'Frustratingly close’: Friend remembers Dutch bird watcher killed by Abus in escape try

Jofelle Tesorio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 04 2019 04:45 PM

Ewold Horn in the field. Screengrab from NOS/NPO2

AMSTERDAM - For seven years, family and friends of Dutch bird watcher Ewold Horn, 59, was hoping he would be saved from terrorist captivity in the Philippines. 

That was until news came last Friday, May 31, that Horn was killed by his Abu Sayyaf captors as he tried to escape during an early morning rescue attempt by the Philippine military.

"What a pity. He nearly escaped, but was shot,” said Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson for the military’s Western Mindanao Command. “He was shot by his guards while trying to escape amid the firefight.”

"He was so frustratingly close," said his friend Klaas Nanninga in Dutch during an interview with public news program NOS. Nanninga shared Horn’s passion for birds.

During the interview at a natural museum in Groningen where Horn was based, biologist Nanninga showed stuffed birds and specimens that Horn helped make. 

Nanninga also showed the image of a rare double-horned hornbill that Horn had wanted to see. There are only 40 specimens in the world and Horn wanted to see one, according to his friend. This search for the rare Sulu hornbill brought Horn to the Philippines in February 2012.

But the journey took a dramatic turn. Together with a Swiss bird watcher friend, Lorenzo Vinciguerra, and their Filipino guide, he was abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in the same year. The Swiss escaped in 2014. At that time, Horn was too weak to flee.

Horn’s friend said they were hoping all those years that he would be freed.

“It is so useless,” said Nanninga about Horn’s death. “Seven years and even then as a kidnapper you still feel no mercy, that even then you don’t think (as a kidnapper): this one we let escape, let this person be lucky.”

Nanninga recalled how Horn worked with endless patience on each specimen. Preparing animals is a combination of craftsmanship and technology, he says, a profession that shows a lot of your personality. 

“You have to know the bird down to the last detail: that's how he worked…The placement of the eyes, that is a matter of millimeters,” he said.

He said Horn was like no other when it came to his passion and craft. “Preserving an animal is not that difficult. But the art is to really bring it to life, so that it seems to be frozen over time. And I learned that from Ewold. His soul, his love, his commitment…"

Two years ago, Horn's daughter gave a media interview for the first time.

In an interview with Trouw, Zippora Horn, 34, said she broke her silence because it became so frustrating that her father had been held captive for five years and nothing seemed to be happening.

"On the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the family has remained silent, because kidnappers may find a hostage more important through media reports. Now, after five years without result, I think it is time to take a different path and tell my story. I want my father to be released, which of course won't happen after an interview, but there should be more attention on his case,” she said.

She added that she has been in contact with the government. 

"Our permanent contacts at Foreign Affairs do their best. We always hear that the government does everything in its power to bring this to a successful conclusion. I am gradually wondering what 'everything' is. It takes so long, apparently it is not working or the stakes are not enough, more should be possible.”

The daughter also recalled how simple her father was. 

"He never cared about modern things or luxury. He still had a road map in his car when everyone already had a TomTom (navigation system). Because of his many journeys, he can live quite primitively and adapt to difficult circumstances. You wouldn't expect it, but my father does not like to take risks, he always went well prepared on the road and he certainly did on this trip, apparently the preparation was not good enough.”

In response, the Foreign Ministry said Horn's kidnapping had their full attention since it happened. 

“Of course it is horrible for him and his loved ones, especially now that it takes so long. We are working on the case every day and have close contact with the Philippine authorities and the family.”

Meanwhile, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he was shocked by the death and has had contact with Horn’s family. “I have asked my Filipino colleagues for clarification,” he said.