For 412 long nights, Wellington man Philip Blackwood lay on a bare wooden pallet inside a windowless prison cell in Southeast Asia. It was a stinking 40 degrees Celsius and the fluorescent lights burned day and night.
Surrounded by hardened drug-runners and murderers, he woke up every morning knowing there was a price on his head. “Every day was just about staying alive,” says Philip, 34.
What got him through the hellish 13-month incarceration was the knowledge that he would one day reunite with his fiancée Noemi Almo and their baby girl Sasha. Gorgeous Sasha, now two, was only four months old when her father was first jailed.
Philip recalls, “The prison is near the airport and I would lie in my cell listening to planes taking off. I focused on Noemi and Sasha – getting on a plane to freedom.”
In December 2014, Philip became the only westerner inside Insein Prison in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Locked up with dangerous convicts from around the world, his crime was a seemingly innocent one.
To promote “chilled out” Sundays at the bar he was running in Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon, he placed an image on Facebook showing a psychedelic Buddha wearing headphones.
“I posted it at 9.30pm and there was a complaint overnight, so I took it down. I apologised the next morning, but by the afternoon, there was a fundamentalist Buddhist lynch mob of around 60 people outside the restaurant shouting, ‘Give us the foreigner!’ They wanted to hang me from the trees. It was surreal.”
Continuing the story, Noemi, 26, says, “I got a text at work from Phil saying, ‘The police are here to arrest me. Call Mum in New Zealand.’
“I just cried – it was insane. I had a child in my arms, the embassy couldn’t do anything ... We were powerless.”
Now safely back in NZ and a free man, Philip is starting to rebuild his life. The young family is living with Philip’s parents in Wellington while the couple save to buy their own restaurant, plus they are also planning a wedding for next year.
Philip says the traumatic experience has been life-changing, explaining, “I used to work a 70-hour week. Now every hour I work is a precious hour I miss out on being with Sasha. Getting paid is not that valuable any more.”
Phillip’s time in Myanmar began back in 2010, when he moved to the country in search of adventure. A graduate from Wellington’s Victoria University, he says he always had “itchy feet”. Two years after he arrived in Myanmar, he fell in love with Philippines-born Noemi, who was there helping to set up an advertising firm.
The couple both adored the county and lifestyle in Myanmar. He and Noemi both had good jobs, and rugby-mad Philip even co-founded the country’s first rugby team, the Yangon Dragons. Noemi says of that time, “Life was good – almost perfect.”
In August 2014, the couple moved to Aotearoa for the birth of Sasha. “We looked for jobs here and half thought about staying,” he remembers, “but we hadn’t quite got Myanmar out of our system.”
So they returned to Yangon, where Philip took on a new role running club and restaurant V Gastro. But in only his fourth week on the job, Philip and a colleague made the fateful decision to use a picture of Buddha to promote the bar. He notes, “Less than 24 hours later, I was in jail.”
Sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment on charges of disobedience and offending a religion, Philip says the first 11 weeks in prison were the worst. He had limited access to a lawyer and court appearances were all conducted in Burmese.
“It dragged on, and we were clueless and powerless,” says Noemi, who moved in with friends in Myanmar soon after. Meanwhile, Philip believed his best chance of getting out early was keeping his head down. “I decided to be the nice guy and not a pain,” he tells.
Segregated for his own safety, he was moved around the prison under the escort of five guards. And despite a few unlikely friendships with other international prisoners, he feared for his life.
On January 22 this year, Noemi stepped out of the shower in Myanmar to see a missed call from the embassy. Philip was expected out that day on a presidential pardon. “There were fist pumps as I flew into Wellington,” says Philip. “It was very emotional.”
Yet despite the thrill of freedom, the couple say it took time to adjust to life on the outside. “It took a while to settle back in, but the best thing to come out of this s**y situation is that we are closer together now,” tells Noemi.
Philip wants to write a book about his experience and has been approached about public speaking, but he says what’s important now is making up time with Noemi and Sasha. “I’ve lost a whole year of my life – now I just want to make the most of every day and not waste any time.”
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