On July 18 last year, Mohd Ridzuan Ismail, 33, along with four extended family members — Abd Rahim Summas, 62, Mohd Jumadil Rahim, 23, Fandy Bakran, 26, and Tayudin Anjut, 45 — were abducted from their tugboat by Abu Sayyaf militants.
For seven months, he witnessed great horrors, but his spirit was never broken. He was finally released on March 26 and has never stopped thanking God for giving him a second chance at life.
Speaking from his home at Felda Jengka 7 near Bandar Tun Razak in Pahang, he shares his experience of being held in captivity for 251 days.
“I had just completed renewing my tugboat operating licence. My next job was in Semporna, Sabah, so I took a bus from Tawau to Sandakan to meet my three relatives Rahim, Fandy and Tayudin. We planned to travel together.
“This time, I also brought along my cousin, Jumadil, who had taken a break from going to the sea. He was really looking forward to returning to the job.
“The five of us departed from Sandakan on Sunday (July 17) evening. My uncle, Rahim, was the skipper of the tugboat while Fendy and Jumadil were on duty on the upper deck. Tayudin and I were in charge of the engine room on the lower deck.
“Around 4am, while manning the engine room, I noticed movements of what appeared to be shadows on the deck. When I went to the upper deck to inspect it, I did not find anything suspicious.
“When my shift ended at 6am, I informed Tayudin to take over. I changed my uniform before entering the cabin to sleep. I heard some noise outside and assumed it was passing fishing trawlers asking for clean water or food, which is quite common. So I went to sleep.
“It wasn’t long before I felt a hard, cold metal object pressed against the side of my face, which woke me up from my sleep. Standing around me were a group of men armed with firearms. They told me to get up onto the deck. They did not allow me to bring anything. They did not even allow me to put on my shirt.
“The men were wearing masks and only their eyes were visible. They shouted instructions in a foreign language and signalled for the five of us to sit close to each other on the deck. They took a bag from the boat and ordered us to get into two boats — a speedboat and a pump boat.
“The four of them were told to get onto the speedboat while I was pulled onto the pump boat. Inside the boat, there were several men, clad in camouflage clothing and military-styled boots. They had the muzzle of their guns pointed to my face. I knew then that any attempt to escape by jumping into the sea would be futile.
“We were on the boat for hours in seas so choppy that I had severe back pain. The boat stopped at an island where it refuelled before continuing the journey.
“We arrived at a second island just before sunset and were ordered to sit in a hut made from woven fronds. We were given rice and salt, our first meal since we left the tugboat.
“Communicating through a Malay translator, we were informed by the militants that all five of us had been taken hostages.
“They wanted money from our families and employer. When told that we were from poor backgrounds, they demanded to know our employer’s details.
“The men were furious when one of the bags they took from the boat only contained documents.
“Months passed and there was still no sign of any payment. We were told to contact our family members to expedite ransom payments.
“I remember using a handphone tied to a tree branch to send a message my wife. One of the militants who is well-versed in Malay would usually stand close to monitor what we were saying. Other times, there was someone with a gun pointing to our backs.
“The militants showed us a video showing the beheading of a male foreigner, whom I found out later was a German man. They threatened us, saying we would receive a similar fate if the ransom was not paid.
THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED
“We only noticed a handful of the militants during the day. By late evening and into the night, their number would grow by the dozens... sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Some of them spoke Malay.
“We were told to walk in the night. I remember walking right after maghrib prayers and we only stopped when it was almost dawn.
“Walking in complete darkness, we stepped on sharp objects and suffered injuries. However, we could only stop when they decided to take a rest.
“The men spoke in Suluk (a regional language spoken in the province of Sulu in the Philippines) and the first world I learned was ‘sonalo’, which means the army. Every time the word was mentioned, the men would break into smaller groups.
“There were several clashes between the Philippine military and the Abu Sayyaf. We could have been easily killed in the crossfire. During the fights, we would seek cover behind trees.
“When a member of the militants died in the clash with the Philippine military, he was regarded as a ‘martyr’. The militants seemed to be proud of dying this way.
“I once saw two Indonesian captives whom I believe were hostages like us. I never saw them again after that day.
“The five of us were given the task of collecting firewood, cooking rice and serving. Every time we prepared the rice, we prayed that there would be enough for us.
“When the men were not looking, we would cook extra rice in the pot so that there would be some for us. The five of us shared one plate and some of the men sometimes threw pieces of fish into our plate. If we were lucky, we got to eat rice with dried fish or smoked fish.
“For water, we collected rainwater in small containers. Each of us had a small sip each.
“When we moved from one place to another, we had to carry cooking utensils, which were kept in sacks. We would walk for hours but never had enough food or rest.
“One day, the militants informed us that they were taking Rahim and Tayudin elsewhere. Fearing for their safety, we pleaded with them to allow the five of us to stay together. However, they told us that Rahim and Tayudin were to be taken for medical treatment at a nearby village.
“Three days later, we were told that Rahim and Tayudin had returned to Malaysia.
“Several hours later, they told us to get on a boat. When we got to the middle of the sea, they told us to get into another boat. And then, they left us there.
“It wasn’t that long before we saw a boat with several men in uniform, who told us to climb onto their boat.
“When we reached the shore, we were told to get into a van. I thought we had been caught by another militant group, but after a short journey we saw soldiers at a security checkpoint.
“We gave our names and they took us to a hospital. The three of us were in tears when we went to have our shower.
“I still remember the taste of simple hospital food that day. It was the best meal of my entire life.
“After receiving treatment, we were flown to Zamboanga City, where we were handed to the Malaysian authorities. We sobbed when we finally saw the Jalur Gemilang because we knew we were saved and God had answered our prayers.”