Ellicott City woman kidnapped in Philippines rarely felt in danger

April 01, 1992|By Michael di Cicco | Michael di Cicco,Contributing Writer

MANILA, Philippines -- Kept on the move and guarded by Muslim bandits on a remote island in the southern Philippines, Ellicott City native Tracy Rectanus said she was confused but rarely felt in danger during her eight days as a hostage.

The missionary teacher was released unharmed with three other hostages March 25 following negotiations brokered by the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front.

Ms. Rectanus is a speech therapist at Faith Academy, a missionary school in Manila.

Sitting on the porch of a friend's house on the outskirts of Manila yesterday, Ms. Rectanus, 34, spoke of constant confusion and fatigue.

But she also described a sense of spiritual peace she discovered through the ordeal.

Ms. Rectanus and another American teacher, Carol Allen, were kidnapped along with an Australian mother and daughter and held for ransom on Sulu, a lawless island province.

The Cooks, an Australian missionary family, were driving the two teachers on a vacation tour of the Sulu capital, Jolo, when four armedmen converged on their car.

The men forced the Rev. Steve Cook from the vehicle and sped off with the two teachers, Mr. Cook's wife, Lynette, and the couple's twodaughters, 5-year-old Cheree and 3-year-old Ellis.

"The whole thing at first seemed like a scene from a bad movie," Ms. Rectanus said. "I felt kind of numb at first and I honestly didn't realize until we were a couple miles down the road that Steve wasn't driving."

The bandits demanded $77,000 and four M-14 assault rifles for their hostages' release.

President Corazon Aquino ordered authorities not to pay any ransom and sent troops into the area to help with a possible rescue operation.

The kidnappers soon released the Cooks' younger daughter becauseshe kept crying and demanding milk.

To evade the soldiers, the bandits shuttled their remaining captives between different Muslim rebel strongholds in Sulu, a traditional hotbed of guerrillas fighting the Manila government for Muslim self-rule. The captives slept under tarpaulins in the forest, in fields and bamboo huts.

"They indicated they wanted money and arms but we never had a clear understanding of what it would all go for or anything," Ms. Rectanus said.

Although the bandits at times told their hostages they would kill them if their demands were not met, Ms. Rectanus said after an initial shock she rarely felt in much danger.

"I sensed after the first day or two that they wanted the money so badly I didn't think they would kill us," she said.

"In my mind, I guess we were alive because we were all that they had to barter."

The hostages were constantly guarded by between 13 and 15 men armed with automatic weapons. Few of the men spoke any English.

Ms. Rectanus said they made an effort to treat their captives well.

"They were kind to us in certain ways," she said. "They gave us enough to eat, although it was always rice and fish and I longed for some diversity after a while. And they tried to give us a place to sleep and once they let us bathe at a watering hole.

"I prayed to God throughout the whole situation," she said. "After about the second day, I began to feel a real sense of peace that I cannot put into words."

Kidnapping in Sulu, where modern facilities such as telephone service are nonexistent, has grown into a lucrative cottage industry.

The military says 401 people, 25 of them foreigners, have been kidnapped in Sulu and other areas of the southern Philippines since 1988. Most are released after paying ransom, but some are killed by their abductors.

The Manila government maintains no ransom was paid for the release of Ms. Rectanus and her companions.

But local officials in Jolo said they handed over about $17,000 to reimburse the bandits for their "expenses" and to pay for weapons they demanded.

Ms. Rectanus said that upon her release to authorities in Alumapid village, Sulu province, about 600 miles south of Manila, she was surprised to hear about the outpouring of support she and her family received during her time in captivity.

"I have heard stories -- wonderful stories -- about all the people who gave their support to me and my family," she said. "It is hard to imagine that this could bring out so much love.

"It's not that you ever want something like this to happen, but I have seen how God can make something good come out of all things."

Upon her return to Manila Friday afternoon, Ms. Rectanus spent two days in a diplomatic compound, resting and calling family and friends. Her family lives in Ellicott City.

"For the first few days I had to get used to just seeing people again -- just seeing them go about their daily life."

After going through counseling this week with two specialists flown in from the United States, Ms. Rectanus hopes to begin working again next week at Faith Academy.

"The experience really didn't change my view of the Philippines, I still love it here," she said.

"I am really looking forward to going back home when the school term ends in June to see my family and friends. But I will be back when it starts again in August."

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