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.
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” »

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