Nine months as captive for Abu Sayyaf
Marites Flor first realized John Ridsdel had been murdered when she saw one of their captors cleaning his blood off a machete.
The 3 p.m. deadline on April 25 had come and gone, and the Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in the Philippine jungle had followed through with their plan to behead the Canadian.
Flor had known how dangerous the Islamic State-affiliated militant group was. But up until then, the militants had lied to them constantly about whether they were going home or not. By Christmas. Before the New Year. Every date they set came and went, so she didn’t believe they would follow through with Ridsdel’s execution.
But Ridsdel knew he was about to die. The night before the deadline, he gave Flor a final message to pass along to his loved ones.
“I want you to tell [my] daughters that they are amazing, that [I] love them so much,” she recalled him saying.
Months later, on June 13, the militants struck again, this time beheading another hostage, Canadian Robert Hall. The 66-year-old was Flor’s fiance.
Now, months after her own release, Flor gave her first wide-ranging interview to VICE News over Skype, shedding light on the harrowing ordeal she and the hostages who did not make it endured. She revealed new details of just how close the Philippine military was to the Abu Sayyaf camp — at one point, the gunfire exchange between the militants and the army was so close, Flor could smell the smoke — and a $1 million ransom offer by the Ridsdel family that fell short of the captors demands.
A Filipina woman, Flor was an afterthought in Canadian media coverage of the hostage situation that began on Sept. 21, 2015, when she, Ridsdel, Hall, and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad were captured at gunpoint at a Philippine resort in the Mindanao region. But during her time in captivity, Flor played a crucial role, becoming the go-between translator and advocate for the three foreign hostages. They pinned their hopes on newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who stood firm on Canada’s policy of not paying ransom demands to terrorists.
After witnessing horrors and starving in the jungle, Flor is now back to a healthy weight and is getting support from a therapist. What follows is her account of the nine months she spent in captivity.
The evening of Sept. 21, 2015, Flor and Hall were relaxing in their boat, watching movies, at the Holiday Oceanview Samal Resort, a usually-quiet tourist destination not far from the city of Davao. The couple had met online.
Flor was the single mother of a teenager. Hall was an the Alberta-born adventurer, who had worked as a metalworker and actor, according to Maclean’s. Hall had visited the Philippines several times to meet Flor and her family, and decided to stay for good. They were in love, and wanted to start a business together. They had plans to get married, and already they called each other husband and wife.
Around 11 p.m. they weren’t tired enough to go to bed. Hall turned on the light to make some popcorn. That’s when they heard banging outside.
Four or five gunmen came into their boat and one pointed a pistol in Flor’s face. The gunmen pressed the muzzle of a rifle into Hall’s head so forcefully that it drew blood. They ordered the couple to get up onto the deck.
“We will shoot your wife!” they threatened.
Hall asked them what they wanted and they demanded money. He gave them all the cash in his wallet, Flor recalled. The militants went into the boat and searched it, while others held them at gunpoint.
Meanwhile, several more gunmen were looking for other potential hostages.
John Ridsdel was on the dock when he was grabbed. Norwegian resort manager Kjartan Sekkingstad intervened and tried to fight off the men but he, too, was captured.
The gunmen forced the four captives into a fishing boat, into the hole where Flor said the fish are kept, and covered them with a black tarp. They were cold and wet. Flor and Hall didn’t have shoes on.
As they sped south across the water, their captors tried to force Hall to unlock his iPad — they wanted more information about him, and his bank details. But Hall was defiant. He gave them the wrong password, and cut his thumb with a shard of glass so they couldn’t use his thumbprint to unlock it.
Flor told the others her suspicions: that these men were Abu Sayyaf, a militant organization that had in 2014 pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, “Because of their dialect, because they were Muslim,” she said. Later, when no one was looking, one of the gunmen, in a hushed tone, confirmed it to her.
They travelled for three days and two nights. Flor became sick as the boat bounced off the high waves. She still has a scar on her back where the metal side of the boat rubbed as she tried to sleep.
She and Hall comforted each other. “We need to be strong,” she told him.
At one point, there were problems with the boat’s engine. They considered escaping if the boat capsized, but the engine pulled through, and on they went.
