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A year of terror in a Philippine jungle

Gracia Burnham, as interviewed by Janellyn Marcial of the Pilipino Express

In February 2008, Missionfest Manitoba held a conference of Christian missionaries that featured the American author Gracia Burnham as one of their guest speakers. Gracia and her late husband, Martin, were missionaries in the Philippines. Gracia shared her experiences as a missionary in the Philippines and recounted her year-long ordeal as a hostage of the militant Islamic separatist group, the Abu Sayyaf (Bearers of the Sword, in Arabic). On February 2, 2008, Gracia Burnham (GB) was kind enough to sit down with the Pilipino Express (PE) team for a personal interview.

It was natural for the Burnham’s to fall in love with the Philippines – it was their home. From the age of 10, Martin Burnham studied at Faith Academy in Manila while his parents did missionary work with the Ibaloy people in the mountainous northern region of Luzon. After graduation he moved to the U.S. to study mechanics and aviation in order to return to the Philippines and follow in his parents’ footsteps. There he worked as a pilot for New Tribes Mission, an organization supplying rural peoples with food, medicine, and building supplies. Martin and Gracia were married in Kansas and returned to work in the Philippines in 1986, just after the People Power revolution. Their children, Jeffrey, Mindy and Zach were born and home-schooled in the Philippines as well.

PE: You and Martin lived in Luzon, what brought you to Palawan in 2001?Gracia Burnham

GB: We had been [in the Philippines] 16 years when Martin had to go to Palawan and fly for a friend down there who had an emergency and he couldn’t do his flying. Martin had just been to the United States for meetings… I cleared up my schedule so I could meet him in Palawan and I left our children on Luzon with some missionary friends of ours. I told them we’d be back in one week.

Well, I knew that Martin would have jet lag from the trip across the Pacific, so, I called our coworkers in Palawan and asked, “Where’s a good place where Martin could go and rest up?” They said, “Oh, Dos Palmas, you’ll love it there.” We couldn’t afford it… but I thought, our [18th wedding] anniversary is right around the corner, we’ll just call this our anniversary gift to each other.

It was wonderful… we had a nice meal that first night. The next morning, right at dawn, there was a banging on our door. I thought maybe a guard was drunk. Even before Martin got to the door, these three guys with M16s broke the door in and one of them took [Martin] out. One of them came over to the bed, pointed his gun at me and said, “Go, go, go!”

I said, “No, I’m not dressed.” So, I grabbed what I could, a T-shirt and some cut-off shorts. Then they took me out too… and they were taking all of us down to a waiting speedboat. As we pulled away from the pier they raised their weapons in the air and yelled, “Allahu akbar!” [Allah is the greatest.] That’s when we knew who had us. It was the Abu Sayyaf. We all knew we were in big trouble.

PE: Where did they take you at first?

GB: We were on the boat for about four days. We didn’t know where we were going but when we finally got to Basilan… we were excited because that meant the sat-phones and cell phones would work and [negotiations would begin] and it would last a couple of weeks at the most and then we could all go home. [But] that first day on land the military found us. We had our first gun battle and we had to start running for our lives. We were so discouraged.

PE: Being held captive for a year must have been hard on you emotionally as well as physically.

GB: Yes. They told us from the very beginning, because we were Americans, they said, “We will deal with you last. We’ll treat you as political prisoners.” Everybody else and their families on the outside started paying their ransoms and they let them go but they were treating us differently. We thought our only hope was to stay alive until some kind of negotiation happened for us. [Ed. note: 18 other guests of the Dos Palmas Resort were also abducted.]

But as it went on month after month, we realized that what the Abu Sayaff really wanted was money. They wanted money for us to fund their jihad. Their holy war has degenerated into a kidnap for ransom group and they need to fund their group. I wish we said at the very beginning, “Give us a sat-phone. We’ll call our families in the States and they’ll start raising ransom,” because that was the bottom line; money.

PE: What would you say to those who believe that we should never give in to demands for ransom?

GB: Well, Americans are very opinionated and we’ve all been taught that paying ransom is wrong and that’s how we felt until we’d been hostages for a couple of weeks and then we threw our ransom policy out the window [laughs]. But we knew that New Tribes Mission couldn’t pay a ransom for us because then all missionaries would be in danger. We knew our families didn’t have money. We really believed them when they said that we were political prisoners – even though they lied about everything else.

PE: Tell us about your captors.

GB: When they first took us, one of the guys was telling us all the great things about Islam. He said, “Would we ever touch your women? Of course not; the Koran forbids it.” So all the women just relaxed; these guys weren’t going to rape them. But as the weeks went by they started sabaya-ing the girls. The girls became the booty of war. One-by-one they started taking the girls and they had to go start living [and] sleeping with these men. I would ask the leaders, “I thought your Koran forbids this.” And he said, “Oh, this is jihad. The holy warriors can do anything they want. The civilians, they are nothing.”

