Did Martin Die Needlessly?
Martin and Gracia Burnham were running again. For the fourth time in two weeks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines had found the American missionaries and their kidnappers, the Muslim terrorist group known as the Abu Sayyaf. Each of the last three times, the military had come in with guns blazing and reckless disregard for the hostages. And each time, the Abu Sayyaf had slipped away with its captives—the result of incompetence and corruption in the military's ranks.
The Burnhams were not yet used to the sound of M16 fire and bullets whizzing by their heads. But this time, there was a sound wholly unfamiliar to them: a thump, followed by a shwoo woo woo, then another thump, and an explosion.
The Burnhams ducked, then stared at each other, eyes wide with shock, disbelief, and anger. "They're shooting artillery at us!" Martin shouted, incredulous. "They have to know the hostages are here—what's this heavy firepower about? These must be the most accurate artillerymen in the world; they think they can fire from ten miles away and kill the Abu Sayyaf but avoid us?"
The Burnhams did not imagine then that they would endure 362 more nights in the jungle and 13 more firefights between their captors and the Philippine military. But they already knew their situation was desperate.
"The Abu Sayyaf didn't want to be recognized by the Armed Forces, of course, and neither did we," Gracia Burnham writes in her new book, In the Presence of My Enemies (Tyndale). "We knew. … that a frontal attack to rescue us would probably turn out badly."
Speaking to Christianity Today, the former New Tribes missionary is more specific. "We knew there would be a rescue attempt, and we figured both of us would die in it," she says. Abu Sayyaf leaders had arranged for the Burnhams to appear on a Southern Philippines radio station, but Martin's pleas to stop the shooting were truly heartfelt, Gracia says. "The Abu Sayyaf is going to survive this operation," he told the military. "But the hostages will not."
He was mostly right. On June 7, 2002, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) came with guns blazing for the last time, the Abu Sayyaf shot all three remaining hostages. Almost all of the captors escaped, and Gracia Burnham was the only hostage who survived.
Burnham says she puts the blame for her husband's death on the Abu Sayyaf, not on the AFP, but it's clear that her anger doesn't stop with the rebels. When she talks about the operation that freed her and killed her husband, she refers to it as her rescue, but makes big quotation marks with her fingers. "What would I call that day?" she says. "I don't know. Sometimes I call it the day Martin died."
"The AFP wanted to help us hostages, but pulling off an operation that sensitive was simply beyond their training," she writes in her book. "At this point, we knew that our only real hope of getting out alive lay instead in negotiation. And for the Abu Sayyaf, negotiation meant only one thing: ransom money."
In her book, and in the few speaking engagements and interview requests she has accepted since her return to Rose Hill, Kansas, several miles outside Wichita, Gracia Burnham is unapologetic in her support of ransom payments to free hostages. She listens politely when people tell her that it would have been "immoral" to try to ransom them, or that doing so would put other missionaries in danger of future kidnappings. But it's not easy to hold her tongue, and she says she wants to tell them, "You go stand in that corner over there, and you don't leave until someone pays a ransom for you. You see how long that ransom policy holds up in your mind."