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.


Philippine jungle
Francesco Lastrucci/Gallery Stock

The nightmares still come sometimes, yanking Kevin Lunsmann back. He forgets he is safe in his own bedroom, guitar leaning against the wall, cats curled up asleep, in his family’s little yellow ranch house. He forgets his classes at Brookville High School, football games with his friends, all the normal routines of a typical American kid in Lynchburg, Virginia. In his nightmares, he’s back in the Philippines, hungry and afraid, a prisoner of Islamic terrorists.

It was 2011, and Kevin was 14. He and his mother, Gerfa, were visiting family on Tictabon Island in the southern Philippines, near where Gerfa had grown up. Kevin had spent two weeks snorkeling and swimming in the clear blue water, eating food cooked with fresh coconut, teaching his cousins a few words of English, and trying to learn a little Samal, his cousins’ language.

Gerfa had moved to the United States as a teenager when an older sister married an American Naval officer, but she loved to visit her family. She’d saved money from her work as a lab technician so that she and Kevin could make the trip. She knew the region was troubled—scarred by decades of poverty and violence from Islamic separatists—and that foreign tourists were targets. But she thought they would be safe visiting her Muslim family.
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On July 11, Kevin went to bed looking forward to the flight back to the States the next day. He missed his dad, he missed his friends, and it was almost time to register for classes for his freshman year of high school. He was ready to go home.

“Wake up !”

It was still dark when Kevin heard his mother shouting at him to run. She had awoken early and had spotted a dozen silhouettes running toward their hut. Kevin and Gerfa bolted toward the beach but were stopped by a bright light shining in their eyes. Through the glare they could make out men in camouflage fatigues. In their hands the men held assault rifles, which were pointed at Gerfa and Kevin. The men ordered Gerfa, Kevin, and Kevin’s 21-year-old cousin into one of three speedboats. The boat pushed through the mangroves and sped off.

When the sun rose, Gerfa saw that one of the men held a grenade.

Next: “I wondered how much longer we would be alive” »

Kevin Lunsmann
Norm 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 »

Passports
Lauren Castillo/Corbis

Captivity

Deep in the jungle, Kevin was living with his mother and cousin in a five-by-six-foot makeshift cage made of sticks. At five-eight, Kevin was too tall to stand up inside.

At midday, the prisoners were given meager portions of pancakes or rice soup, and in the evening, one plate of rice for the three of them. Sometimes they didn’t know what they were eating, but they were so hungry, they didn’t care. Gerfa and Kevin both got sick: Kevin after eating what looked like goat brains or intestines, Gerfa after eating something shiny and hard, most likely goat hooves.

To pass the time, they watched the militants make bombs and clean their guns. They watched the animals around them in the jungle: monkeys and rats and birds and frogs. Gerfa shooed away the frogs, worried that poisonous snakes might slither after them into their cage, but she loved to watch them from a distance as they roamed about the jungle. “It was a constant reminder of how it is to be free,” she says.

Because the militants wouldn’t use names—they called Kevin “the boy” and Gerfa “the infidel”—and never revealed their own, the captives assigned names to them. Gerfa chose names of parasites: “The first one I called Enterobius vermicularis—pinworm.” Another, Falciparum, or malaria. Another was Entamoebas, which cause dysentery.

Days after a new hostage was dragged into camp, Kevin, Gerfa, and Kevin’s cousin were forced to march again. They finally collapsed in a windowless wooden room, the same size as their cage and buzzing with mosquitoes. A week later, they heard heavy gunfire off in the distance. Gerfa, piecing together her captors’ words, realized that the firefight had been government soldiers storming the other camp and that the other hostage had been rescued. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. They had come so close to freedom.

Next: “You’re free,” they said. But only one ransom had been paid »

celebrating escape eating food
AP Photo

Freedom for One

Two and a half months went by, then one day the terrorists told Gerfa she would be freed. She and Kevin tried to share their last meal together, but fear robbed them of their appetite.

Gerfa was forced down the mountain to a river and onto a boat. As they pushed off, she thought, They will dump my body in the ocean. After an hour or two, the boat docked.

“You’re free,” the militants said. A ransom had been paid.

She stumbled toward houses, pounding on doors, pleading for help until she found someone who could understand her. At a police station, she sat alone in an office past midnight, until two FBI agents arrived. When they called her by her name, she burst into tears. “I felt safe.”

Heiko was at home when Gerfa called. Both of them were crying, relieved that she was free but furious that Kevin hadn’t been released after some of the money had been paid. Gerfa refused to return home without her son. She stayed in Manila to negotiate with the terrorists.

Heiko tried to raise more ransom money. He liquidated the family’s assets and withdrew all the money from their retirement accounts. There was an urgency to his actions: The terrorists said if they didn’t receive more money within days, they would cut off Kevin’s head.

Next: “I couldn’t stay there any longer” »

Kevin and Gerfa
Norm Shafer/Getty Images

Alone

After Gerfa left, time slowed for Kevin. “The days just went longer and longer.” And then about a month after his mom had left, the militants took his cousin away. Was he freed? Killed? Kevin had no idea.

And then he caught a break.

One day, Kevin noticed that there was only one guard nearby. “It was time,” he says. “I couldn’t stay there any longer.” He had been a hostage almost five months.

When the guard went upstairs, Kevin crept through the door into the next room. When he heard the guard’s footsteps returning, he bolted.

Kevin ran quickly and silently away from the huts, straight to the river, where trees would help hide him. He was shaking with fear, and his legs were rubbery, weak from being confined for so long. In the river, he struggled in the deep, fast current that moved against him. He kept falling, slipping on the pink rubber flip-flops his captors had given him. But he never stopped moving. After several hours, he dashed up a steep hill to see where he was, then turned in the direction of the ocean. His goal: get off the island.

Night fell with a full moon. Kevin found an empty hut and hid in it for a brief, tense rest. Looking around, he found a pair of boots. He pulled them onto his blackened, torn feet and took off again.

He scrambled up and down hills and mountains, getting closer to the coast. A few times, he saw people farming, but he stayed away, scared that they might be supporters of the militants.

Then toward nightfall the next day, he was spotted crossing a plantation. A farmer called out to him. Kevin started to run, but the man had a gun. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. Exhausted and terrified, Kevin told him the truth.

Kevin warily followed the man back to his house, where the farmer told him he’d called police. Could he be trusted? He could just as easily have informed the militants. Then Kevin heard it. A whoop whoop sound. The sound of a helicopter.

Coming Home

In Lynchburg, Heiko was delivering holiday turkeys to Centra Health employees on December 10 when he got the call telling him that Kevin was free. Heiko hadn’t even considered celebrating Christmas, but with Gerfa, Kevin, and Kevin’s cousin—who had been
released—all safe, Heiko that afternoon bought $100 worth of ornaments, put up a tree, and stacked gifts all around.

Kevin, who nearly lost his life at the hands of terrorists half a world away from where he grew up, would come home to a house blazing with Christmas lights.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest