Throughout Season One our guests have inspired us with how they have overcome adversity, achieved more than they ever thought possible, gone further than they ever thought they could, found strength in helping others, turned their ideas into their careers. It’s living proof that we all have hidden ‘super-powers’ that we can discover and draw upon when we need them most.
On this episode of ONEOFTHE8 we share the story of a man who not only learned that his own ‘super-powers’ – or strategies as he pragmatically refers to them - could help him survive an horrific life-threatening ordeal, but also that he could go on to share the valuable lessons learned for the benefit of others.
‘You do need to be a little bit agile and deal with a situation as best you can.’
Heralding from Germany but living and working as a management consultant in Luxembourg, Marc Wallert hadn’t seen his parents for quite some time. Deciding to get together for a diving trip, Marc met his mother and father on the Malaysian island of Sipadan, a paradise island known for some of the best scuba diving anywhere in the world.
After three fabulous Easter Sunday dives, Marc’s father thought it was so beautiful they should go for just one more, this time a night dive. That dive never happened though, instead they opted for some relaxing drinks whilst watching the spectacular sunset, and that was when their lives changed very suddenly.
‘That was in the most peaceful moment you could imagine, looking into the red sunset, when suddenly a bunch of heavily armed guys came onto the island and kidnapped us.’
A group of heavily armed men landed on the island and kidnapped Marc, his parents, and 18 other people, immediately forcing them into small fishing boats and starting what was to be a twenty hour journey across the ocean to the Philippines.
The 21 captives, from seven different countries, where now hostages of a terror group from the Al-Qaeda network known as Abu Sayyaf, an organisation who fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. This was the first day of what was to be 140 days of captivity.
‘They took us in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t have anything like civilisation, it was pure jungle.’
Taken to a few bamboo huts in middle of nowhere, the hostages found themselves in extremely poor conditions, with no water, no electricity, no toilets, and most disturbing of all, absolutely no idea of how long they would be held or what would happen to them. The kidnappers offered only scant information ‘they said, perhaps you will be released within a few days’. For the captives, the mixture of fear and uncertainty was unbearable.
‘Everyone was trying to understand the situation, because we didn’t know what’s going on – there were horrific ideas of what’s going to happen.’
With five leaders, the terrorists couldn’t seem to agree amongst themselves what it was they wanted. They all had different ideas. An independent Islamic state? Fishing rights? A banana plantation? In the end they agreed upon a ransom, and this became the focus for months of difficult negotiation, with who would become clear later.
‘They said, you are the instruments in our war.’
Completely unprepared for the jungle and the poor conditions, eating only rice for the first few weeks, the health of the captives began to suffer. Marc himself lost more than 10 kilos in weight. But the conditions weren’t their only concern. With the Philippine military waging a guerrilla war with the terrorists, the group also found themselves in the line of artillery fire.
Life in captivity was an horrific ordeal, filled with danger and uncertainty, but it could never be described as boring. There was always something pressing, always something happening. Walking many kilometres to get water to wash, sheltering from attack, having to move camp - and then there were the journalists.
‘It wasn’t really boring since always something happened. We were being attacked or we had to change our camp.’
It seems bizarre, but journalists often came into jungle, journalists ‘from all over the place’ including the BBC, trying to get pictures and interviews with the hostages. For Marc and the others it was good to see some different faces, and to be able to get any information about the ongoing negotiations. But then those same journalists were able to just get up and leave, and whenever they did it became an extremely frustrating and stark reminder of the status of the hostages.
‘When they left, then we realised, wow they can just leave, they are like us, but we must stay behind.’
Rescue was to eventually come however, and after months of negotiations it came in the form of a situation that Marc describes as ‘strange’, but also one that he remains extremely thankful for to this day. It transpired that then Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi had negotiated for the freedom of the hostages, and despite reported official denials, had paid the ransom that would see their release.
Trapped in situation they were not responsible for, and certain that their kidnappers would have carried out their constant threat that ‘If our demands are not met we will behead you’, the sense of relief they all felt was truly ‘amazing’. Although Marc himself was last to leave, held back by the kidnappers who wanted him as the final hostage, eventually he was able to board the helicopter that would fly him out of the war zone to freedom.
So we wanted to know – as we’re sure you do too – just how did a 27 year old management consultant get through and survive such an horrific ordeal?
How did Marc survive the inhumane conditions, the constant threat of decapitation, the guerrilla warfare, the fear and the uncertainty? What were his ‘super-powers’? What were his strategies?
When we ask Marc this question, he answers in a way that typifies the man himself - pragmatic, thoughtful, optimistic and positive. In fact, he begins by telling us that even as they were heading for the Philippines on the kidnapper’s boats, he was already thinking that perhaps there would be valuable lessons to be learned.
‘You can’t go back in time, you can’t make things unhappen, the only thing that you can do is to accept the situation, embrace it as it is, and to make the best of it.’
Of course, we all hope and pray that we’ll never find ourselves in a life situation like the one that Marc and his fellow captives experienced, however his strategies for survival are ones that we can all take into our day to day lives.
Throughout the ordeal - even in the darkest of moments - Marc kept a happy ending in mind, imagining himself as a free man once again. Picturing himself back in Luxembourg, sharing stories and a cappuccino with friends gave him a lot of strength.
Accomplishing a task
Self-efficacy, or put more simply ‘doing stuff’, also helped Marc get through. After sitting on the floor for weeks, by building a chair from some wood lying around the camp, Marc found that accomplishing a task and doing something to improve their situation helped him a lot.
Keeping a sense of humour
More specifically in this case, a sense of ‘gallows humour’. In a situation where the kidnappers were threatening the hostages with beheading, Marc actually heard himself saying ‘I mustn’t lose my head now’. Another of the hostages described the camp as ‘the best weight watchers I ever had, so cheap and so efficient’. A good laugh, or a good cry, is always one of the best ways to relieve acute stress.
‘You have to joke, or you have to laugh if you can, if you’re very stressed.’
Not everyone in the camp was coping in the same way, and Marc’s own mother was someone who was suffering very badly. A recurring dream of Marc being beheaded in front of her was taking away all of her energy and her health was declining dramatically. Feeling that she was almost dying right in front of him, Marc had a lot to do to in order to help her survive – which she did thankfully. This gave him a purpose and strength from doing something that made sense.
‘When you help others, you help yourself most’
Such a positive human being, and a self-proclaimed optimist, Marc Wallert has taken the entire situation beyond survival, and turned it into an opportunity to help others.
Now a successful keynote speaker and best-selling author of ‘Strength Through Crisis’, Marc works with people and businesses, translating his jungle strategies for the challenges that they face today. It’s safe to say that the event that could have ended his life actually transformed his life and gave him new purpose.
‘Being in captivity, being in a war situation, I really learned to cherish (those) values, until today, I know that peace and freedom are so valuable, and there not a given at all.’
To hear Marc tell his incredible story, be sure to catch up with his episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast. You can also find out more about his work as a keynote speaker and author online at https://marcwallert.com/en/