On the afternoon of Friday, June 7, New Tribes missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham huddled together for the last time in a hammock beneath a makeshift tent in the steep mountains of southwestern Mindanao Island.
Members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group that had held the Burnhams hostage for 376 days were hastily erecting tents in the driving rain and eating rice—uncooked, since the guerrillas had abandoned their pots and pans in a recent skirmish. Abu Sayyaf knew the Philippine military was in pursuit, but the rebels didn't know they were under surveillance.
Only a few days before, the guerrillas had been forced to abandon their hideouts on the nearby island of Basilan, where they knew the territory and had the support of many residents. On Mindanao, they were constantly on the run, lost, hungry, and running out of resources.
They had recently ended a nine-day streak of living on rainwater and salt, and the group's main staples were now peanut butter sandwiches and coconuts. Leader Abu Sabaya was alternately promising to release the hostages and threatening to kill them.
"If we see our situation becoming difficult, maybe we will just bid goodbye to these two," the sunglass-wearing rebel leader said May 1. Almost a year earlier, Abu Sayyaf beheaded American Guillermo Sobero, who was taken hostage with the Burnhams last May. Abu Sayyaf also abducted Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap, who reportedly rejected an offer of freedom in order to take care of the Burnhams.
Talk between the Burnhams during the past year had often turned to the possibility of their deaths. In a videotaped interview last November, Gracia told a reporter, "We always look at each other, and I'd tell Martin, 'I love you. I want you to know before I die.' "
In recent ...1
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