Bansil sisters: Storytellers even in captivity

Bea Cupin
In the jungles of Sulu, Linda and Nadjoua talked about stories and future documentaries

SAFE AND SOUND. Nadjoua and Linda Bansil are back in Manila after being kidnapped by members of the Abu Sayyaf. Photo obtained by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – It was a story that put them in harm’s way.

But stories were also what made Linda and Nadjoua Bansil survive the 8 gruelling months when they were held captive by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group. (ASG) in the province of Sulu.

In those bleak days that turned to weeks then months, they came up with ideas for future documentaries, visualized entire storyboards, and spoke to some of the people they met. “Andon na rin kami eh,” the Bansil sisters told Rappler, days after they were released by their captors. (We were already there anyway.)

The sisters were captured on June 22, 2013 in Liang, Patikul, while filming a documentary about coffee famers in the province. It was a project that was put together in a rush. Within days of finalizing the story line and concept, the two were already bound for Mindanao.

They were on their way back to Jolo, where they were based, when the jeepney they were riding was blocked by armed men. 

Linda admitted to Rappler that they were naive to think they could go to Sulu just like that. After all, many civilians, including journalists, have been kidnapped before them.

Nadjoua, who is older, puts it more bluntly: “Para kaming mga 10-year-olds.” (We were acting like 10-year-olds.)

(READ: Mohammed’s sisters)

The daily grind

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Linda, recalling the immediate moments of their capture.

For 4 to 5 months, the Bansil sisters and their captors moved around the jungles of Sulu. The steady hum of the jungle and the uncertainty of going around with an armed group became the norm for the two. “[There], the situation changes per day, per minute. Here, it’s the same thing over and over again,” said Nadjoua.

Daily life while in captivity eventually followed a steady routine: wake up, pray, drink coffee, depending on the situation. On good days, they would help locals with planting. On bad ones, the steady sound of gunfire kept them company.

The abduction of the two shows how “the breakdown of law and order in Jolo gets more chaotic,” according to a Rappler report. The sisters were under the protection of the Abu Sayyaf while filming, but were later abducted by a “young, more volatile breakaway faction” of the ASG. Documents obtained by Rappler show their captors demanded P50 million for their release.

Officials have neither confirmed nor denied paying ransom for the sisters’ release.

Linda and Nadjoua said it was difficult, at first, to communicate with their captors. Their young captors viewed them with distrust. It probably didn’t help, the two said, that they were foreign-looking.

Their mother is an Algerian Moroccan while their late father, is a Muslim cleric.

But eventually, “we earned their respect, their trust. Once they knew that we would not escape,” the sister said, referring to their captors.

The sisters lost at least 40% of their body weight while in captivity, mainly because they didn’t have the same diet as their captors.

They considered escaping several times not because they were particularly brave, but because the hunger was too much to bear. “Inisip namin, mamamatay na talaga kami sa gutom.” (We thought we’d die of hunger.)

THE BANSIL SISTERS. Linda and Nadjoua Bansil. File photo courtesy of Niño Tan

Faith, activism

Although they were first-timers in Sulu, telling difficult stories was nothing new to the Bansil sisters. In 2012, the two produced “Bohe,” a film about a group of Badjaos in Southern Luzon.

The Muslim narrative is something close to the sisters’ hearts. “It was a chance to give a voice to our own people,” said Linda. The coffee farmers of Sulu were a particularly interesting topic – living in poverty despite producing one of the best coffee beans in the world.

Even after they were kidnapped, the documentary was one of Nadjoua’s concerns. “Naisip ko rin yung mga farmers na kasama namin,” she said. (I thought about the farmers who were with us.) “Pero syempre natakot ako, threatened. Baka pugutan kami ng ulo,” she added. (I was also scared, threatened. They might cut our heads off.)

Despite everything, Linda said she was confident they would come out alive. But the two were realistic: “Kung mamatay, tanggapin,” said Nadjoua. (You have to accept the possibility of death.)

“It’s the Muslim way, you have to accept what is happening,” said Linda. “Insha’Allah,” the two kept reminding themselves. (God’s will.)

Juanita the kitten

Hope also came in the most unlikely form: a little kitten they named “Juanita.”

Mas nakakakain pa yun sa amin, kahit yung Abu Sayyaf ninanakawan niya ng pagkain,” said Linda. (Juanita ate more than we did. She’d even steal from the Abu Sayyaf.)

When Rappler met the Bansil sisters in Metro Manila, they had yet to be reunited with Juanita, who is still in Zamboanga City. Linda carried Juanita all the way from the Abu Sayyaf camp to the residence of Sulu Governor Sakur Tan on the night of their release.

Like Juanita, Linda never quite got used to the sound of gunfire. As they were walking away from the jungles of Sulu, they started hearing gun fire. Linda, with Juanita in tow, got terrified.

Sabi ko: ano ba yan, dapat sanay ka na,” Nadjoua said. It was their first taste of freedom in 8 months. (I told her: You have to be used to that by now.)

Stories need to be told

The Bansil sisters are thankful they’re finally home – back in the arms of a younger brother whose world stopped spinning when his older sisters were kidnapped, and a mother who can finally crack jokes again now that her daughters are safe and sound. 

But freedom also means adjusting all over again.

Amid the hustle and bustle of the metro, they miss Sulu’s serenity. The sisters also grew accustomed to wearing veils that cover their faces, compared to only covering their hair in the past. It takes some getting used to, the sisters said. 

It will take a while before they jump back into the world of filmmaking and storytelling. “We already have a few stories in mind, but let’s wait a few months before we do them,” said Nadjoua. They may even make a story about their experience in the jungles of Sulu.

But Linda said she’d rather stay away from Sulu for now. “Ayoko na, ayoko na muna. Tama na yung isa. Baka ma-kidnap ulit!” she said. (I’d rather not go back for now. One kidnapping is enough. We might get kidnapped again!) 

Nadjoua has one regret: “Nasasayangan ako sa docu namin. Pero tignan natin, baka pwedeng gawin ulit, balikan.” (I regret not finishing the documentary. But let’s see, maybe we can go back and still do it.)

Linda flashes Nagjoua a curious look before the older Bansil added: “Basta hindi kami ma-kidnap ulit.” (As long as we aren’t kidnapped again.) –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.