The 11 men who boarded the Indonesian tugboat Brahma 12 in southern Philippine waters on that Saturday afternoon in late March wore Filipino military uniforms, sailor Bayu Oktavianto told BenarNews.
He and his crewmates soon realized that they were not dealing with Philippine soldiers, but with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an Islamic militant group based in the southern Philippines.
“Once they boarded our ship, they immediately tied us with ropes as they had only five pairs of handcuffs,” Bayu, a 23-year-old resident of Central Java province said as he recounted his 36-day ordeal along with nine shipmates in the custody of Abu Sayyaf, a group reputed for taking foreigners hostage and killing some of their captives.
Abu Sayyaf took the 10 Indonesian sailors hostage in the waters of Tawi-Tawi province on March 26 and freed them on May 1. During that period, however, the group executed a Canadian hostage, 68-year-old John Ridsdel, after it said that its ransom demands had not been met.
Taken to an island
Bayu showed no fear as he sat at his home in Mendak, Central Java, telling the story of his captivity.
On the afternoon of March 26, Mahmud, a shipmate from Kalimantan province, suggested to the others that they all claim to be married with children and that the non-Muslims in their group try to pass themselves off as Muslims, said Bayu who is single.
At first the militants did not believe that the Indonesians were all Muslims, and made each of them recite two sentences of syahadat, the Muslim creed. Three of the crew members who were Christians, Peter Barahama, Peti Alvarez and Julian Philips, could not pass the test.
“Initially they just wanted to take three of us, but we agreed that if they wanted to get us, they would have to take all of us,” Bayu said.
By his account the kidnappers used the tugboat to take the crew to an unidentified island, arriving at about 2 a.m. the next day. The Brahma 12 was left floating in the sea without the crew, after all valuables were taken.
On the island, dozens of men armed with weapons and who wore military uniforms were waiting. Bayu said he saw hundreds of militants dressed in fatigues and talking in Indonesian, Malay, English and Tagalog.
‘We were not their target’
One of the militants told them that they should not have been taken hostage, according to Bayu.
“But since they already had snatched the 10 crew members, they needed to complete the mission,” he said.
Dozens of bamboo houses with roofs made of coconut leaves were hidden in the island’s forest. Bayu and the others were confined to a long building with several rooms, including bathrooms.
He said he saw no women, children or other prisoners.
While in captivity, the crew sat as militants guarded them. They ate once or twice a day.
“When the food was ready, we were called to join them,” Bayu said.
Sometimes their captors threatened them by sticking a gun to their faces, but there was no physical abuse. In fact, the handcuffs and ropes were removed and militants told them they would be released someday.
“The reason is because we are Indonesians. Their Quran teacher is from Indonesia and we were not their target,” said Bayu, who believes that some of the militants were fellow Indonesians.
The militants were diligent in conducting the five-time daily prayers and spending much of their time reading the Quran, he recalled. He and his colleagues were invited to join in the prayers and attend Quran lessons.
“I usually was not on time in performing salat. Now I do it on time and I read the Quran too,” said Bayu.
Later on during his captivity, a bespectacled bald man met Bayu and his colleagues to tell them they soon would be released. That night, a member of the Abu Sayyaf also said that a ransom would be paid soon.
The next morning, May 1, all 10 crew members were taken to the island of Sulu where the militants told them they were free.
“One of them told me that we had to leave immediately. If we are one minute late, we could die,” Bayu said, recalling how he saw several militants carrying sacks which, he believed, contained ransom money.
A waiting truck delivered the 10 to the home of the governor of Sulu, Abdusakur Tan, where they were instructed to shower and change clothes before being fed. The 10 men were famished, and chose to eat first.
After greeting the sailors in Jakarta following their release, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the government had paid no ransom to secure the release. She said that their freedom had been secured through diplomatic efforts.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Law and Security Affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan told reporters that the government remained committed to not paying ransoms for hostages.
On April 19, the tugboat’s owner had agreed to pay for their release, but has since not commented on whether it paid the 50 million Philippine pesos (U.S. $1.07 million) demanded by Abu Sayyaf.
On May 11, the day the Indonesian government announced that four other Indonesian sailors had been freed from captivity by another armed group in the southern Philippines, Retno declined to give details about their release.
As for Bayu, he is savoring his regained freedom but said he planned to return to his job as a sailor after celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on July 6.
His mother, Rahayu, said that she would let her son return to the sea despite concerns about his safety.
“Any kind of work definitely has its own risk,” she told BenarNews.