The Invisible Survivor
By Ittay Flescher:
“I doubt many Australians have ever heard of Warren Rodwell, who was kidnapped over a year ago by the Abu Sayyaf, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Philippines. His image does not appear in our streets, we hold no rallies for him, and we wear no dog tags or wrist bands that bear his name. The same cannot be said of Israel’s captives, who instantly become household names the day they go missing. “
The article went on to explore the psychology of returned soldiers and the impact of captivity on their families.
Since writing the article, not only has Warren Rodwell been released from captivity, but to my great amazement, he recently found me through Facebook, after which we had a fascinating phone conversation. A former English teacher, Rodwell had travelled the world exploring, educating and volunteering before being kidnapped for ransom due to being a westerner. He is now living in Brisbane. Reflecting later on our hour long conversation, I was left with the impression that Rodwell is a person of incredible mental strength.
Rodwell was kept prisoner for a total of 472 days, making him the longest held Australian captive outside of official Prisoners-of-War (POWs). During his time as a human bargaining chip, he was moved 28 times between various island jungle hideouts. Denied any form of mental stimulation, he maintained his sanity during captivity by using each day to review a different moment in his life and his various travels across the globe.
Hunger was a constant companion and by the end of his 15 months as a hostage Rodwell had lost about 30 kilograms. His captors suffered from the same lack of food and sickness. “I’d observe their behaviours and because I’d see a change in guards I’d also see some of them getting sick, others going crazy,” he said.
“That was always refreshing, when you see that those who are supposed to be in the more powerful situation are suffering more than you are.”
He says he struggled each day to stay in control of his mind. “I’ve always had a passion for numbers, and I’d lived in China for some time so I’d add up the number like the Chinese do … trying to solve mathematical problems.”
His situation prompted him to reflect on his life and the lives of all the people he had known. “I thought to myself that I wanted to at least outlive my mother.” Keeping track of time and dates was important, and he says he will never forget the date of his release.
“I asked the port guard is it after midnight? He said yeah. I said great. It’s my mother’s birthday.”
Reflecting on our conversation, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Victor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which I read every Yom Kippur. Surprisingly, Warren had already shared an article on January 27 about this incredible Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist. One of Frankl’s most empowering reflections from his time in captivity was that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is an incredible mental skill which Warren very much embodies to this day.
Rodwell’s book about his time in captivity can be purchased here. Ittay Flescher is a Jewish Educator in Melbourne who has given lectures at Limmud conferences across the globe about the trauma of war and is interested in hearing your story.