It’s been 20 years since South African MONIQUE STRYDOM hit world headlines when she was kidnapped and held hostage by a terrorist group. Once released, she had to work hard at releasing her trauma. The Covid pandemic, however, saw vestiges of it resurfacing. How has she fought it again and how can we all cope with our own traumas? ALI MCALPIN asked her some questions…
Former hostage Monique Strydom: ‘You can’t just “get over” trauma. If you don’t have people to support you, find people to support’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Monique Strydom (56) was born in Namibia and studied drama at the University of Pretoria, followed by qualifications in public relations. She now lives in Loevenstein, Cape Town with her son, Luc. She is the recipient of numerous awards including a Rotary International award and Newsmaker of the Year (Johannesburg Press Club) and was named ‘One of the Greatest Women of the Century’ by the American Biographical Society. The NPO she set up, Matla A Bana, has just been named a finalist in the 2020 Old Mutual Partnership awards, which celebrate projects changing socio-economic conditions in communities across Africa
Describe yourself Positive, with a wicked sense of humour
The kidnapping? It was 20 years ago. I was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group, along with my then husband, Callie, and 20 others on Malaysia’s Sipidan Island, one of the best dive sites in the world.
‘We commend Callie and Monique for the courage they displayed under most testing circumstances and wish them to know how proud they made all of us as South Africans for the manner in which they conducted themselves,’ said Nelson Mandela after the couple’s release | Photo from ‘Vrygekoop’, the book Monique wrote about her experience
We were taken to the remote island of Jolo. During the 127 days of captivity we experienced hundreds of emotions from hope to despair, as well as terror – the Filipino military ended up attacking us with mortars! Physical conditions were extremely harsh, with minimal food and water only when it rained. But the most difficult was losing our freedom. Our kidnappers watched over us holding machine guns and machetes.
We experienced severe ups and downs and in many ways the Covid pandemic has been like that. There’s no training for these times, no script. It requires all your energy just to survive.
Freedom! Monique with some of her 21 fellow hostages leaving the Philippines after 127 long days. From left to right: Sonja Wendling of France, Marie Moarbes of Lebanon, Monique, Maryse Burgot of France and South African negotiator, Smithy Pillay
We were given a bible, from which we drew much inspiration: it taught us you can choose to help others, whatever situation you find yourself in. On day 127 of our captivity I wrote a business plan to set up a charity. I felt I’d finally found my purpose in life, which was to help others. Four hours later we were released. It was an absolute miracle we got out alive, and I was just so grateful. I believe gratitude can change your life.
healing is a process
Coming out? We were surrounded by so much love and support on our return. Counselling helped me overcome the trauma of my captivity. Healing is a process and you have to work through it, you can’t just ‘get over’ it!
In Libya shortly after the release with South African High Commissioner Lindiwe Mabuza (left), Monica Aggenbag (Monique’s mother) and Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (right)
Monique with fellow former hostage Marie Moarbes and a friend of Marie’s
Your life since then? There was a lot of media interest and we set up The Strydom Trust to support a number of charities with the money we were paid by the media, and from the book we wrote.
In 2001, the head of the Gauteng Child Protection Unit asked me to help after the horrific rape of nine-month-old Baby Tshepang, since there was no support at the time for victims of this kind of crime.
Matla A Bana (A Voice Against Child Abuse), an NPO I set up, grew from this incident. We offer comfort to over 30 000 children every year, all across the country, working closely with the SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units and National Prosecution Authority. To me, the abuse of women and children is also a kind of kidnapping; many are hostages in their own homes, being hurt by those who are meant to take care of them.
At times I feel overwhelmed by the horrific abuse but then I help with comfort packs for rape victims. They contain a number of items including edible treats, toiletries and new underwear, a teddy bear, art items, a survival guide and a personal letter of encouragement. I know that if we can improve even just one person’s life, we have purpose and hope.
‘To me, the abuse of women and children is also a kind of kidnapping,’ says Monique. Through Matla A Bana [A Voice Against Child Abuse], the NPO which she set up, children recovering from abuse are given ‘comfort packs’ that offer them love and attention at a critical time. The charity also works closely with the police, offering them training on dealing with traumatised children and their own resultant trauma. Here, volunteer Kyla Muller and police officer Captain Mangesi hand over comfort packs to police units in the Eastern Cape during lockdown. Every year, Matla A Bana offers comfort to more than 30 000 children
I’m passionate about the work I do with the police: they’re our gatekeepers and the work they do is very traumatic. I also give talks to corporates, churches, women’s groups and many more.
