Photo credit: VacationXTravel
HAVE you ever wanted to move to another country or maybe take a trip to somewhere that is mysterious and totally off the grid? I have. I fantasize about this very often. One day leaving Canada, leaving the west and going to start a life in Costa Rica, Chile, Cambodia or Hong Kong. Anywhere that is different. I have no idea when I should do this though. Maybe when I’m older so I can retire there or maybe I should do it now while I’m still young? Obviously, I’m not ready to make the leap yet to leave my job and go somewhere where everyone speaks a different language — yet. But many people are doing it already, like my parents for example. They have been living as expats in Costa Rica for almost a decade now.
I also really want to start to travel much more. Go to places that I’ve been writing about, like North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, Israel/Palestine or Dubai. I want to understand what it is actually like. I want to see where we are told it is so terrible to be with my own eyes. Not that I don’t trust that they are but because I know there are ways to get in, so I can see for myself, and I love imagining doing that.
However, if I was ever to be taken as a hostage and held for ransom while I was in one of those “troubled” places, I wouldn’t have any idea of what kind of efforts are taking place in Canada to get me back alive. Actually, none of us would; we would all be in the same position regardless of what country we are from.
We would just have to sit there and wait for our time to eventually come. That’s particularly fascinating because, in this day and age, a person from the west would assume that they are pretty safe when they are traveling — as an entitled “free” person would. Many young naïve travelers may assume their embassy is there in order to protect them and make sure they come back. Yet, by going to certain countries on the map, you are choosing to go there at your own risk. Typically in those cases, you should be contacting a travel agency, or guide service, to tour you around instead of going on your own.
Around the world, there are many terrorist groups — which affiliates with the much larger, state-sponsored organizations like ISIS or Al-Qaeda — which will take civilian prisoners just so that they can use them to finance their illegal activities. Larger organizations in the Middle East and Africa do take hostages as well but they have found other — more lucrative ways — to make a profit. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS takes over private oil refineries and steals the money that is made there. So, how they can get cash by hustling drugs — which really isn’t that lucrative in comparison to a whole oil refinery — or they can start taking hostages.
Basically, any person that stands out is a target. Then the captors will determine if that person is eligible or not to be put up for ransom. They look for anyone who’s rich and from a rich family or expats and tourists from rich countries. They demand a certain amount of cash from wealthy governments to use for guns, assemble their bombs, and to continue on recruiting, training and carrying out attacks on neighboring areas. If they don’t get what they ask for, then they just cut their heads off.
In the Philippines, where the militant group called Abu Sayyaf operates — an alleged affiliate of ISIS and Al-Qaeda — this particular problem is very real to travelers. If you travel there, you are going there at your own risk. The entire country is not ridden with pickup trucks full of rifle-wielding men but certain islands and isolated areas are considered to be unsafe, and therefore off limits. Last year 2 Canadian expats were taken and eventually executed by Abu Sayyaf because the government had refused to pay the ransom for their lives.
Before I jump into the stories of what happened to those men — I want to go over the background of what is going on in the Philippines.
Pearl of the Orient Seas
As you can see the country is made up of many islands — more than 7,000 in fact. The two largest islands of the Philippines are Luzon to the north and Mindanao to the south. To the south west, you can see that the island of Borneo is very, very close and Borneo has 3 different countries on it. I will come back to this Sabah region of Borneo later.
While terrorist attacks do happen on the northern island of Luzon, like in the capital city of Manila where the bombing of a ferry in 2004, which resulted in the deaths of 116 people; now being known as the “Philippines’ deadliest terrorist attack” and still the “world’s deadliest terrorist attack at sea” — most of the violence happens on the southern island of Mindanao.
As you can see in this much larger image of the island, a major part of the western portion is considered to be “troubled”. The entire archipelago consisting of many tiny islands such as Tawi Tawi, Sulu and Baslan and on the mainland is Zamboanga City and the region around Cotabato City are all considered to be unsafe for travel.