It was just so hard to watch because you would think; “this has got to get better,” and then it would get worse. And then they would kill somebody else. And then they would come to a village and, to prove a point, they would get ten guys off to the side and chop their heads off. The nightmare just continued. We learned a lot about ourselves. We learned how weak we are but we learned how strong God is and how God can keep you going through a really awful time.

PE: How did the Abu Sayyaf treat you and Martin in particular?

GB: Martin and I were never separated, which was our fear, of course. The guys [Abu Sayyaf] seemed to really like Martin. He was a very outgoing person, so he would get to know them and get to know their stories and he just made friends. I think that’s why I was safe. They never abused me. They didn’t beat us. So, it could have been a much worse story. God was very good to us through that whole mess.

PE: Was there ever a day that you felt just “normal”?

GB: Being a hostage kind of became normal. A normal day was they would get up at dawn and pray. Morning, noon and night, there was always prayer, no matter what we were doing. If we had something to eat they w

ould build fires and we would have meals but often there was nothing to eat so we would just sit and a normal day was just sitting – or running. We were either sitting, totally bored in a place that we thought was safe… or we were running for our lives because we knew the military was near. When we moved we would hike day and night without stopping. We would have little breaks and just… walk until we were totally exhausted.

Gracia with malongPE: Did you ever get sick?

GB: My reaction to any hard things like gun battles… I would get diarrhea – LBM (loose bowel movement). That was my reaction to everything. We were drinking dirty river water, dirty stream water. Once there was no water to be found [but] we found a little pool of stagnant water… and as I was dipping my cup, I looked down and there were leech eggs in the water. So we were just drinking whatever we could drink. And of course, that gave you dysentery and we were sick a whole lot – and with no medicine.

PE: What day-to-day things would upset you?

GB: Oh, if food came into the camp and I would see them [Abu Sayyaf] off eating and they didn’t share it with us, I would be very upset with them. One day someone stole Martin’s chinelas (flip-flop slippers) and I was very upset because that meant he was going to have to walk barefoot. I was accusing everybody. I said, “I thought the Koran forbids Muslims to steal anything and if you steal something they chop of your hands. You guys are going to have no hands left!” And Martin would just gently say, “Come over here and sit down and something will work out. And somebody did bring his chinelas back. Most of those guys didn’t speak English and I would just tell them off – they had no idea what I was saying [laughs].

PE: Did you ever make friends with any of your captors?

GB: Yeah, I think if you could talk to any of those guys today they would call Martin Burnham their friend. After a year you get to know those guys and you get to hear their stories. And you hear how they’re not really bent on jihad. A lot of those guys were young guys and they wanted to get married and in that culture it’s the guy who pays the bride price. The economy in that part of the country is horrible. So if your father is a poor fisherman, where are you going to get 50,000 pesos to buy a bride? So they would join the Abu Sayyaf almost as a career move and hope they were there when somebody paid the ransom so they could go home and get married. When you hear those stories… your heart can’t help but go out to them. A lot of them didn’t want to be there.

PE: Were you especially close to any of the Abu Sayyaf?

CB: Probably our favourite was Hurayra. He and Martin just really clicked. Martin said, “I think I want to teach Hurayra English.” He would write down a word and we would teach him the English. [Martin] said, “If this kid was in Kansas, I would want to adopt him.” And then one day, Hurayra killed someone; he chopped some guy’s head off in some village. And Martin said, “I don’t think we need to be teaching him English.’

PE: Were some of the captors more hostile than others?

GB: There were kindnesses. Sometimes they would feed us when there was hardly anything and they wouldn’t have had to. On the other hand there were real cruelties. Several nights when I was handcuffed to a tree I had LBM and I would tell them, I’m going to have to get up and go to the bathroom somewhere and they would just leave me handcuffed all night. So I would just have to stretch as far as I could away from the tree and just go right there, right where we were sleeping. To me, that was cruel. There was no reason for that. They knew I wasn’t going to escape because I would never leave Martin.

So there were cruelties, of course, when they killed people. The other American, they beheaded him about 10 days into our captivity because they were trying to prove a point.

PE: Was there ever a time when you just had to break down and cry?Gracia's clothes

GB: I remember on my son’s 15th birthday I was almost hysterical. I said, “Martin, we are never getting out of here. Were going to get killed in a gun battle and that’s going to be it.” And he said, “Gracia, what would the kids say if you could pick up the phone right now? Jeff would say, “Mom, keep going today “cause tomorrow you might get to go home.” He said, “you’ve got to get yourself together because if we do get to go home, our kids are going to need their Mom. They aren’t going to need their Mom without her mind because she’s lost it in the jungle, because then, they’re going to have to take care of you. You need to be who you were when you came into this.”

PE: Tell us about the day you were rescued.