You and Covid? The pandemic was a huge trigger for me. When the lockdown was extended and rules changed, I was shocked to realise the trauma of my kidnapping was re-emerging: the feelings of uncertainty, of not knowing the future and feeling isolated and fearful which had overwhelmed me at the time, hit me again. I totally understand why many people may have struggled with lockdown. My own reaction resulted in entire days when I could not function.
You can’t go through trauma alone
What have you learnt about trauma? Callie and I came through the jungle much better than other people because we had a support network. People need to realise you can’t go through trauma alone.
One good thing about lockdown was that we all went through the same thing and could understand what others were going through. During lockdown, I had friends who would leave muffins or croissants by the gate and we would stand and chat or connect via technology.
‘When we were kidnapped, we experienced severe ups and downs and in many ways the Covid pandemic has been like that,’ says Monique, who made the most of technology to keep connected to the important people in her life during lockdown. ‘You can’t go through trauma alone,’ she says | Photo: Leentjie Du Preez
WE WERE CREATED TO BE THERE FOR EACH OTHER: ENJOY THIS VIBRANT AND RESILIENT WOMAN!
Dr Merle Friedman, a world-renowned trauma and hostage specialist who worked with us after our release, also says that people with a hope or faith cope better with trauma. It’s so important to slow down, to find strength in another place.
When I talk to God, it isn’t always nice talk. Sometimes I’m rebellious and upset and I put my heart on my sleeve, but I’ve learnt gratitude. A lot of my prayer is a ‘thank you’ because then I see the small things. I realise I’m blessed and the huge things aren’t as huge.
Monique says prayer makes her grateful: ‘When I talk to God, it isn’t always nice talk. But it helps me realise I’m blessed and the huge things aren’t as huge.’ | Photos: Leentjie Du Preez
The important thing is not to be alone. The more lonely you are, the more lonely you become, especially if your world has already become small due to trauma. You can quickly go into overwhelm.
I always say, if you don’t have people to support you, find people to support. I believe we were born to connect with other people and in helping others you truly find purpose. Two major issues that have surfaced in lockdown are that people fall back into their old coping mechanisms and old traumas have resurfaced. Helping people helps counteract this.
Advised by a friend overseas, where Covid-19 was already dividing families, Monique invited her parents to spend lockdown with her. They helped her prepare comfort packs for the abuse victims she assists
Family life? Another miracle in my life is my son Luc, my light in the darkness! I was told that I would not fall pregnant soon, because of the physical, emotional pressure of poor diet and stress during the kidnapping. But I fell pregnant immediately, two months after our return. That’s why Luc is also a miracle! A blessing!
Luc is 19 now, a young man. As a parent, having been a hostage does not prepare you differently for parenting or make you a perfect parent! I’ve made the same mistakes as others. My divorce from Callie was a very traumatic time after 30 years of marriage, especially the press interest. But I had the most incredible support from my family and a special group of women, which gave me enormous strength and comfort.
‘I wasn’t scared to die’
Before lockdown, a friend of mine in America called me and said, ‘Get your parents out of the old-age home.’ So, I brought my parents to stay with me and we had such a great time. We found ways to support each other.
Your spiritual life? I believe I experience a living God. For me, it’s very simple: God loves us and has given us hope and His son. I was on the ground, being shot at, and I looked at the boy next to me – a member of Abu Sayyaf – and I saw how scared he was of death. I was not scared to die. So, my challenge is: make sure you’re not scared for the day you face death. You can tell yourself a lot of things but when you see death, you’re either going to think ‘I’m terrified, I don’t want to die’ or ‘I’m okay with this because I know what’s going to happen after this.’
Our captors lived in constant fear. They didn’t seem to know what cause they were fighting for. I believe that when you realise you’re part of a divine bigger plan, you find ongoing hope and purpose and your fears subside.
Monique’s son Luc is her ‘light in the darkness’. She also comments: ‘Having been a hostage does not make you a perfect parent!’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
ADDITIONAL ADVICE ON TRAUMA-RELATED ANXIETY
- Be aware: thoughts about past trauma can trigger anxious emotions and even physical symptoms
- Be proactive: long-term anxiety can cause disorders and health problems which require professional care
- Be responsive: exercise, healthy eating, positive thoughts and careful time management (including relaxing) all help
- Be free: avoid focusing on the problem, keep connected with a supportive community and communicate your emotions