Birds, adventure and kidnapping in Tawi-Tawi

David Yu Santos

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Filipino guide Ivan Sarenas says the 2 abducted Europeans are heroes


ESCAPE ARTIST. Photographer, travel writer and cinematographer Ivan Sarenas recalls his ordeal during the Feb 1, 2012 abduction in Panglima Sugala, Tawi-Tawi while guiding 2 visiting Europeans for birdwatching. (Photo courtesy of Tawi-Tawi PNP)

MANILA, Philippines – “My escape is no cause for celebration.”

More than a day since he was abducted along with 2 visiting foreign birdwatchers, photographer and travel writer Ivan Sarenas remained “partly shocked” when Rappler spoke to him by phone from a home which serves as his hideout in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi last February 2.

“I plan to see this through,” Sarenas said, reiterating his wish to stay for “at least a week” in Tawi-Tawi to monitor government’s efforts, as well as help in the operations to rescue his colleagues – Dutch Ewold Horn, 52, and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47.

“It’s going to be a very long wait,” Sarenas conceded. “I am not setting a timetable.”

The freed Filipino guide is under police tight security while he awaits word on the condition of the other captives. Tawi-Tawi governor Sadikul Sahali, who convened the provincial Crisis Management Committee on Saturday, February 4, said, the abductors have yet to establish contact to relay their demands.

Horn, Vinciguerra and Sarenas, along with 2 others—an unarmed cop in plain clothes and a village councilor—were abducted past noon of February 1, while birdwatching in Panglima Sugala town.

“They were 5 to 6 fully armed men, who spoke the local dialect, Tausug. They herded us to a bakawan (mangrove area) in Barangay Parangan and eventually made to ride their motorized pump boat,” Sarenas recounted. The abductors only took the foreigners and Sarenas with them, forcing the other locals to jump out of the boat.

‘They wished me luck’

Sarenas admitted that he feared for his life when he noticed that they are likely to be brought to neighboring Sulu island, a known bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf Group, after their outrigger “turned northward direction” from a channel in the capital town of Bongao.

“Then I realized, I could be worthless in Sulu. My chances of getting beheaded (in case negotiations fail) are greater since I am a mere local,” Sarenas said, noting that the abductors are unlikely to harm the foreign hostages. 

Desperate to get out out of the pump boat, Sarenas decided to jump overboard. “I consulted my colleagues about my plan and they agreed. They wished me luck,” he said. “I regard them as heroes.”

As the motor boat carrying the hostages cruised “slowly” into the coastal waters of Languyan town, Sarenas said he took advantage of the presence of other fishing boats, including a passenger ferry, which were in the area, to pursue his plan.

“I was somehow confident that the armed men would not fire their guns at me in case I jump out of the boat, since it will attract the attention of the people in their ferry and fishing boats,” Sarenas pointed out. “Besides, I have less value to them so they will just let me go. I was determined to live.”

Making it to freedom

Sarenas held on to one of the firearms of their captors to prevent him from shooting, then literally took a dive to his freedom and swam to safety. He said he dove as deep as he could so the abductors “will not be able to see and shoot” him.

“Every time I would resurface to catch my breath, I could still see them from a distance,” said Sarenas, who is an eyeglass wearer. As a member of the Marine Biological Society of the University of the Philippines (UP), Sarenas attributed his determination to “gamble” with his chances of survival to his skills in skin diving or underwater swimming.

“I am also a member of the UP Mountaineers and participate in triathlons, thus, my capability to stay underwater for a prolonged time,” Sarenas explained.

Fishermen took notice of Sarenas and offered to help him by bringing him to shore. When word spread he was an abduction victim, officials and residents of Barangay Tuhog-Tuhog in Languyan town alerted authorities.

“I’ll be forever grateful to the fishermen and residents of Barangay Tuhog-Tuhog,” Sarenas said.

Apparently, the abductors panicked when they saw local residents were helping out Sarenas. Several hours later, the outrigger where the hostages were made to board, were discovered to have been burned. The police said it was a way to conceal possible proof of the boat’s owners that may lead to the identities of the suspects.

BURNED EVIDENCE. Policemen inspect the motorized pump boat used by the abductors to transport their captives which was later found to have been burned in Languyan town. (Photo courtesy of Tawi-Tawi PNP)

ENGINE TROUBLE. Policemen check the serial number of the destroyed motor engine used in the pump boat of the abductors in a bid to trace the suspects' identities. (Photo courtesy of Tawi-Tawi PNP)

In search of Sulu hornbill

Despite the harrowing ordeal, Sarenas said he will continue to visit Tawi-Tawi, but will no longer act as guides for other birdwatchers. Prior to the abduction, he has visited the island province for 5 times.

He first came to Tawi-Tawi in late 2000 for a project of the Department of Tourism (DOT), to document a number of endemic bird species in the island province. He was the official photographer of the DOT’s previously-published Birdwatching in the Philippines Volume 1 and 2 books.

He has also extensively documented the different varies of birds that could only be found in the Philippines through video materials produced by DOT entitled Avian Archipelago and Birdwatching in the Philippines.

(See the videos below. Courtesy of Ivan Sarenas)

“I was the first person in a long while who has seen a Sulu hornbill, which became famous among the birdwatching world,” Sarenas explained, “so they all began contacting me to bring them to Tawi-Tawi.” He is a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.

Aside from the Sulu Hornbill, other endemic birds such as the Sulu Bleeding-Heart and Tawi-Tawi Brown Dove, which are both endangered, can be seen in the island.

Initially, Sarenas, who was also the Editor-in-Chief and photographer of the prestigious Philippines Yearbook, and has worked for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace, Conservational International, National Geographic Productions, and the BBC, was hesitant of bringing birdwatchers and foreigners to Tawi-Tawi “due to the complicated security set-up in the region.”

But he also saw this as an opportunity “to open up the beauty of Tawi-Tawi” to the world. “Birdwatching can boost local tourism and I would be glad to help,” Sarenas said.

In a radio interview, Sarenas said that he met Horn and Vinciguerra through the internet. “One of them emailed me several times about wanting to go to Tawi-Tawi because he wanted to see a hornbill. We have a common friend from Thailand who said I should guide him,” according to Sarenas.

ABDUCTION. Two European citizens and Ivan Sarenas, their guide, were abducted by armed men while birdwatching in the town of Panglima Sugala in the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the southwesternmost part of the Philippines. Map courtesy of TheCoffee/Wikipedia

Unfortunate trip

Sarenas said they were about to wrap up their 4th day of birdwatching in Tawi-Tawi when the abduction occurred.

“What contributed to the mess was the rush we had for our trip,” he explained. “Our birding itineraries were pressed for time because the local airline company had last-minute changes in their flight schedules to Tawi-Tawi. When you rush things, you don’t think or decide properly. Apparently, we disregarded a number of things, including our security.”

“I blame myself a lot for this (crisis),” Sarenas admitted. “But we also had a local official and a cop to accompany us and they should have known better. They should be blaming themselves, too.”

Sarenas said he will continue to campaign for Tawi-Tawi as a birdwatching haven and will occasionally visit the people who “saved his life.”

“I am definitely going back. Yes, I may have made mistakes, but this will not discourage me (from coming to Tawi-Tawi),” he said. –

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