MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two Algerian-born Filipino sisters kidnapped by Muslim extremists eight months ago escaped from their captors in the jungles of the southern Philippines with a cat that had given them company during their ordeal.
Nadjoua and Linda Bansil were abducted by the brutal militant group Abu Sayyaf when they traveled to Jolo island, a militant stronghold, to make a video documentary about the lives of poor coffee farmers in the predominantly Muslim region.
The Muslim sisters were born in Algeria to an Algerian mother and a Filipino father but grew up in the Philippines, where they have produced independent films.
Philippine marines found them Thursday in Buhanginan village in the mountainous town of Patikul, clad in black Muslim dresses that exposed only their eyes. One was cradling a cat, marine Capt. Ryan Lacuesta said.
“They said that their captors often kept them in isolation in the mountains and the cat gave them company and pleasure,” Lacuesta said by telephone from Jolo.
Linda Basil, 37, said she started taking care of the cat, named Juanita, after it was brought by a militant to the Abu Sayyaf camp where they were being held, reading books and “waiting and waiting.” When mortar rounds went off and loud explosions thudded in the distance, she would hide the cat in a piece of cloth for safety.
“I think I needed a pet because they say a pet makes you relax,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday. “It’s scary, there were times we heard mortar explosions but I always grabbed her first. I got used to that. I got attached to her.”
She said the worst period was the first five days of their captivity, when they were unaccustomed to the harsh environment and constant danger.
“When I heard mortars and loud explosions … I just didn’t know what would happen next,” she said. “You can’t eat, you can’t think, you’re in shock … but, after a while, you get used to it.”
She said the cat eventually grew fatter than the sisters because all of them ate at the same time, and the cat would finish the leftovers. Although the cat could have hampered their escape, she said she couldn’t leave it behind in the mountains alone.
The sisters were taken to a military trauma center in Jolo for a medical checkup, given a meal and then flown to southern Zamboanga city, where they were briefly presented to journalists.
The women’s brother, Mohammed, told reporters he would accompany his sisters back home to their mother in Manila.
The women said their captors moved them often from one jungle camp to another to avoid being found by government forces. They were fed rice, dried fish and root crops and were often detained in a hut.
The Abu Sayyaf had demanded 50 million pesos ransom ($1.1 million) for the sisters’ freedom, but Lacuesta said it was not clear if any money had changed hands. Constant military assaults and search operations put pressure on the kidnappers to release them, he said.
When a marine patrol approached Thursday, the women’s guards ran away and they dashed to freedom, Lacuesta said.
Abu Sayyaf militants still hold about a dozen hostages, including two European bird watchers kidnapped two years ago, in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, Sulu military commander Col. Jose Cenabre said.