Gracia and Martin with one of their captors. This photo was used as a proof of life document during their time in captivity.
Gracia Burnham has gone through hell and kept on going.
The American motivational speaker and former missionary captivated the world from May 2001 to June 2002. During that time, she was a prisoner of Islamic militants in the Philippines and was constantly moved through the jungle in order to stay one step ahead of the Southeast Asian nation’s armed forces. Burnham has travelled to share her story with others since her ordeal and will be coming to Stony Plain on Saturday.
Various forms of instability have affected Filipinos since their independence from the United States in 1946. Dictators, corruption, crime and poverty are all present in their country. Burnham said she and late husband Martin heard about all of this during their 17 years in the Philippines as missionaries and took pains to be safe. Most of the time, she worried about his job and fitting into the nation’s culture.
“I do not think it is really easy for anyone to go overseas,” she said. “I had to find out what is not acceptable, but because Martin grew up there, he made it easier. The hard thing for me was always his flying. His work took him to these remote places on sides of mountains to deliver supplies to people.”
It was anything but an ordinary life, but they made it work. For years the pair went from place to place to place in the island nation and made friends and connections along the way. They were happy, at peace and serving the Christian faith in a way many do not get to. But it all came to and end when they decided to fill in for a colleague attending a funeral and took up his flight to the Dos Palmas Resort by Honda Bay.
“He needed to do work but we had also heard about how beautiful the area was,” Burnham said. “So we justified the cost by celebrating our anniversary. The first night we relaxed, ate and went to sleep.”
The gunmen came in the wee hours of the morning May 27, 2001.
Two speedboats cut through the water and landed where the Burnham’s were commemorating their life together. They stormed the area with their M16 rifles and dragged people out of their zones of comfort as they went room to room searching for hostages that could be ransomed to fuel their criminal endeavours.
“The pounding on the door was a Bang. Bang. Bang,” Burnham said. “They dragged Martin out and I was still in bed. There was this man shouting at me to go and they took us out to their waiting boats. As we pulled away and they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,’ I knew it was Abu Sayyaf and we were in deep trouble.”
Abu Sayyaf has been at the centre of conflict in the Philippines since 1991. It is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Indonesia and Japan and recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. One of its primary sources of funding is kidnapping for ransom.
Officials have paid in some cases, but for the Burnham’s, this was not to be. Instead, they lived the life of their captors. Day in and day out, Gracia hiked, drank dirty water and dodged bullets whizzing overhead.
“It was gun battle after gun battle,” she said. “Sometimes their guys would die, sometimes the armed forces would die. It was a long and drawn out game where we witnessed a lot of atrocities that were committed.”
By June 7, 2002, Gracia and Martin were two of the only hostages remaining from the original group. An operation involving hundreds of soldiers took place to try and free them. They were recovered, but Martin did not make it. He took three shots to the chest and Gracia was wounded when a round hit her leg.
The bullet wound in Gracia’s leg after her rescue in 2002. Martin did not survive their captivity.
Like that, life as Gracia Burnham knew it was gone. She now had to face the future by herself.
Sharing, Caring and Recovery
Burnham testified against some of her captors in court in 2004 and says she does not blame the military for her husband’s death. As time went on, she came to even forgive those who held her in the jungle. She does not excuse their actions, but knows many who kept her were not rabidly devoted to the group ideology.
“There is no excuse for chopping off someone’s head, I am sorry,” Burnham said. “But my heart changed in the jungle. One person I met was not bent on jihad. He wanted to get married, did not have the money for a dowry for his sweetheart and only joined in hopes he would get a good share of a ransom. I love Muslims, a lot of them are my friends and it would be awful to lump them in with the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.”
She now lives in Kansas and has written two books in addition to her speaking. With her upcoming address, she hopes those who attend learn to trust in God and bring the good out of the problems they are facing.
“I want people to leave with hope in their hearts and feel encouraged to live life worthy of God,” she said.
Burnham will be speaking at the East Parkland Bible Church in Stony Plain. The event begins at 7 p.m.