Finally, they reached the province of Sulu in the southern Philippine archipelago, where they joined with 200 to 300 Abu Sayyaf militants in the jungle, many of them young recruits — one of them a boy soldier of only about 10 years old, holding a gun.
Every day, the militants marched them through the jungle, their slippered feet sliding on forest floor when it rained. The militants gave Hall and Flor slippers because they had no shoes, blankets, and a tarp for when it rained. At night they would camp and sleep on the ground. Their diet consisted mostly of rice and brown water.
To keep their spirits up, Flor would jokingly pretend that the bland food was chicken or cupcakes, and the other hostages would play along.
About three weeks after they were captured, Flor and the three others recorded their first video.
The hostage-takers had talked on the phone to the victims families, demanding ransom. If there was no movement, they would record grainy videos of their captives and release them online.
In their first recording, masked Abu Sayyaf gunmen hold assault rifles behind the backs of the four hostages. A flag in the background carries the Islamic State symbol, or shahada. One militant holds a knife to Ridsdel’s neck. The Canadians plead for help, and ask their families to contact the Canadian government. Ridsdel asks the Philippine military to stop their operations so negotiations can begin.
Abu Sayyaf released several videos before they set their first deadline. In the third video released on March 10, the deadline was April 8 and the ransom for Ridsdel was $100 million Philippine Pesos (about CAD $2.7 million).
That deadline came and went. An April 15 video set the deadline for ten days later — this time demanding $300 million (about CAD $8 million) Pesos by 3 p.m. that day.
“Every time I heard the word ultimatum, it made me scared,” Flor said. “They said if they get the money, they will not kill somebody. We did not think that they would kill one of us.”
The first murder
As the April 25 ultimatum approached, Ridsdel prepared to die.
He asked Flor several times to bring messages back to his family, but she refused, telling him his worst fears wouldn’t happen.
The night before the deadline, he insisted. He asked Flor to tell his daughters they were amazing and that he loved them. Again, she told him to keep his hopes up — that he was going to live.
That night, the Philippine military converged on their position. Flor said she heard drones whizzing overhead. A helicopter opened fire, wounding several militants. She heard one Abu Sayyaf fighter say the soldiers had followed them into the jungle.
In the press, the Philippine military said they were hitting Abu Sayyaf hard, but questions persist regarding how a military with expansive resources could not take out a small force of only 200 to 300 militants in the jungle.
“I could tell they were still having trouble finding the [Abu Sayyaf Group] because of the forest,” Flor said of the military. “The trees are too big.”
To evade the military’s ongoing rescue mission, the militants kept them moving on foot through the jungle all night and into the next day. They were tired, hungry and thirsty. Finally, they stopped to rest and cook food.
The deadline of 3 p.m. loomed over the group. She saw the negotiator talking on the phone. He was talking to Ridsdel’s daughter, Flor said. “They were talking about money or ransom.”
She heard the hostage negotiator say they would not accept $40 million pesos (about CAD $1 million) — it was short of the $300 million pesos (about CAD $8 million) they had publicly demanded for Ridsdel release.
The negotiator gave the phone to Ridsdel. “I heard John say: ‘Bring that money now, here in Sulu.’”
Then they put the handcuffs on Ridsdel, slapped him, and dragged him away from the other three hostages.
“I think something is wrong,” Flor told Hall. “I think they did something.”
Hall replied, “No, no, it’s just a drama.”
When the militants returned, they ordered the others to throw away Ridsdel’s belongings. He was dead.
Flor said she didn’t believe it until she saw the knife.
“I saw the leader, and he was washing the knife, and there was blood.”
“Robert kept saying that they were animals.”
Flor sobbed in Hall’s arms. The next day, the militants watched the beheading video on repeat and laughed. She could hear John’s voice. It confirmed what she suspected.
“I kept covering my ears, I couldn’t take it, it made me scared, I was crying.”
“Robert kept saying that they were animals.”
The second murder
In the nine months she was held captive, Flor says the military attacked nine times. Sometimes their fire came close to the group, sometimes they were too far away. But she believes the military knew their approximate location.
In all nine military encounters, Flor said: “I can hear the bullets, I can hear the bombs, I can hear the shooting, I can hear everything.”
She saw a drone only once, although the hostages often heard them flying overhead.
