Book Recounts Missionary Ordeal in Philippines

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A year after a rescue mission in the southern Philippines freed Gracia Burnham from Islamic terrorists' clutches, the former hostage is helping Philippines authorities who are investigating her claims of military collusion with the gang.

At a military base in Zamboanga City on Saturday, Filipino and visiting U.S. troops held a memorial service to mark the first anniversary of the deaths of Martin Burnham, Gracia's husband, and another hostage, Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap.

U.S. Colonel Allan D. Walker and an army chaplain led the service in a chapel in memory of the fallen hostages.

Walker, who is in charge of a taskforce training Philippine infantry troops, was quoted in local media reports as telling the small gathering that "the story is not finished."

"Our combined military forces are still fighting to eliminate those that caused Martin and Ediborah's suffering," he said.

During the first half of last year, U.S. forces trained Philippines troops hunting the Muslim terrorists of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), although the Americans did not take part in combat missions.

Towards the end of the training period, on June 7, 2002, Burnham and Yap were killed during a firefight between local troops and the ASG. Gracia was injured but survived.

Her rescue brought to an end a 376-day ordeal for the missionary couple from Kansas, who had lived and worked in the Philippines for more than 15 years.

In a newly-published book entitled In the Presence of my Enemies, Burnham described how they eked out an existence on the run in the jungles of the lawless southern Mindanao region.

Snatched from a beach resort on a rare, one-night break to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary, they and 18 others became the property of terrorists claiming to be advancing the Islamic cause - but who made it clear from the start that it was money they wanted.

Half-starved, equally afraid of their murderous captors and of the artillery of the pursuing military, the couple watched as their fellow hostages were one by one ransomed - or killed, as in the case of the only other American in the group, California tourist Guillermo Sobero, who was decapitated days after the abduction.

Burnham wrote that the ASG was disappointed to find out she and her husband were Christian missionaries, aware that missionary organizations generally don't pay ransoms.

Just hours after their capture, "the other hostages were already busy figuring out how much money they could raise," she wrote.

"It seemed that everybody knew this was the name of the game. Muslim advancement may have been the announced overall goal, but cash was the necessary fuel. The bargaining was in full swing."

Five months later, the only hostages left were the Burnhams and Yap.


The book is a personal account of their suffering and the way the ordeal challenged her faith.

But it also raised questions about military tactics and allegations of collusion between military officers and the terrorists.

On occasion the troops would encounter the moving band of captors and captives, firing indiscriminately and using heavy artillery without apparent thought for the safety of the hostages.

Then when the encounter was over, the ASG would simply move away, with the soldiers failing to pursue them, she said.

Burnham recalled being especially puzzled when troops brought food to the gang.

"This happened several times over the course of a few weeks. Why in the world did President [Gloria] Arroyo's troops provide the Abu Sayyaf with their daily bread?"

She also wrote that military weapons and ammunition had made their way to the ASG.

Also unsettling were episodes such as a call to ASG leader Abu Sabaya's satellite phone from a government official in Manila who, Burnham wrote, reminded the terrorist that "you owe me a favor" and asked him to free a particular hostage.

She also alleged that an unnamed Philippines general tried to obtain half of a ransom sum to be paid for hostages' freedom.

In the past, other former ASG hostages have made accusations of links between terrorists and local military officials.

Because of her published allegations, a senior Philippines justice official recently interviewed Burnham in Rose Hill, Kansas, where she lives with her three children.

A government lawyer, Juan Navera, told reporters in Manila last Friday that investigations into the collusion claims would be completed shortly.

Writing in the Manila Times on Sunday, columnist Toots Ople - who holds a senior position in the Department of Foreign Affairs - rejected a senior military officer's recent claim that Burnham's book vindicated the Philippines military.

"Questions about military competence and sound planning would hound the reader long after he finishes the book," Ople wrote.

She said Philippines lawmakers should read the book as it contained "policy questions that demand serious answers."


Burnham's book paints a picture of an armed gang of devout Muslims, whose members faithfully read the Koran, prayed and carried out cleansing rituals even when water supplies were limited.

They also proudly associated themselves with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban militia that ruled most of Afghanistan and sheltered the al-Qaeda leader until the U.S. overthrew the regime in late 2001.

When the ASG first seized their captives they introduced themselves as "the Osama bin Laden group" and said the aim of their "jihad" against Manila was to establish a pure Islamic state like the Taliban's.

Burnham also recalls Sept. 12, 2001, when the terrorists heard the news on the Voice of America radio about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"Of course the word spread rapidly through the camp. Guys huddled in little groups, talking and laughing and congratulating one another," she recalled.

"That night as we [Martin and she] lay down on the ground to sleep, we quietly sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner' together and prayed for the victims so far away."

Continuing U.S. help

Six weeks after Gracia was rescued and the others killed, the U.S. Justice Department filed criminal charges against five ASG leaders, including charges relating to the deaths of Martin Burnham and Sobero.

The group continues to operate in the southern Philippines, although one of the five leaders, Abu Sabaya, was apparently killed in a shootout with the Philippine Navy a year ago. His body fell into the sea and was never recovered.

Also active in the region is Jemaah Islamiah, a terror network described by researchers as the Southeast Asian wing of al-Qaeda.

Two weeks ago, President Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to help Manila wipe out Islamic militants in the south.

Another U.S.-Philippines joint counter-terror exercise is being planned, although Admiral Thomas Fargo, head of U.S. Pacific Command, said in Manila on Friday that it would likely be postponed by six months.

See also:
Rescued Missionary Widow Heads Home (June 10, 2002)
Backgrounder: Is Bin Laden Linked to Philippines Mayhem? (May 9, 2000)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow