Living in captivity American hostages survived for a year befo

Sunday, June 16, 2002

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- Martin and Gracia Burnham led a frugal missionary life, spreading the Gospels among the tribes of the northern Philippines, but for their 18th wedding anniversary they splurged on a weekend at an island resort.

The idyllic getaway ended just before dawn on a Sunday morning, when kidnappers kicked in the door of their white bungalow. For the couple from Wichita, Kan., a yearlong nightmare began in which they would dodge death in at least 16 gunbattles.

As weeks turned into months, they marked their birthdays and those of their three children amid constant fear. Some hostages were beheaded or shot; others escaped or were ransomed. Time and again the Burnhams saw their hopes for freedom dashed.

On June 7, after firefight No. 17, Gracia was finally free, shot in the thigh and weeping over her family photos as a helicopter flew her away. Lying dead in the mud were three kidnappers and two hostages --a Filipino nurse named Ediborah Yap, and Martin Burnham. He was 42.

Multiple kidnappings

It could be called a rolling kidnap. For months the Muslim rebels of Abu Sayyaf, a group with ties to the al-Qaida network, had been terrorizing the island region 550 miles south of Manila, seizing hostages, killing some, losing others, grabbing more.

Criminal gangs, emboldened by Abu Sayyaf's success, began snatching other foreigners Some got out alive; others didn't.

The Burnhams were kidnapped on May 27 last year. Then came Sept. 11, the world changed, and a few months later America took its war on terrorism to the Philippines.

The kidnappers took the guards by surprise at the Dos Palmas resort just off the southwestern Philippine island of Palawan. They swiftly gathered up 20 tourists and resort staffers and, without a shot being fired, vanished across the Sulu Sea on speedboats to the kidnappers' island base of Basilan.

Days later, the hostages were seen on predominantly Muslim Basilan, a mountainous province with dense jungle and mangrove swamps that the guerrillas knew well.

The abductors sought $1 million for each of the Burnhams, according to local officials.

'They were always praying'

The Philippine army mounted several unsuccessful rescue attempts. In every hail of gunfire, "Martin would grab Gracia by the hand as they ran for cover. He would never let go, even if his other hand was being pulled by a rebel guard chained to him," said Reina Malonzo, a nurse held hostage for five months. She was freed last November.

"They were always praying," she said.

The children, Jeff, 15, Mindy, 12, and Zach, 11, were living with their grandparents in Rose Hill, Kan.

More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers from the Special Forces, engineers and support units were deployed near Abu Sayyaf strongholds, which many believed was largely aimed at helping to free the American hostages.

Gradually, the captives were killed, escaped or were ransomed. Finally, only the Burnhams and the nurse, Ediborah Yap, were left.

With night-vision goggles, helicopters, guns and aircraft surveillance provided by the United States, Filipino soldiers were running Abu Sayyaf out of Basilan.

In the end, it wasn't the high-tech equipment that made the difference. A villager who was supposed to deliver $10 worth of bread and peanut butter to the kidnappers was taken into custody and talked.

As a downpour concealed their advance on June 7, three dozen Philippine army scout rangers slowly crept down a jungle ravine toward a huddle of tents containing the Burnhams, Yap and their captors.

A soldier radioed back to base, "Bull's-eye, sir, we've found the group."

Filipino troops move in

From a wheelchair, Gracia broke into sobs while recalling her final moment in captivity to the family of Ediborah Yap.

The Filipino troops exchanged automatic and M-203 grenade fire with the rebels for 20 minutes. Gracia said the bullet that hit her right thigh threw her off a hammock. She faintly heard Yap yelling the name of Martin, who was hit in the first volley.

With two hostages dead and the other wounded, the question inevitably arose: Was it worth it?

"In any gunfight, things can happen bad," said Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, who heads the U.S. troops in the Philippines.

"I've told my people not to be disheartened by that, that Mrs. Burnham will have the opportunity to go home and raise her children, and that's an important piece of this."

Martin's body was flown back to Kansas for burial Friday. As for the rebels, they are depleted by deaths, defections and arrests, and on the run with no more hostages to serve as human shields.

But in a part of the Philippines wracked by poverty and unfulfilled promises of government help, no one is writing them off.

Wednesday was Independence Day again, and President Arroyo raised the Philippine flag in Lamitan, the town where the kidnappers had skirmished with troops in the hospital a year before.

In a speech, she said guns alone wouldn't defeat the guerrillas -- jobs, food and education would.

"Unless all these are comprehensively addressed," she warned, "impoverished and disillusioned communities will continue to be the recruitment grounds for the evil of terrorism."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: