In the Presence of My Enemies: A Gripping Account of the Kidnapping of American Missionaries in the Philippine Jungle.by Gracia Burnham, Dean Merrill, Pam Ward
The gripping true story of American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham’s year as hostages in the Philippine jungle, was a New York Times best seller and has sold nearly 350,000 copies. Now releasing in trade softcover for the first time, this updated edition has a new look and contains never-before-published information on the capture and trial of the… See more details below
The gripping true story of American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham’s year as hostages in the Philippine jungle, was a New York Times best seller and has sold nearly 350,000 copies. Now releasing in trade softcover for the first time, this updated edition has a new look and contains never-before-published information on the capture and trial of the Burnhams’ captors; Gracia’s secret return trip to the Philippines; and updates on recent events in Gracia’s life, ministry, and family.
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In The Presence of My Enemies
By Gracia Burnham
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Gracia Burnham
All right reserved.
Bang, bang, bang!
Martin and I woke with a start. It was still dark outside and we couldn't see a thing. We could only hear the pounding on the wooden door of the beach cabin where we were celebrating our eighteenth wedding anniversary.
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!
Ugh-they want us to move to the next cabin, I thought. During dinner the night before, a member of the resort staff had said something vague about wanting us to change rooms but then had dropped the subject. I yelled to the person pounding on the door, "It's too early to move!"
Bang, bang, bang!
Martin yelled this time: "What?"
"It's a guard," came the reply.
I'll bet he's drunk, I thought, thinking that maybe the guard had been drinking during his overnight shift and was now out raising a ruckus. Once again, the banging resumed.
"Martin, I think the guard is drunk."
"No, I think something's wrong," he replied. He got up and started to head for the door.
"Honey, wait-you need to put some pants on first!"
Martin grabbed some knee-length khaki shorts, the kind with baggy cargo pockets, from beside the bed. Meanwhile, I sat up and began to gather my clothes as well-a pair of shorts and a gray T-shirt I had worn the night before.
Just as Martin reached the door, it burst open. Three guys holding M16s charged into the room. All were short, and one was very Young-probably in his teens. Another was perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four, with long black hair. I could tell the third man was somewhat older. All wore long-sleeved black shirts; two had camouflage pants. But there were no uniforms, no masks or sunglasses; we could see their faces.
Immediately, they swept Martin out the door, while the older man began yelling at me, "Go, go, go!"
"No, no, no!" I replied, clutching the sheet up around me. "I'm not dressed." I didn't know how much English he knew, but I was not about to obey him in my present state regardless. Shaking, I began pulling on my shorts.
"Okay, okay," he answered. I continued dressing.
One man had taken Martin outside, while the third one began to rifle through our belongings. He found our camera and our cell phone.
"Move, move, move!" came the order again. As I was hurried out the door, I grabbed our thong chinelas, the common flip-flops that everyone wears in the Philippines. There wasn't time for me to grab my purse or anything else.
The young guy who followed me out wanted me to walk faster, even run. I knew from previous training that in the first few moments of a kidnapping, you're supposed to comply with orders in every way you can, until everybody's adrenaline calms down. But I was just so mad at this kid-I was not going to run!
"Faster, faster!" he said, jabbing me in the back with the barrel of his weapon.
With a calm voice I replied through clenched teeth, "I'm walking fast enough." I kept my pace. He jabbed me again, and it did hurt, but I was determined to exercise my will.
Once I got to the dock, a speedboat maybe thirty-five feet long with three massive outboard engines-the kind of boat used for drug running-was waiting. Four or five frightened hostages were already sitting on the floor of the boat. Martin, still shirtless, let out a sigh of relief to see me, having been forced to leave me in the room not fully clothed. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you," he said. "Did anybody hurt you?"
"No, no-I just had to get dressed."
Naturally, he was without his contact lenses, which made his vision a blur. Fortunately for me, a couple of years before he had encouraged me to have laser surgery on my eyes in Manila. So I was in good shape to see distances, even if he was not.
As I sat next to Martin in the boat, we watched as others began to arrive from the various cabins. Dawn was just starting to paint the eastern sky.
Some of the people started showing up with suitcases! One rather chic-looking couple came not only with suitcases but a big cooler of water. My goodness, I thought to myself, I really didn't have to run out of the room so fast. I could have dragged my feet a little more and gotten some stuff together.
I stood up and announced, "I'm going to go get Martin a shirt!"
"Sit down," barked one of the captors. "We'll get him a shirt."
I promptly obeyed. But I took notice of the fact that his English was quite good. At least we can communicate with this one, I thought. We later learned his name was Solaiman.
"I have our chinelas here," I said to Martin, holding them up. I was really proud of myself.
"Yeah," he said. We didn't put them on our feet, however; we just held them. Martin was quiet as he looked around the boat, first at the men with guns and then at the other hostages. I could tell that he was trying to size up the situation, trying to figure it all out. This wasn't easy, however, since nearly everyone else on the boat was speaking languages we didn't understand. Occasionally, someone would throw an English word into the conversation and we'd be able to piece together some meaning. For the most part, however, we simply had to watch faces and listen to a person's tone of voice to figure out what he was saying.
