Still in bandit hands
Three years of harrowing captivity ended last Dec. 6 for Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra, when he managed to escape from his Abu Sayyaf captors while they were engaged in enemy fire with government forces that attacked the bandits’ base in Sulu. Exhausted, emaciated, with a gaping wound on his face, Vinciguerra was rescued by Army Scout Rangers and brought to a hospital. He is now at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City for further treatment and recuperation.
All’s well that ends well? Not at all. Vinciguerra was in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf for an unforgivably long time, along with Dutch national Ewold Horn, who was unable to escape with him at the height of the firefight. Vinciguerra said Horn was simply too weak to flee; presumably, the Dutchman is still subject to the misery and deprivation of living in the jungle and the terrorizing ways of his captors even as he grows progressively weaker.
While it took an attack by government soldiers on the Abu Sayyaf camp to hand Vinciguerra the opportunity to free himself, his escape was largely his own doing. He said he was able to wrestle a bolo knife away from Abu Sayyaf subcommander Juhurim Hussein, wounding himself in the face during the scuffle but eventually hacking Hussein in the neck and running away to a safe area. According to reports, the bandit subcommander died from his wounds. If this were a cheap action movie, we’d be cheering Vinciguerra’s derring-do and the bloody comeuppance he was able to visit on his captors.
But this is not, so even as we rejoice at Vinciguerra’s escape, our elation is tempered by the grave realization that another kidnap victim continues to languish in the hands of the bandits—and, worse, that the group repeatedly described by the military as a spent force remains, from all indications, a deadly presence in the area.
The national government has poured billions of pesos into the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, and has even enlisted the help of American forces supposedly in intelligence-gathering and the training of local troops. Yet the bandit group has rampaged far too many times in parts of Mindanao, terrorizing communities and kidnapping people, with an impunity and self-assurance that has only highlighted the continuing ineffectiveness of the government’s campaign against it. What gives?
Vinciguerra and Horn are not even military personnel, which would have made them logical targets of the rogue forces. They were in Mindanao for a most innocuous activity—bird-watching. Along with Filipino guide Ivan Sarenas, they were snatched by the Abu Sayyaf in Tawi-Tawi in February 2012.
On the boat ride to another location, Sarenas was able to escape by jumping into the water and swimming away. The two Europeans were kept as kidnap-for-ransom baits, with the bandit group reportedly making demands on the families of the foreigners to pay up in exchange for their freedom.
But with the government officially hewing to a no-ransom policy in dealing with the Abu Sayyaf, the Europeans’ ordeal would stretch to months and years of agonizing life in the jungle fastness of Sulu, their story meanwhile eventually disappearing from the headlines and all but forgotten.
Vinciguerra’s escape and Horn’s continuing captivity bring that story back to front and center. Not only must it be seen as a story of personal bravery in the face of terrifying odds; it also deserves to be seen, more fundamentally, for what it is: an indictment of the failure of the national government to stamp out the menace of the Abu Sayyaf.
A faction of the group was also responsible for the kidnapping last April of two German nationals, who were snatched off a boat in Palawan. They were released in October only after paying a P250-million ransom, in bundles of money that the Abu Sayyaf faction proudly showed off before the cameras, even as the military continued to deny to ridiculous lengths that money had changed hands.
So far, the group reportedly still has about 400 fighters, though operating as different factions of varying strength and ruthlessness. Aside from Horn, a Malaysian police officer and a Japanese treasure hunter are also being kept hostage.
How long before they are rescued? No one knows. The opportunity afforded Vinciguerra to escape while his captors were distracted might not happen again to his fellow kidnap victims. As long as the government is unable to definitively crush their tormentors, their fate remains dire. And the country is likewise the worse for it.
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