At least 21 people were killed… Militants linked to Islamic State swept through a southern Philippine city… The militants called for reinforcements and about 100 gunmen entered Marawi [just north of Cotabato City], a mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao
I first became very interested in this topic when I watched a vlog of two YouTubers — who are American but live in Japan — travel to the north eastern tip of Borneo, to the Sabah region, which I mentioned before. Both of them had a great time in the area and didn’t have any problems while they were there. But afterward, however, I started looking up different things on Google Maps to familiarize myself with where they actually were on the island. I came across a certain ferry that links the city of Sandakan in Malaysia (on Borneo) with Bongao, a city on one of the small islands of Tawi Tawi in the Phillipenes. I found a certain discussion on TripAdvisor about that particular connection.
A traveler asked how much the fare was and what the schedule was like, and the first response — made by user mousehunt from Singapore — was this:
I suggest you not to take this route. I do not know about your race and nationality. Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi is Abu Sayaff stronghold. So anything can happen.
Later on, in the same discussion, another user called FSRP01 — who is local to the Phillepenes — responded that:
Zamboanga City is safe for everyone. Outside the city is not safe for Caucasians. In Tawi Tawi, Asian Muslims are safe. Sunni are the majority and there have been no problems with other Muslims. Caucasians should not go there regardless of whether they are Muslim Converts or not.
Also, a user called rpantoni from Australia, says “Bongao is safe for local tourists. Just blend in. I would not recommend going there for whites, without contacting the local tourism office. By the way, their tourism office is located in the airport. As for the Abu Sayyaf, they won’t waste their time in Bongao.” So, to sum this up — make sure you know where you’re going.
Always make sure to know where you’re going and read forums to get an idea of what it’s like in risky destinations.
The 2 Canadians
Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, both retired expats living in the Philippines, were kidnapped at the same time on September 21st, 2015 at the Holiday Oceanview Resort on Samal Island — along with a Filipino named Marites Flor and a Norweigan man named Kjartan Sekkingstad. Samal Island is on the southern part of Mindanao, close to Davao City in an area that’s generally considered to be upscale and not recognized as being unsafe — so the ambush was totally by surprise. John was eventually killed on April 25th, 2016 and then Robert on June 13th. Marites was released sometime in June and in August, Kjartan was as well. According to Norway Today: “it is not known who… paid the ransom [for Kjartan] but it is not Norwegian authorities.” And the “Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte claimed recently that they paid almost 9 million NOK in ransom” — which is about $1.5 million in Canadian dollars.
The CBC reported that “Abu Sayyaf drove [Marita] out of the jungle and into the hands of the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who wanted to celebrate her release. (The circumstances of her release are still largely unknown.)”
[Marita] said the militants peppered the captives with questions about their jobs and families in a bid to discern their wealth — and how much Abu Sayyaf could command as a ransom.
It was also apparent they were researching them on the web.
As it turned out, [Marita] was working as a cleaning lady in order to finish her studies to be a civil servant. The militants seemed to buy [Robert]’s story that he was just a welder and had stopped working for health reasons. They discovered that [John] had been a mining company executive, and set the ransom at $28 million CDN each.
I have found another story that says that Robert’s ransom was set at $6 million, so I guess it depends on who you ask.
[Robert], his Filipino girlfriend [Marites], [John] and [Kjartan] were snatched last September at a marina near the city of Davao, before being spirited by boat 500 kilometres away to Jolo island.
[Robert], a Calgary native, has sold insurance, run a welding shop and acted in independent films, but reportedly sold everything in 2014 to buy a 36-foot sailboat, the Renova, which he helmed across the Pacific. He appeared to have decided to settle in the Philippines, according to one published report, before being kidnapped.
Were there any other tactics that the government used instead of paying off these terrorists? Well, when John and Robert were originally kidnapped on September 21st, 2015 and article came out in the Toronto Sun urging Canadians to “let them be executed” or “at least call the bluff of the militant group”—whatever that means. So basically, nothing was done at all and the media just found ways to spin it off differently. They said to us, OK they’re going to try other methods but what they were really saying was bullshit — they can’t do anything anyway! Then it went very quiet for a while and nothing else was said about what they didn’t do. Seems pretty cold-cut. I guess they just don’t pay ransoms ever? Well, it turns out that isn’t correct.
