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Bittersweet Freedom

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On May 27, 2001, militants from the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped Gracia and Martin Burnham, who had spent 16 years in the Philippines as missionaries for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission. The couple made worldwide headlines as the guerrillas, who had a history of beheading hostages, held them captive for 376 days. On June 7, 2002, Philippine troops finally tracked down Abu Sayyaf and attempted a rescue. Martin, 42, was killed in the ensuing gunfight. Gracia, now 44, has just published a book about her ordeal, In the Presence of My Enemies. Now living in a new home in Rose Hill, Kans., with her three children, she spoke to PEOPLE contributor Kate Klise.

We had never done anything so touristy as this trip to Dos Palmas. I justified the night at the resort as an 18th anniversary gift. It was also a way to help Martin, who was a pilot, rest up before he began flying relief flights. We left the kids with friends. We were supposed to be gone a week. It was my fault. But I didn’t do it out of malice. I know Martin wouldn’t want me to feel bad about it now. Before dawn the first morning there was a knock on our bungalow door. Three guys holding M-16s burst into the room. They loaded 20 of us—mostly tourists—onto a speedboat. One of them said, “We’re the Abu Sayyaf. Some people call us terrorists.” They told us all about their honor code: How they wouldn’t steal or harm our women. Of course, they did all that. They stole Martin’s wedding ring the very first day. I held onto mine. I kept it in my pocket for six months, and when another hostage was released I slipped it to her.

I didn’t cry until the second night. To pass the time, some of the hostages were singing Beatles songs. When we got to “Imagine,” I finally lost it. They took us to Basilan, a small island off Mindanao.

Martin was always the optimistic one. I’d get hysterical some days and cry, “We’re never getting out of here!” But he always calmed me down. He’d say, “What do you think the kids would say if they could talk to us now?” I’d say, “Keep going for just one more day.” And I did. For more than a year.

I was glad I said goodbye to him many times. Once I even made it official. I said, “Martin, I need to tell you goodbye so when I get killed or you get killed I’ll have no regrets. I’m serious, sweetie. We’ve had a wonderful life together. I’ve totally enjoyed our marriage. We both love the Lord with all our hearts.” He said, “Honey, I don’t think this is really healthy for you to be saying this.” Well, I’m glad I did.

Our days became one of two extremes. Either we were running for our lives in the jungle or sitting with absolutely nothing to do. When we were running it was from the Philippine military, who were shooting at our captors and trying to rescue us. Sometimes it was hard to remember who the bad guys were.

But we lived in fear. Once we heard them make a threat over the phone that if they didn’t get a new negotiator they were going to kill one of the whites. Seventy-two hours later they led away Guillermo Sobero, the only other U.S. hostage. We never saw him again. We found out later he’d been beheaded.

There was never enough food. When we did eat, it was rice. The only water was from streams and stagnant pools, so we had dysentery and diarrhea a lot. Martin lost more than 40 lbs. I was the same weight as when we were taken, which was weird.

To pass the hours, Martin and I would plan imaginary family vacations. We planned a trip from Rose Hill, Kans., to St. Louis. We talked about how we’d take the bus and the train and go to a Cards game. We talked about what we’d need to pack and what shoes the kids would need. We would make one idea last for days.

We sang a lot. Mostly gospel hymns. Once I heard Martin humming as we were marching through the jungle. I said, “Honey, what is that?” thinking it was probably something uplifting like “How Great Thou Art.” He said, “Oh, just the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies.” He had such a wonderful sense of humor.

Sometimes he’d brush my hair. I’d rub his shoulders. Anything more than that would have been too risky. Women aren’t allowed to be heard in their society. So I tried to be culturally acceptable. I’m a loud American, but I didn’t want to get my head chopped off. I tried to keep my head covered and be quiet.

I was given more freedom than Martin. They let me wander off to gather firewood. I was weaker, and they knew I wouldn’t leave Martin. At night we were often handcuffed together and then chained to a tree.

We talked to our captors all the time. We agreed with them on some things. No one wants to go to hell. And passing gas in every culture is funny. We talked about missing our kids. We talked about movies. Many Muslims say they hate Hollywood, but these guys had seen more movies than I had. They’d ask us about Las Vegas. They couldn’t wait to visit Las Vegas! They loved Levi’s, Ray-Bans and Mel Gibson movies. They talked to Martin a lot about dating. They wanted to know all about that. They all dreamt of finding the right girl.

Martin and I had only one fight. One of our captors had given us a miniature candy bar. We wanted to save it, to give us something to look forward to. I asked Martin when he thought we should eat it. He said, “Maybe tomorrow.” So tomorrow came and at some point he said, “I don’t think we should eat it today. I think we should save it a little longer.” Well! I just fell apart. I burst into tears: “I don’t even want it now!” We went to bed just feeling awful that we’d fought about something so unimportant.

I don’t regret not trying to escape. Our philosophy was, if we can get negotiated out of here we can return home to our kids. If we try to escape and fail, our kids will be orphans. We couldn’t do that.

Early on we knew the only way we’d get out was to pay a ransom. I heard later from many people who said, “Oh, we couldn’t pay a ransom for you. That would be immoral.” I just let people think that. But we prayed for a ransom every day. I don’t understand what’s wrong with a ransom. A ransom of $330,000 finally was paid. I can’t disclose by whom. But we were never released.

That last day, June 7 of last year, Martin was in a reflective mood. We had been trekking through the jungle, and he said he had been thinking about Psalm 100, about serving the Lord with gladness. So we prayed. We had just begun to nap when gunfire broke out from the crest of a hill. By this time we knew to hit the ground. But first I was shot in the right leg. I slid down a hill. Martin was bleeding from his chest. I knew it was not good. He was like in a deep sleep, then he got real heavy. The Philippine soldiers saw me and helped me. I looked back at Martin and he was white. That’s when I knew.

When I was recovering in Manila, my sister visited and gave me my wedding ring. It’s my most precious possession after my children. The hardest part has been getting used to single motherhood. Even though I have a support group, I feel really alone. The kids had a lot of questions. They asked, “If Dad had come home instead of you, who would have cooked for us?” I miss Martin terribly, but I’m so glad to be out of there. Martin was the eternal optimist. I always thought we were doomed. That’s why it’s so strange I’m the one who got out.