BACK TO MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY | Continental Drift | The Dead | Execution

Jugen Kantner died a few days ago, his head sawn off by a Moro kris. His execution was filmed by someone apparently holding a smart phone. Jugen was a German man, captured by the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines as he and his girlfriend were sailing through the area. The Abu Sayyaf are a small group of extremist Moros. The Moros, who are Islamic, for centuries have been fighting for suzerainty over their own islands. They fought the Christian Filipinos, they fought the Spanish, they fought the Americans. The phrase “running amok” was coined to describe their assaults: amok is a Malay word meaning furious attack. The U.S. Army began arming their soldiers with .45 automatic pistols because their usual .38 pistols could not stop these attacks. The Moros were also famous as pirates, attacking ships that passed through the nearby straits.

I stayed with a Moro pirate family for a short time in 1963; they smuggled me into what was then British North Borneo, one of the last British colonies in Asia. I had been wandering around the northern Philippines for some time, and managed to overstay my visa and spend most of my money. I knew of the Moros. They were pirates, but they also smuggled cigarettes from Borneo back to the Philippines. I figured I could find work in a British colony, if I could get there. So I decided to travel south, by inter-island boat, to Jolo in the Sulu Sea, and try to find a Moro smuggler who would take me to Borneo. My friends in Manila were aghast at my plan. They will kill you, they told me, the Moros are murderers! But of course I had always wanted to meet pirates, and besides, I said, it was my intention to be an adventurer, and adventurers had to take risks. On the ship to Jolo I met Hajji Aba, the burly chief of the small island of Sibutu, and he invited me to stay with him. I found the Moros to be friendly and polite. I never felt in any danger. I knew, of course, that pirating was a violent and aggressive occupation. I even saw Hajji Aba’s pirate boat, a long outrigger canoe with three outboard motors at the back and a .50 caliber machine gun in front. This was no joke, no Errol Flynn movie, no romantic novel. Had he killed people? I had to imagine that he had. But I was his guest—a respectful guest, of course—and he and his family fed me, gave me a bed to sleep in, and showed me around his island. Later his son took me to Borneo in a kumpit, a small boat. The son too was polite and respectful.

When I met Hajji Aba, he asked where I was coming from. He knew some English from going to an American school as a child.

“From Manila,” I told him.

His eyes grew big.

“Manila!” he said. “You are lucky to be alive! They kill you there! Here, you are safe!”

Of course that was more than fifty years ago. I was a young man and carried with me an old upright Underwood typewriter, very heavy. Perhaps Hajji Aba was impressed by this. Perhaps he respected writers. He eyed the typing machine with a rather acquisitive gaze. He also had a daughter, a dark-haired, sultry beauty. I got the distinct impression that the Hajji would have liked me and my typewriter to stay there—and that I could marry his daughter, convert of course to Islam, and learn to be a pirate. That would have been an interesting profession.

The Moros, under various Sultanates, have been battling with their neighbors for more than four centuries. No one seemed willing to leave them alone. The Christian-Animist Filipinos tried to subdue them, then the Spanish. After the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th Century, the task fell to the Americans, who liked the idea of having their own colony in Asia. General “Black Jack” Pershing was involved. Various treaties with the Sultan of Sulu were made and broken. The Americans’ superior firepower led to several massacres.


After Philippine independence, at the end of the Second World War, the Filipinos resumed the battle. There have since been various periods of uneasy peace. Much of Mindanao, the largest of the southern islands, is now populated by Christian Filipinos, while the Moros control most of the Sulu Archipelago. The Abu Sayyaf is currently the most militant of the Moro groups who still demand independence. For some decades they have been kidnapping people who pass through the south, mostly foreigners and Filipino Christians, and holding them for ransom. I suspect this is their primary source of income, and, indeed, perhaps their primary reason for existing. It is not clear to me if there is a significant connection any longer between the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro independence movement or any other Islamic militant group.

For the life of Jugen Kantner they demanded $600,000. His girlfriend/companion, Sabine Merz, 59, was already dead, apparently shot while their yacht, the Rockall, was attacked last November. The attackers set a deadline of February 26 for Jugen’s ransom to be paid, and when it wasn’t, they hog-tied him, pulled his head back by his hair, and sawed it off with their kris. He jerked once or twice and died. The executioner held the head in the air triumphantly, then put it down. The video ends.

Jugen was 70, a slender, disheveled-looking man with white hair and beard. He was not rich. He had spent more than 30 years on his boat, roaming the seas, taking odd jobs to survive. He and Sabine had been been kidnapped by pirates once before, in 2008, in the seas off of Somalia. That time a ransom had been paid, presumably by the German government. He managed to retrieve his boat, and the two of them started off again. It was the only life they were comfortable with.

Whether or not the Abu Sayyaf, who number probably less than 500 souls, are Islamic militants is debatable, but at the very least they are pirates, just like my Hajji Aba. The Hajji is certainly dead by now, but perhaps his son—that quiet, slim young man who took me to Borneo—is alive. Did he continue his father’s tradition of being a pirate? Is he now an elder statesman, so to speak, of the Abu Sayyaf? Was that his son, brandishing the head of Jugen Kantner? I can easily identify with Jugen—like him, I have been a wanderer most of my life. I could never afford a boat, but I often imagined myself at sea, in a small sailboat, the Underwood typewriter and myself meandering from port to port as I wrote my increasingly strange novels. Indeed, my second novel, Mofa, imagines just this.

Jugen, I am sure, understood the risks of sailing in the southern Philippines. But he was an adventurer, and adventurers do not avoid risks. And the Moros, at least those not assimilated into our modern world, are pirates. And pirates are killers. This encounter—unlike mine—ended tragically.

[A note on the photos: the first, of Jugen, is a frame from the video just before his throat is cut. The one of the American soldiers standing around the dead Moros I found on the internet, and presume that it is in the public domain.]

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