#Journeyto30 Confessions of a captive
Epi Fabonan III (The Philippine Star) - July 3, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It was supposed to be a holiday for Martin and Gracia Burnham, who celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary at the posh Dos Palmas Resort in Honda Bay, Palawan.

For 17 years, the two had been working in the Philippines as members of the New Tribes Mission, a Christian evangelical group. Martin was a pilot who flew in supplies to communities where NTM proselytizes, while Gracia worked for the congregation’s aviation program.

They had a pleasant life of spreading Christianity and raising their three children, all of whom were born in the Philippines – until the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped them on May 27, 2001.

During the early hours of that day, armed men woke up the couple and, at gunpoint, forced them and other hotel guests and staff into two waiting boats. Another American, Guillermo Sobero, was also taken captive. The terrorists abducted a total of 20 people, mostly, Filipino-Chinese tourists.

The hostages were brought to Basilan Island in Mindanao, more than 500 kms. southeast of Palawan and one of the islands where the terrorists operate. The group had already kidnapped another group of tourists in Sipadan Island, Malaysia, as well as a number of local and foreign journalists in the previous year.

Upon arrival at Lamitan town in Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf took a church and a hospital hostage. The Burnhams and the other hostages from Palawan were joined by 20 more people, mostly doctors and nurses from the Dr. Jose Torres Memorial Hospital and parishioners at the St. Peter Church. But four hostages from Palawan “escaped,” after allegedly paying ransom.

Despite a massive military operation that should have cornered the terrorists in what was dubbed as the Lamitan Siege, the terrorists were able to slip through the tight military cordon into the mountains of Basilan.

Eventually, all the other hostages either escaped or were released after paying ransom, while others were killed. Sobero was among those beheaded in what the terrorists call a “ribbon-cutting” ceremony, after reportedly being injured in the foot, which made him unable to walk. Only the Burnhams and a Filipino nurse, Ediborah Yap, remained in captivity.

The couple spent more than a year in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf and endured the inhumane treatment and perilous conditions of being pursued by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“We asked God for everything we needed,” Gracia told CBN News in 2012. “If we needed a drink of water, I asked God for a drink of water. And if we came to a stream, I drank the water. It didn’t matter that it was dirty and the guys were… doing stuff up river, it was water, and God provided it for us.”

The lack of food and the constant movement, coupled with scorching heat on clear days and the cold during the rainy season, emaciated the couple.

“I remember that we hadn’t eaten for — we were going on our 10th day. I didn’t know you could live for 10 days without food. But we had salt, and we had water,” Gracia explained. “We would eat little leaves from certain plants that we had passed by… ”

By summer of 2002, the Abu Sayyaf was running out of hiding places in Basilan as the AFP closed in on them. They moved the hostages across the Basilan Channel to the Zamboanga Peninsula, where the terrain was larger and more forested.

To keep themselves strong and focused on their survival, the couple would look at family photos that they were able to carry with them in a bag. But most of the time, the ordeal made them lose faith about carrying on.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I always said that to him,” she said. “And he said, ‘You know, Gracia, I think we’re going to get out of here. I just don’t know when’.”

Finally, around noon of June 7, 2002 – after 376 days in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf – the AFP mounted a rescue operation for them in an area between the towns of Sirawai and Sibuco in Zamboanga del Norte.

It was a Pyrrhic rescue operation as the AFP was able to rescue only Gracia. The terrorists had shot Martin during the gun battle, while Ediborah was caught in the crossfire. Despite the death of Martin and Ediborah, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo praised the AFP for the rescue operation.

In 2004, after fully recovering from her injuries, Gracia faced some of her captors in court, where she recalled her traumatic ordeal. She also published a book “In the Presence of My Enemies,” where she recounted the ordeal in detail.

The book was controversial as it shed light on the alleged collusion between the Abu Sayyaf and some AFP officials during the hostage crisis. To this day, the AFP denies any connivance with the terrorists, and no one has been charged, much less convicted, of collusion.

With the resurgence of the Abu Sayyaf in recent months and its spate of abductions and beheadings of foreigners, the story of Burnhams’ captivity gives us crucial insight into the complicated and shady world of kidnapping for ransom, where everything seems black and white, yet nothing is what it seems.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with