“Following [Prime Minsister] Trudeau’s unequivocal we-don’t-pay-ransom remarks, Gar Pardy (the former head of consular services at Global Affairs Canada) appeared on CBC’s Power and Politic and told host Terry Miliewski that ransom had been paid in more than 100 hostage cases during his tenure with consular services, and that 68-year-old John Ridsdel is the first Canadian hostage to be killed by his captors.” The first.
Just 17 days before [John]’s murder, a retired Italian priest and businessman seized last year from the southern city of Dipolog, was quietly released.
His family is believed to have excluded the Philippines military from the negotiations and made contact directly with the kidnappers, eventually securing his freedom for about $600,000.
Fourteen Indonesian sailors seized in two raids on the high seas in March and April and held in Jolo have also been freed in recent days after ransoms were reportedly paid.
Warren Rodwell, an Australian ex-soldier and teacher, was abducted from his home in the southern Philippines in late 2011 and released 14 months later after his family reportedly agreed to pay “board and lodging” expenses of less than $100,000.
But a Dutch bird-watcher and a Japanese tourist seized in recent years are feared to have died in captivity, with nothing heard of them and no demands for their lives.
It was actually hard to find information online about how governments deal with hostage situations overseas, especially when terrorists are involved. For example, I found a lot of hostage situations that happen in government facilities within Canada, like say in a bank when someone is robbing it. But finding information regarding the tactics used to navigate what to do when a terrorist group takes a Canadian hostage in another country — that wasn’t so easy. Then I found an article that says that this lack of information is key to how these situations are dealt with in the real world but they still find space to fit in that there are other ways that the government uses to get hostages back:
Ottawa has refused to comment on Canada’s efforts to free hostages, except to say it’s working with international allies, and to deny reports it was involved in negotiations with the group. However, Gar Pardy, a former Canadian diplomat, says secrecy is important, because often when details of talks start to leak, the hostage takers tend to increase the pressure on governments by changing the terms.
‘Quite often you will see increases in the demands that are made for the release of people and that’s what you’re trying to control and condition as much as anything.’ Pardy adds hostage situations are like an iceberg, most of the work being done is below the surface. [Prime Minister] Trudeau says Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, but that doesn’t mean the government isn’t working to secure [Robert]’s release.
If you become a hostage while you’re traveling abroad; depending on what country you are from — the chances of you surviving are slim. The mission to eliminate terrorism right now is much too great to scoff over cash over to the enemy’s cause. To sacrifice freedom for a few lives here and there may sound harsh but in reality — it is what happens. Alas, I wish that every prisoner held against their will could just come home but that is only the quick and juvenile solution that comes to mind to solve this really big systemic problem.
More than 25 Canadians have been held hostage since 9/11 and only a few of them have died.
Perhaps the most tragic case was the bizarre tale of Beverley Giesbrecht. Hers is not a name many Canadians know. “I’ve been held now for three months, and my embassy has not done anything for me,” she says, her voice breaking in a video her captors forced her to make. “I have guns to my head. I could be killed at any moment.”
She died, sick and broken, after being held for two years in the Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan. Her kidnappers were demanding only $1,200 ransom by the end — little more than a week’s salary for the average Canadian, yet enough to save a life.
It is a popularity contest depending on who you are, who you know and where you’re from that’s going to determine whether you come back or not. If John’s and Robert’s family and friends could have raised the millions of dollars that was needed then they probably could have gotten them back safely. But because the majority of us had no idea who these two men were and because the new fancy Prime Minister was being so cut-throat that “Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists” — then they just ended up dying, just like Beverley did.
If Canada doesn’t have this figured out then you can be almost certain that nowhere else does either, so it brings back the question: am I going to ever leave or move somewhere else knowing that I’m not safe? Well, of course, I still will one day. But I’m going to do my homework before I plan to do it. I’m going to really check up on modern affairs in the countries that I plan on visiting and I’ll make sure that I’m going to be a right fit.
I definitely see other countries in a different light after researching and writing this — but more importantly, I see my own in a way that I haven’t before: I see a country full of people who have these amazing rights to control, with our emotions, what the government does in order to protect innocent lives or to sacrifice them. Maybe if we could see how powerful we are in numbers, if we felt a little bit more for strangers when we were idle, if we could just understand that all human beings experience the exact same kind of fear and pain as us — then we could direct our government to stop the war and make sure there is a plan to get everyone home safely.