Freed Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad, looking haggard and clearly exhausted after spending nearly a year in the clutches of an Islamic guerrilla group in the Philippines, was safe in Manila on Monday and facing many questions about his year captivity. He told reporters that he and his fellow hostages felt like slaves and were “always kept in the dark” by their captors.
“Basically we were treated like a slave,” Sekkingstad said while still wearing a long and shaggy beard grown while in captivity. It was shaven off and his hair cut shortly after his first public appearance on Sunday.
Sekkingstad said he and his fellow hostages were held as slaves, “carrying their (members of the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group) stuff around, from time to time abused.” He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the hostages were consciously given very little food: “In the beginning, they were starving us, so that we should be weak and downtrodden, both physically and psychologically.”
Sometimes, he said, he and the other hostages were “treated fairly, but we were always kept in the dark” regarding their movements, locations, and, not least, their fate. “There was “psychological pressure all the time,” the 56-year-old man from Sotra in Western Norway said.
It was thus unclear what he’d be able to tell the local Philippine authorities whom Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Monday were keen to question him about the group that has terrorized their country for many years. After his release over the weekend, Sekkingstad was finally flown from Davao to Manila late Sunday night, where he said he also hoped to “take it easy for the next few days.”
NRK reported that he nonetheless faced a “debriefing” by Philippines officials who are anxious to hear about his year in capitivity. Sekkingstad has said there sometimes were as many as 300 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas around him in the jungle camps where he and other hostages were being held. Two Canadian men kidnapped at the same time as Sekkingstad, at a yacht club where he’d been working, were killed earlier this year, murders that Sekkingstad were “the worst” he had to endure.
Sekkingstad said he was “very happy to be alive and free” and he repeatedly thanked the Philippine authorities who finally managed to secure his release. He noted how there had been a rescue attempt earlier this year, during which shots were fired and he was shot in the back himself. He said he got the bullet out of his back, though, and “kept it as a souvenir.”
Prime Minister Erna Solberg said it was now important that Sekkingstad be “well taken care of” after his hostage ordeal. She said the Norwegian Embassy in Manila was prepared to assist Sekkingstad, whether he decided to remain in the Philippines where he has lived for several years, or whether he decides to return to Norway. Sekkingstad said he had been in contact with his family in Norway.
“We don’t have a lot of experience with this type of (hostage) case, but we have good crisis help if he chooses to come to Norway,” Solberg told news bureau NTB.
Norwegians deny contributing to ransom payment
Solberg insisted the Norwegian authorities had not paid out any ransom money to the guerrilla group itself and had “not contributed to the payment of ransom or made any admissions in this case. That’s all we can say about that. We have been very clear on that. It’s in line with our international obligations.”
It’s widely believed in the Philippines, however, that ransom money was ultimately paid to secure the release of Sekkingstad and three other Indonesian hostages over the weekend. NRK reported that amounts equivalent to several million Norwegian kroner were being reported, with no confirmation from Philippines authorities. Abu Sayyaf is known for never releasing hostages for free, since ransom money is the group’s largest source of income.
NRK reported that Philippines President Rodrigo Dutarte has earlier claimed that 50 million pesos (nearly NOK 9 million) was paid in ransom for Sekkingstad, but that Abu Sayyaf had broken its part of an agreement to set him free.