WHEN their 16-metre yacht ‘Catherine’ gently anchored in a desolate bay surrounded by lush green mountains and the sun sank behind a crown of trees, Henrike Dielen and Stefan Okonek knew they could relax. They served up some cool drinks, toasted to spending another wonderful day in paradise and suddenly heard a familiar sound – a boat engine.
“Did you hear that?” remarked Stefan, now 72.
As they quietly listened in the darkness, a spray of lights shined on their faces and they felt the cold metal tips of a rifles on their chest. Blinding them with flashlights, someone shouted in English, “Police!’Several scraggily dressed men had climbed aboard the Catherine. It was clear to Stefan Okonek that this was trouble. “These aren’t policemen. They’re pirates,” he shouted to his wife as the bandits quickly tied their hands with plastic handcuffs.
But Henrike and Stefan knew none of this when they were captured. All they knew after being dragged on deck of their captor’s open boat, was that they faced imminent death. After the pirates looted the couple’s worldly possessions, putting money, jewellery, clothes and even food in bags they tossed into their boat, they sped away with their hostages. For 300 nautical miles they bobbed up and down the Sulu Sea until they reached the island of Jolo in Sulu Province. The nail-biting voyage took about 30 hours.
While on board the speedboat, Henrike noticed that one of her captors was wearing her sunglasses and that another was trying to figure out how to use Stefan’s binoculars. A third kidnapper opened Stefan’s laptop while yet another played childishly with a compass he had yanked from the yacht. The young men were mostly in their teens or early twenties, foul-smelling and sporting rotten teeth.“What do they want from us?” Henrike, now 50, quietly asked her husband just before they arrived on the island of Jolo. “Probably ransom money,” he mumbled.
The sun was still blazing hot when they arrived. The captors jumped off the boat with rifles slung over their shoulders and pushed Stefan and Henrike off. Henrike, recalled “The path was narrow, dense and humid. Stefan and I were barefoot. Our feet began to bleed. Shards of wood and thorny bushes scratched our legs and arms as we walked. They pushed us up and down densely overgrown hills. I could hear the birds and critters in the trees. I was scared to death. The men didn’t say one word to us.”
After about two hours, they smelled smoke and noticed a few open-air huts in a jungle clearing. The rebel’s encampment was on a steep hill where the sea and incoming boats could be spotted at a distance. About a dozen men walked about, dressed in T-shirts, camouflage clothing, colorful bands around their heads and bush knives at their waists. Several fully-veiled women walked about.“One of the women handed us a rusty tin can of hot sugar water,” said Henrike. “We were grateful – dying of thirst.
“Some men pushed us into a wooden cabin with cracks in the walls and a thin mat on the floor. We could see someone standing watch outside the door from the openings between slats of wood. Someone was there day and night, like we were valued treasure. The place was infested by mosquitoes and scorpions were everywhere. It was hell on earth.”
Once inside, Henrike whispered to her husband, “Who are they?” “Probably terrorists, “he answered softly. “They wait around Palawan for wealthy tourists to arrive and kidnap them. They chose us because of our boat.”Henrike, who tried to remain strong, felt tears roll down her cheeks.
Several hours later, a man who was one of their kidnappers on the boat, flung open the wooden cabin door. “I am Abu Rami,” he said tapping his chest. “You are rich. You have yacht and airplane and a big Mercedes. We are poor. If you pay, we let you go.”
Stefan spoke up. “We don’t have an airplane or a Mercedes. All we own is our boat.” “I saw pictures of your plane and Mercedes on the computer,” Rami answered. “No, no. You’re referring to photos I took last year. We were invited by friends who own a Mercedes and a plane. We took at short trip with them on their plane.”
Abu Rami dismissed Stefan’s explanation, and handed him a cellphone. “Here, call your family or your embassy in Manila. Tell them we are holding you. Tell them we’re going to kill you if they do not pay.”
Engulfed by fear, Henrike could feel her face and body on fire. Her husband outwardly held his composure, but he too was a bundle of nerves. He made the call, but to this day, won’t say to whom he spoke, because the German government claims they don’t pay ransom money. The kidnappers wanted €€4.4-million (aboutR64-million) for the two sailors.
