Kidnapped by Terrorists: One Boy’s Story of Escape

What should have been a tranquil family vacation in the southern Philippines turned into an unending nightmare.

By Susan Svrluga from The Washington Post
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

Kevin LunsmannNorm Shafer/Getty Images

Into the Jungle

After several hours, a mountainous, densely forested island loomed large on the horizon. More uniformed men met them on the beach. Gerfa tried to ask questions, but they didn’t speak the same language. All day, Kevin and his mom trembled on the sand at gunpoint. They could see children playing on the beach, splashing in the water, and laughing.

“I was wondering how much longer we would be alive,” Kevin says.

When night came, they marched toward the mountains. Kevin was wearing just the shorts he had slept in, and his mom was in her pajamas. The three hostages walked barefoot, stumbling and falling in the mud, following the men in fatigues, who used machetes to slice a path through the jungle.

They hiked through the night, exhausted, sore. At midday, they stopped in the midst of a jungle so thick they couldn’t see the sun. There was a camp there, sticks holding up tarps, and more men in uniform.

A commander who spoke the language Gerfa understands told her his group was fighting for an Islamic state and that she and Kevin would be killed unless her husband paid the ransom: $100 million.

“Even the Philippine government doesn’t have that much money,” Gerfa replied. Ten million, he countered. She pointed to a tiny patch of night sky just visible through the leaves overhead and said, “If you can get that star, my husband can get $10 million.”

The Call

In Lynchburg, Kevin’s dad, 50-year-old Heiko Lunsmann, was at his job as a maintenance man in a nursing home when his sister-in-law called. She’d just heard from her family in the Philippines that Gerfa and Kevin had been kidnapped. At first he didn’t believe it. Then he panicked. And then he got the confirmation call from the FBI. They were taking over the investigation and would be Heiko’s roommates for the foreseeable future as they moved into the family’s house.

The next day, the phone rang again. This time, the accent was Filipino. Heiko could hardly understand the man, and the man could hardly understand Heiko’s heavily German-accented English. But Heiko understood this: It was a ransom demand.

From then on, Heiko lived in dread of the calls, terrified he would say the wrong thing and further endanger his wife and son. Some days he would get two or three calls; sometimes days would go by in silence. Sometimes Gerfa would be put on the phone. Sometimes he could hear Kevin and Gerfa crying out in pain.

Once, exhausted by fear and rage, he broke from the cautious negotiations and blurted out to the kidnappers that he couldn’t possibly raise millions of dollars. “I’m not Mel Gibson! I don’t live in Hollywood!” he shouted. “I’m a maintenance man. I change lightbulbs and unplug toilets!”

Weeks went by, and American officials became convinced that Gerfa and Kevin had been seized by the Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino terrorist organization. The group is known for kidnappings, bombings—including an explosion on a Filipino ferry in 2004 that killed 116 people—and executions.

Next: Deep in the jungle, they lived in a cage made of sticks »

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