Good day to you all. I’ve decided to write in between our other blogs a blog that will focus on Women who has gone through life’s bad side but are still standing strong and doing the right thing. In our first Women Who Stand for Change blog, we are going to focus on Monique Strydom. I do believe the older women will remember Monique, who was captured on an island and kept hostage for some time… How did Monique manage to take that awful time and turn it into good? The following was how Monique described her journey when she was interviewed by the Oprah Winfrey magazine.

Anyone who owned a TV set in South Africa from April through August 2000 will be familiar with the Strydom’s story: Two scuba-loving South Africans, on a much-needed break from the frenzy of their daily lives in Johannesburg, were thrust into a living nightmare when they were violently taken hostage by the radical separatist group, Abu Sayyaf, on the tropical island paradise of Sipadan, just off the north-eastern coast of Borneo. Together with 19 other hostages from various places around the world, they were forced onto fishing boats by a rag-tag group of heavily armed rebels. Under the cover of darkness, the shocked, frightened group was taken to a camp comprised of tiny bamboo shelters with thin reed mattresses. There was barely space for all 21 hostages to sleep lying down, so Monique and Callie leant against each other for comfort.

Dehydrated, sleep-deprived and starving, the group considered how long they will be forced to endure this nightmare. Days? Weeks? In reality, Monique, her husband, Callie, and the other hostages, would endure four months of terror. Fear and anxiety would become their default settings as the rebels forced them to keep moving camp in order to avoid detection by the Philippine army.

Looking Back

“A lot of it is still very real,” says Monique when I ask her what it feels like to be sitting here in the safe and tranquil surroundings of her home. She remembers the day the group was attacked by the Armed Forces of the Philippines – the day she nearly died – like it was yesterday. “They knew they’d trapped us and started shelling us with mortars. I had a shift in my mind that day.” Monique was lying on the ground, rigid with fear, when she saw a young rebel, around the age of 16. “He was petrified,” remembers Monique. “I thought, I don’t want to die like that. This boy was fighting for a cause and he’s not sure if it’s the right one because if he was, there wouldn’t be that fear in his eyes.” It was in that moment that Monique chose not to let the fear control her. “I gave over my life. It wasn’t in my hands anymore. In that moment I made peace.”

Does she think relinquishing control is what helped her survive? “People survive in different ways, but I think one of the reasons we were so healed when we walked out of the jungle was because we have such a strong spiritual belief. If you have something to believe in, it changes how you deal with trauma.”

Monique also believes the way she and Callie treated those around them helped to engender respect in the rebels. So much so that a few weeks in to their ordeal, one of the rebel leaders turned to Callie and said: “You always smiling, you always helping. You good man. If you wounded in a military attack I protect you; I carry you out myself.” In this crazed, morality-free environment, in which rebels thought nothing of taking a human life and would shoot each other on a whim, it was the Strydoms’ compassion, for their fellow hostages and even for their captors, that helped them survive.

Forever Changed

Back in the safety of their country and home, the couple felt isolated, but incredibly relieved, too. “We needed to find a balance. We needed to mourn because we had seen terrible things and terrible things had happened to us, but we were so happy to be back.”

The Strydoms wanted to return to the lives they’d lived before, but everything had changed – they were new people with new priorities. “I’d made a commitment in the jungle that if I returned alive, I would help people,” says Monique. That’s precisely what she has done. Immediately on her return, she closed the PR, advertising and marketing business she’d been running for nearly ten years and started focusing on charity work. Today she runs The Callie and Monique Charity Trust, which assists various charities and causes and Matla A Bana, an NGO fighting child abuse.

“Trauma never goes away. It shapes you; it’s a part of you.” Today, when the Strydoms hear fireworks or are confronted by aggressive people, they’re taken straight back to their time in the jungle. “The emotion is exactly what it was when we were in the camp. Everything is exactly the same,” says Monique. But she continues, “But we’re alive and unharmed. I feel that we have been very blessed.”

Monique did life-changing work for Matla A Bana – an organization that works with children who have been abused. They also do training with police officers on effective ways to work with abused children. Unfortunately, Monique and Callie decided this year to get divorced after 30 years. Monique, however, is stronger than ever and focuses her whole life on being a good mother and woman who stands for change.

– Marieta Greyling