, worth about $1,600, and an $800 dowry.

Guarding captives was the local equivalent of road construction.

“It’s seasonal work,” Mr. Rodwell said.

But menace lurked everywhere.

Abu Sayyaf appeared to be less an organization than a collection of warring factions, each gunning for lucrative ransom money. For the men guarding Mr. Rodwell, another faction, eager to steal a hostage, could prove as dangerous as the military. Locals, too, were to be feared. Though many supported and profited from the kidnappers, the guards worried chatty villagers could also give away their location. Once, when illegal loggers spotted them, guards raced to find a new camp.

Mr. Rodwell moved 27 times in total, travelling between mangroves and mountains.

His body gradually deteriorated. When he was so weak he could no longer walk, guards had him ride cows and oxen instead.

They fed him little more than rice. His eyes had become inflamed during his long periods of inactivity next to the sea. Bored with the unending bowls of plain starch, he occasionally placed some fluid from the conjunctivitis into his bowl.

“It flavoured it up a bit,” he said.

Negotiations were under way to win his freedom, but he knew almost nothing. His guards were foot soldiers. Those seeking a ransom remained far away, demanding $2-million (U.S.) for his release.

He saw them only on the occasions they would show up without notice, carrying props and a camera to make videos they would release online.

“They bring a sign and all their weaponry, clothing – and they stage it,” he said.

For Mr. Rodwell, the hardest part was reining in the boredom and fear over the endless weeks.

“People wonder, how do you survive mentally? You have to,” he said. “I had decided myself I wanted to outlive my mother. When I was in a lot of bodily pain, and wanted to consider suicide, I said I will wait.”

He passed the days by casting his mind back over his adventurous life that included time in the military and travels to some 50 countries. Throughout 2012, he spent each day remembering what he had done in previous years on that date.

He kept track of time by newspapers he was ordered to hold up for proof-of-life videos.

When those thoughts ran dry, he concocted elaborate mental scenarios. What if he had married his teenager girlfriend? How many children would they have had? What would they have named them? How would they have renovated the property they stood to inherit?

Crazy, he said, is a relative condition. “It’s a matter of opinion. You don’t realize until afterward.”

He was finally released after his family cobbled together $100,000 (U.S.), just 1.5 per cent of the ransom demanded for Mr. Ridsdel and those taken with him. Some came from his own bank account, the rest from his sister and brother, who took out a loan to cover the costs.

Australia, like Canada, says it does not pay ransoms. The money was “sanctified,” Mr. Rodwell said, by calling it “board and lodging” expenses.

Though he spent more time in captivity than any other Australian in peacetime, he holds few grudges against his guards, devout Muslims who would rise at 4 a.m. to pray, and who believed they did nothing wrong.

“The evil doesn’t exist at the low level. The evil is at the high level,” he said.

For the guards, most of whom had not finished primary school, “it’s like they live in the Old Testament. And they don’t regard kidnapping as a crime,” he said. “These are extremists and it’s the circumstances they are in.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Warren Rodwell as William Rodwell. This version has been corrected.

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