After Ridsdel’s beheading, the prospect of death hung over all of them.
On May 15, about a month after he died, Abu Sayyaf released another video. In this one, the remaining hostages wore orange jumpsuits, like in the execution videos produced by the Islamic State. The demand was CAD $16 million by June 13, or both Hall and Sekkingstad will be killed.
Hall addressed the camera: “My name is Robert Hall. I am told to tell you that on June 13th at 3 p.m. I will be murdered if the demands are not met.”
Behind the scenes, Flor said she tried to advocate for the foreign hostages. She begged the leader, “Please, please don’t do that to Robert and Kjartan. Our families want us to go home alive.
“$300 million [pesos] is impossible,” she explained. “I am begging you.”
The negotiators were waiting for Hall’s family to phone them.
As the deadline on Hall’s head neared, the negotiators had the hostages speak on the phone to reporters with the Philippine Inquirer. Abu Sayyaf saw the paper as a platform to amplify their ransom demands, and find someone willing to pay.
With only hours left before the 3 p.m. deadline, Flor spoke over the phone to an Inquirer reporter: “We need to go home alive. We don’t want what happened to John to happen again.”
But the deadline neared, and no ransom came.
Hall and Flor knew it was the last time they were going to be together.
“I kept hugging him, telling him that I love him so much, that I want him to be beside me, because I don’t know what will happen if I am alone.
“He told me that, if something happens, I want you to be strong, and I want you to move on, and I want you to find someone who is in a western country because you are not safe here anymore.
“I kept telling him, no, no, don’t say that. But he just kept telling me ‘You need to be strong, and you need to move on.’
“It was heartbreaking, so heartbreaking,” she said with tears on her cheeks.
He gave her directions for how to find the military’s location in the jungle if she had a chance to escape. She still wonders today how he knew where she should go. She believes his spirit had already left his body by then, and that he had seen her escape route from above.
At 3 p.m., they handcuffed Hall and took him away.
“They murdered Robert,” Flor said.
After Hall’s execution, she confronted his killer: “So now you are happy? You are happy that you killed somebody?”
The man smiled at her and said nothing.
“I had a feeling that I wanted to kill him, but of course I am female and I am still a hostage,” she said.
Again, they packed up their camp and marched through the jungle to evade the military. They walked all night. They heard helicopters attacking in the distance, back in the direction of the camp where they had killed Hall, but by now his murderers were long gone.
Ten days after Hall’s death, Flor was released.
Her captors said someone on the outside “wanted to help” her and Sekkingstad. But they didn’t elaborate. She doesn’t know whether someone paid for her to walk free — it would be in Abu Sayyaf’s interest for people to believe they got a ransom.
“I don’t believe what they are saying because they are such liars,” she said.
One night before midnight, the militants woke her and told her to pack up her things because she was going home.
They walked her through the jungle, treading slowly and carefully so they wouldn’t make a sound.
They walked like this for an hour until they hit a road. There was a jeep waiting with a driver. The jeep drove her 20 minutes to a town nearby, where the driver dropped her off and left her.
It wasn’t until September, almost a year after he was captured, that Sekkingstad was released, amid reports that his ransom was paid.
Flor said Hall hoped the Canadian government would pay his ransom secretly, even if Trudeau was saying publicly that they did not negotiate with terrorists. Either that, or he hoped the government would help the rescue mission.
But Trudeau’s position was clear: at a G7 meeting in Japan in May, he sought support for Canada’s no ransom policy, declaring, “I expressed my firm resolve and the clear resolve of Canadians to prevent the Canadian flag from becoming a target when worn on a backpack around the world.”
Internal communications obtained by VICE News also showed that before he spoke publicly about Canada’s no ransom policy, Trudeau emphasized that position during a call to the Philippine President ahead of the deadline on Ridsdel’s head.
Flor said that Trudeau’s election had raised the hopes of both Hall and Ridsdel. “They were very happy, they were very hopeful. Because they were thinking, he is a good person, I know we will be safe.”
Asked if she wished the Canadian government had paid the ransoms, she paused for a moment before nodding.
“For me, as a Filipino, and I really don’t know about your Canadian policies, but of course I am wishing for that,” she said. “Just to save the lives of the two guys.”
Cover: Photo courtesy of Flor