Henrike and Stefan met in Mainz, Germany. Twenty-two years her senior, Dr Stefan Okonek was then 48-years-old when he retired from his practice as a dermatologist. Henrike, then a hotel manager, was 26. As committed sailors, they agreed 22 years ago to go around-the-world on the Catherine. “I didn’t hesitate to say I’d go” said Henrike. “We both love sailing.”
Negotiations were turbulent. Every time talks went badly, the kidnappers beat Stefan or deprived the couple of daily rations of fish head, broth and sticky rice. “Our relatives couldn’t raise that much money, even if they‘d sold their homes,” said Henrike. “And the German government’s policy is not to pay ransom.”
To keep track of time, Henrike kept score of the months by cutting small grooves into the wooden walls. When they begged for toothpaste to clean their teeth, they were thrown a tube. Henrike did her best to keep fit by exercising. It was the least she could do to keep her sanity.
“We washed every few days when we were given a canister of water to pour over our heads,” she said, “but Stefan developed open wounds that wouldn’t heal after all the beatings he suffered when negotiations went badly.” When the wounds became infected and Stefan talked about suicide, Henrike convinced her husband to escape.
One sizzling afternoon, when everyone seemed to be asleep and the guard mistakingly left their rickety cabin door ajar, they slipped away into the forest. Unfortunately, a rebel nestled in the trees sighted them and called out for them. Fearful of being shot down, they stopped in their tracks and were marched back to camp. Stefan was beaten mercilessly.
“Abu Rami took revenge and warned us that we’d die. He used his finger to make a wide cut across his neck,” recalled Henrike. Then, he marched them both to the edge of the village where there was a big hole. He grabbed Stefan and placed a machete against his neck like he was going to behead him. Another rebel took a photo with a camera phone and everyone laughed.
They posted the photo on the Internet to pressure negotiators. As if that wasn’t enough, they threw Stefan in the make-shift grave and took photos of themselves with guns drawn around the hole. Stefan was growing so weak, he could barely stand. A few days later, we all heard a strange humming sound in the sky; it was a drone.
“Espionage plane,” shouted Rami, who dragged the couple at gunpoint out of the cabin. Fearing an attack, he ordered everyone to run into the forest. Suddenly, there was silence and the drone disappeared. Again, Rami beat Stefan with his rifle butt until he fell on the ground from the pain. Then, he punched Henrike in the face.
“We were both writhing in pain. I didn’t know how much longer we could survive this. Stefan was very weak and I was so worried about him,” she said. “The drone meant that the Philippine military knew where we were, so we were happy about that and relieved that they didn’t bomb us.”
The next several days were uneventful. Henrike and Stefan were allowed to pick up their meager rations in Abu Rami’s hut. On October 17, 2014, Rami told them it was over.“I free you today. The money is paid,” he simply remarked. Henrike and Stefan fell into each others’ arms and sobbed in relief. “His eyes were still swollen from the last beating,” she recalled.
That day at noon, Abu Rami and ten other captors led the hostages to a stream several hours away. He pointed to the other side of the stream where several men stood waiting. “Those are the mediators,” he remarked before disappearing into the forest. “They take you to safety.”
The German couple were elated, but so beaten down that they could hardly express it. One year later, Henrike returned to the Philippines to reclaim the “Catherine.” Authorities initially thought that they’d both died in a swimming accident because the ladder was down. Later, they realized they’d been taken captive when they noticed that the boat’s navigational devices were ripped out.
Back home in Germany, time has not erased the unforgettable nightmare. When Henrike turned on the television recently, she saw a documentary on Abu Sayyaf and the horrible fate of another hostage they’d taken. The program showed a picture of a rebel holding the severed head of John Ridsdel, a 68-year-old Canadian consultant working in the Philippines. Ridsdel, another Canadian, a Norwegian man and a Filipino woman were taken hostage by the terrorists in September 2015. Six months later, Ridsdel was beheaded. “That could have been us. We came that close,” Henrike thought to herself. “I’ll never forget it; I wish I could.”