Tuesday 23 May 2017 started like any other day for Henry*, a carpenter in the southern Philippines city of Marawi.
He was working upstairs in his home when he heard a knock at the door. He left his tools in the sawdust and went downstairs. He opened the door to two armed men standing outside in the rain and asked if they were policemen.
“We aren’t,” the men said.
“Who are you, then?” asked Henry.
“Your killers,” they answered.
Then everything went black.
It was the first day of the five-month-long siege of Marawi. Before the day had ended, nine Christians had been shot dead by Islamist militants, the Catholic priest Father Teresito Suganob and 13 other Christians had been kidnapped, and a cathedral and Christian-run college had been set alight. The insurgents then raised the Islamic State flag over a burning city.
The men who abducted Henry were Maute extremists, one of the Islamist groups that had pledged allegiance to IS.
“They blindfolded me and pushed me into a van,” said Henry. “They zig-zagged and drove round in circles for almost an hour. I knew they were trying to confuse me.”
Eventually the van stopped and Henry’s abductors locked him up inside a room with a roll-up metal door.
“When they took the blindfold off, I glanced at my surroundings. Already there were so many people there – hostages, like me.”
Henry said he saw men and women scattered across the room. There were around 18 others, as far as he remembered, but people were often moved from one location to another. Sometimes they heard military planes fly over and drop bombs. The captives’ wrists were bound with two-inch-thick rope while they were being held.
At one point Henry was being held with Fr. Suganob and said that the priest’s presence brought them comfort. But they were not together long before the priest was taken elsewhere.
“I was taken hostage for eight days,” said Henry. “There were 300 armed Maute men in that building. Every second that the clock ticked, we prayed. All of us prayed … for our captors and our relatives.”
After his release, Fr. Suganob said that, despite the “nightmare” ordeal, prayer had sustained him during his 116 days in captivity during the siege of the city. Like Henry, he was kidnapped on 23 May.
“When Fr. Suganob was taken away from us, all we did was pray like he encouraged us to,” Henry said, recalling the rape and death he saw every day he was in captivity.
“Our captors blindfolded men and women. Then they beheaded [them]. I was not at ease – I saw a lot of things. But, despite what I saw, I pushed my emotions away. I knew it would drive me mad if kept thinking about it. I had to take control of my thoughts.”
Still in shock, he shed no tears when talking about how the experience affected him.
“You know that feeling when you’re sleeping and, in the middle of the night, you just wake up thinking of what you’ve witnessed and are instantly filled with disgust? This is how it’s been for me since [I escaped],” he said.
During his captivity he said he feared he would never see his family again. Eight days after he was taken hostage, on 31 May 2017, he overheard the guards talking.
“Two people were murdered that morning. I overheard the guards say that, by noon, we’d be next,” he recalled.
Driven by the thought that they must now do anything to try to escape, Henry and another hostage tried to open the roll-up door.
“To our surprise, it wasn’t locked,” he said, but still they feared the noise of opening it would alert the guards.
But then the government planes attacked.
“Bombs started flying everywhere, drowning out the noise,” he said. “We thought that if we lifted up that creaky door now, no-one would notice. So that’s what we did.”
As the guards took cover from the bombing, Henry and his friends ran past them.
As they ran, they heard gunshots and screams, and saw bodies collapsing on the street. Henry said he ran for his life, without looking back.
Most hostages survived. “I think about eight didn’t make it,” Henry said.
When they had ran far enough away, they stopped to find sharp rocks to cut through their ropes. Henry smiled as he remembered a fellow hostage saying he would keep his rope as a memento.
Henry and the nine others who had escaped alive soon found a river and jumped in. They swam for more than an hour until they were rescued at 3am by soldiers. They were held and questioned, but eventually let go.
Henry was alive and free. “I couldn’t explain the joy in seeing my family again,” he said.
*Henry’s name has been changed for security reasons.
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