Malaysia (5/5)

The drama-documentary series that tells the gripping real-life stories of travellers detained overseas concludes. Using interviews and archive news footage, this final edition recounts the experiences of a South African couple who were taken hostage by Islamist extremists while on holiday in Malaysia.

In April 2000, Callie and Monique Strydom were enjoying a diving holiday on the exotic Malaysian island of Sipadan. The Johannesburg couple were quick to settle in to the relaxed pace of life at the small resort and made friends with some of the other guests. “We just felt so safe and peaceful,” recalls Monique. “You wouldn’t think there would be danger around the corner.”

One day, as the couple sat chatting with friends, they heard a commotion in the kitchen. All of a sudden, a group of men burst onto the deck brandishing an array of weapons, including a bazooka. After handing over all their valuables, the captives were frogmarched into the garden. “At that point, we really thought they were going to kill us,” says Callie.

Instead, they were led down to the beach where two small craft were moored. The hostages numbered 21 in total – ten tourists and 11 staff. Together with their kidnappers, they boarded the boats. Twenty hours later, they docked at a land mass that lay 200 miles to the east. It was Jojo island in the Philippines, but the hostages had no idea where they were.

Fortunately, some of the people on Sipadan had escaped the thugs and were able to alert the authorities and the media. The Minister of Defence for the Philippines, Orlando Mercado, suspected the kidnappers were part of Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf. “This is a fanatical terrorist group that has been using kidnappings and assassinations as its weapons,” he said when interviewed. His suspicions proved correct. The rebels invited reporters into the camp so that they could tell the world about the plight of the hostages and publicise their own demands.

Five days passed and Callie and Monique learned that the Philippines military was moving in. However, the army began to shell the entire island. The hostage-takers and prisoners were forced to join together and run for cover. After days hiking through the jungle without water or food, the group finally broke through the military cordon. “I think that was the turning point in our relationship with the rebels,” says Monique. “They came forward and they protected us.”

However, this unity was to be short-lived. “Initially they had said, ‘We will not rape the women, we will not kill you’,” says Monique. “And we held on to that.” But that trust was broken when the rebels began to attack some of the Western women.

After four months of fruitless negotiations between the gang and the Philippines government, Monique and Callie’s spirits were flagging. But one night, Monique had a dream that they would be freed and would go on to do good works. Her dream was realised in the week that followed when Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi offered to pay the gang out. There was one catch – the hostages were to be released in stages, and Monique was to leave one day before her husband. “My worst fear was that he was not going to get out,” says Monique.

After 127 days in captivity, the husband and wife both returned safely to South Africa to a hero’s welcome. “What happened to us really united the country,” says Monique. “It was black and white.” Monique has since set up a trust that has raised over £200,000 for charity.

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