BG: The final day – we had gone for 10 days without food. Someone had paid one ransom for us but they were greedy and they asked for more. We were trying to get to this village where they said another ransom had been paid for us. Well, the ransom didn’t exist and neither did the village.

The other thing we didn’t know was the CIA had sent a backpack to Abu Sabaya, the head guy. They had said it was from a friend of his on the outside. Well, they had sewn a homing device into the backpack, so the military was tracking us and we didn’t know it.

One of the unwritten rules between the Abu Sayyaf and the military was they never fought in the rain. So, it was raining, we thought we were safe. We set up our hammocks with our little plastic sheets to keep us dry and laid down for a rest. The military came over the hill. They didn’t stop that day and they just opened fire on us. I was immediately shot in the leg. I dropped out of the hammock and slid down the mountain – we were camped on the edge of a mountain – and I came to rest beside Martin and I looked over and he was bleeding from his chest. I knew that you don’t recover from chest wounds.

During the battle I was thinking every moment was my last moment. I was trying to do what Martin had taught me to do – keep your head in a gun battle, just lay there until someone tells you what to do. Well, I was tying to look dead because I thought Martin was dying, I didn’t know. I thought if they see I’m alive they’re going to drag me into the jungle and this nightmare’s going to continue.

I don’t know how long that gun battle lasted but when I heard the Abu Sayyaf retreating down the river and I heard the Tagalog from the soldiers up on the top of the mountain, I started moving my hands around so they would know I was alive. As they were dragging me up the mountain I looked back at Martin and he was white, and that’s when I knew he was dead. But in that moment I had a decision. You can go home bitter because of what’s happened to you or you can go home happy because you’re finally out of here. And that’s what we’d been asking God for. I don’t even think that I made the decision; God just filled my heart with a peace and a joy that I can’t explain. I just remember being so happy because my kids were going to have a Mom.

PE: How did it feel to go back to court and testify against the Abu Sayyaf?

GB: I determined before I went that I wouldn’t look at them because that might be what unnerves me. So, when we got into that Filipino courtroom it was great because I faced the judge. I wasn’t facing the accused. So, I just testified all day long about what those guy’s names were, the first time I saw them, the last time I saw them, what their job was – and that was it. And then for four years I didn’t hear anything. The case was ongoing. I thought they had just forgotten the case. But right at Christmas time this last year I got a call and those guys were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. And I thought, this is it, this is closure for me.

PE: Did you wear special protection while you testified?

GB: Yes, I wore a bulletproof vest and we drove around in bulletproof cars and the media was chasing us. You would have thought I was Jessica Simpson [laughs]. And then the kids wanted to go back to the Philippines and I thought there was no way because the media was everywhere. So, we came up with a plan and we didn’t tell anyone in America that we were going back to the Philippines. We didn’t tell anyone in the Philippines that we were coming and we snuck back there. I wore this stupid looking wig so no one would recognize me on the plane and going through immigration. We spent Christmas, about three weeks in the Philippines one year and it was great. The kids loved it and were able to visit their old friends and we hiked mountains and just did the things we loved doing while we lived there. It was just a good, good time. I think that was closure for my children – to just go back and relive some good memories.


PE: Tell me about your meeting with President Arroyo.

GB: After that gun battle… they fixed my leg up in surgery then they flew me to Manila. And about a day later President Arroyo came to visit me. I asked her if she wanted to know how Martin died and I just told her the same story I told you.

And then I told her, “You know what? You need to be watching the coast because these guys have no money, they have no food and they’re going to try to get off the coast of Zamboanga. They need to get somewhere where they know the land and they have friends who will feed them. Two weeks later there was this big gun battle right along that coast there. They killed some of the guys and took some of them. That’s the day Abu Sabaya died, about two weeks after Martin died.

I said some stupid things, too, [to the president]. I didn’t know what to say to her and we were just talking and I said, you know, the Abu Sayyaf aren’t happy that the Philippines has a woman president and I looked over at the ambassador and he was [imitates his shocked expression]. She said, “I didn’t know that.” I said, “Maybe that’s why they give you such a hard time,” but then I complimented her. I said, “You know, in the past, Philippine presidents have kind of done whatever the Abu Sayyaf said.” It was President Arroyo who said, “We’re not paying a ransom.” She didn’t give in to their demands. I said, “That was pretty strong of you.”

PE: Would you ever want to go back to the Philippines?

GB: I’d love to go back to the Philippines. I don’t even know if they would let me [laughs]. I caused so much trouble there before I don’t know if I’m welcome there but I’d love to go back.

Gracia Burnham continues her missionary work today with the Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation ( She has also published two books about her experiences, In the Presence of My Enemies and To Fly Again.

Pilipino Express thanks Mr. Gordon Gilbey and Missionfest Manitoba 2008 for their kind assistance.

Photo credits: Rey-ar Reyes

Watch the entire Burnham interview on PETV via IPQUBE.

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