As his kidnappers took him in a speeding boat toward a notorious militant stronghold in the southern Philippines, Ivan Sarenas decided that he would die if he did not try to escape. When he saw some fishermen, he took his chance, diving deep and hoping his armed captors would not shoot.
The Filipino wildlife photographer, seized with two European tourists during a bird-watching trip, escaped on Wednesday and spoke to reporters yesterday. The tourists Sarenas was guiding, Dutch Ewold Horn and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, remain missing.
“I am still traumatized,” 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 province is famed for virgin beaches surrounded by crystal blue waters, but, like 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, about 2:30pm on Wednesday, Sarenas decided to jump over after he realized 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,’” Sarenas 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 would not 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.