A Survivor Tells Their Life-Changing Story
On 23 April 2000, while diving in the warm waters of Sipadan (the only oceanic island of Malaysia), Callie and Monique Strydom were captured and taken hostage for ransom. “We were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf – a rebel group aligned with Al Qaeda. In total 21 hostages were taken by 18 rebels and transported some 350km in the South China sea to an island called “Jolo” in the southern Philippines – we were held there for 127(Monique) and 128 days(myself) in a complete jungle”, recalls Callie.
Death was a daily threat for the South African couple. They were “caught in the middle of rapid automatic gun fire between rebels and military, [as well as] between rebels themselves”. This was shortly followed by highly unpredictable mortar attacks that terrified them. At other times they were subjected to several attacks by the military -so-called “rescue operations”- which almost killed them.
They started becoming accustomed to the worst kinds of extremes: starvation and war. Not only did they have their food and water supplies cut off for periods of time, had to take shelter against constant military barrages of mortars that lasted for six hours at a time. Survival instincts kicked in, and thus staying out of range of the military became of primary importance, as well as their release. Callie also relates how the “distant thought of our loved ones and some letters and parcels after a long time did help”.
Callie and Monique had been Christians prior to the kidnapping, but Callie admits they were not “living it to the full”. “During this time we had a lot of time to think of the meaning of life. We also received a Bible (and Koran for that matter) and received brilliant motivation through scriptures (mainly Psalms) that kept us going”, recalls Callie. When asked how they were able to cope during this horrifying period, he says, “We held strong to our faith and had to make peace with the fact that we were taken in the first place – we had many warnings (i.e. no flights, full accommodation)- but still we persisted and were at the island when they launched the attack”. With death so close at hand, they both realized the great possibility that they could die in this Philippine jungle. Callie convinced his wife to make peace with this reality, and after accepting this, “we totally gave our lives to God and were ready to die”. After this momentous realization, Callie speaks of “a great peace” that overcame them and helped them whenever they were under military attack. “It was not easy though, especially for my wife. And every time the word “military” was used we froze as the thought of going through attacks again was frightening to say the least”.
The couple’s release was dependent on negotiations by intermediaries and “first world countries”. They were freed as a result of large monetary input from South Africa and the country’s Foreign Affairs and Intelligence staff. When asked of the first thing they wanted to do upon release, Callie replies, “To see our family. We had to go via Libya as they provided the negotiator – but first we had to meet with Colonel Gaddafi’s son!”
Callie says that he doesn’t regret what happened, despite it being “the worst experience at the time”. He declares that it made them both stronger and that their bond grew. He sees it as a life-changing experience where “you take the good and tend to forget the bad that came with it- we had professional therapy afterwards which also helped!” he adds. He also says that they chose to forgive the kidnappers- those that are still alive- as “most of them have since died after several other attacks”. The reason he states is that “if we do not do that we will not be able to let go of the event and might end up staying ‘hostages’ after the event”. He compares this idea of being a hostage to everyday life too, for example pursuing money or career “can cause you to become a hostage in a different environment- something to be avoided at all costs!”
Callie remembers how before the kidnapping he had been quiet and soft-spoken; quite a deadly combination for public speaking! His says that his ordeal forced him to be strong for his wife in order to take care of her, and how ultimately he came through not just alive, but with much more confidence, allowing him to easily give a speech to a large group of people. He says the ordeal “made me stronger, grew my faith and taught me to make peace with events that we do not have control over!”
Through therapy they have learnt to talk about their experience and he says “we also hope to inspire and help others through our experience”. His advice to people dealing with adversity is to look out for others that are worse off than you, as there usually are. “We had a sick lady that we had to carry through the attacks – the fact that we cared for her took the worry and pain off us and instead helped us to focus on her. In the end she was released before us and she could make a good recovery”. They had a motto while surviving in the jungle: “Never, never, never give up! And this is a good frame of mind to be in!”
Asked what Callie has found most important in his life after all these years since it happened, he responded, “My family and my relationship with God – without that life is meaningless!”