I glanced down and the shine of my wedding ring caught my eye. These guys are not going to get my ring! I vowed. I pulled it off, along with a turquoise ring I was wearing on the other hand, and slipped them into my shorts pocket when no one was looking.
"Don't you think you should give me your wedding ring?" I asked Martin.
"Oh, no, we'll be fine," he answered, ever the optimist.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it'll be okay."
This whole romantic getaway at Dos Palmas Resort had been my idea, a fact that weighed heavily on my mind as I sat there shivering in the boat. It came about after Martin was offered a promotion with New Tribes Mission, the group with whom we had served in mission aviation for fifteen years. The agency wanted him to become chief pilot for the entire organization, which would mean moving back to Arizona and overseeing all flight programs worldwide.
Although he was flattered by the offer, Martin really didn't want the position. "I just want to be what I've always been: a line pilot," he told me. Martin was never happier than when he was flying the mission's little red-and-white Cessna into jungle airstrips, bringing groceries and medicine to our missionary colleagues, or helping ferry tribal people out to medical appointments.
Nevertheless, Martin's extraordinary piloting and ability to work with people kept moving him higher and higher up the organization's chain of management. In fact, he had turned down this promotion several times because our three kids were still young and he didn't want to do all the required traveling.
I kept telling him, "You know, I don't want to move back to the States any more than you do. But the truth is, you're the right man for this position. You really are!" I loved the Philippines, but to be honest, I didn't care where we were or what we were doing, as long as we were together. Martin would just smile and shake his head at me.
About May 10, Martin left for a two-week trip to the United States so he could meet with the senior New Tribes leadership team. While he was away, the mission pilot on the western island of Palawan was called home due to a death in the family, leaving the island unmanned. Through e-mail, Martin and I concluded that as soon as he returned, Martin should go to Palawan to fill in; after all, the missionaries in the tribes needed flight service. Plus, a translator was already scheduled to come and do some tribal work on those particular days. He'd need a pilot.
As I went over Martin's schedule in my mind, I knew he would be returning to the Philippines tired and jet-lagged-and would immediately take off for a week's duty on Palawan. I also knew that he would put in long days on the island and that he'd have to cook for himself. It didn't seem right. I knew he needed help.
My schedule was packed as well, with visitors coming through-but then, oddly enough, a couple of things canceled. I can go along with him and help him out, I thought. Plus, with our wedding anniversary coming up on the twenty-eighth, if I went along I could at least be with him on that day. Maybe we can even do something special while we're there. We've never had time to really enjoy the sights of Palawan.
I called one of our coworkers on the island and asked her, "Where's a good place for Martin and me to celebrate our anniversary? He'll just be back from the States."
"Oooh, you should go to Dos Palmas," my friend said. "It's a wonderful resort on an island all its own; you can only get there by boat. The food is terrific, and they have two kinds of rooms-garden cottages on land and cottages on stilts over the water."
"What would you recommend?"
In the background I heard her husband call out, "Over the water! Those are the nice ones."
"Okay, why don't you go ahead and book one for us for Saturday night the twenty-sixth?" I said. After that, I arranged for our neighbors, Bob and Val Petro, to take care of the kids. I began cooking ahead and freezing some meals for them to eat while we were away.
When the Dos Palmas reservation came through, I looked at the Price-10,000 pesos for the two of us ($200)-and got cold feet. Yes, it covered lodging, activities, and all meals, but still ... that was an awful lot of money for our budget. Would Martin be upset with this extravagance? What would our donors think if they knew? Maybe I should just call my friend back and ask if there's a nice place in town instead, I thought.
If only I had....
I looked around and counted: there were seventeen hostages in all packed onto the floor of the speedboat. Up on the deck, ahead of the pilot wheel, a group of our captors stood, while a few others stood back by the motors. Conversation flowed, in both English and one or more other languages I didn't recognize.
The whole loading process had taken maybe twenty-five minutes-all the hostages had been taken from the cabins over the water, none from the garden cabins. At the last minute, somebody said, "Wait! We need a cook." Quickly, one of the kidnappers jumped out of the boat and ran up to the top of the hill to abduct the resort's cook; his name was Sonny. Two security guards were nabbed as well. Obviously, they were no match for the raiders.
With Sonny and the guards, our hostage count rose to twenty.
The engines powered up, we pulled away from the pier-and suddenly one mystery was solved. The entire group of fifteen or so captors began to pump their fists in the air as they chorused in unison, "Allah akbar! Allah akbar!" ("Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!") Instantly, we knew who we were dealing with: the dreaded Abu Sayyaf. They were the only ones with the audacity to do something like this.
I didn't know a lot about the Abu Sayyaf, other than that they were terrorists. Throughout the southern Philippines, people were afraid of them. We learned later the meaning of their name, which set the tone accurately: Abu ("father of") Sayyaf ("the swordsman").
This was the same group that had taken Jeffrey Schilling, an African-American Muslim who had come to the Philippines to marry a Muslim girl the year before. Upon hearing about the Abu Sayyaf, he thought he could go to them, as a fellow Muslim, and explain that their tactics violated the Koran. His attempts at reeducation backfired immediately; they said he was a CIA agent, turned him into a hostage, and demanded one million dollars in ransom. Jeffrey was held for seven and a half months. We had heard he finally escaped by slipping out of his handcuffs, made possible by his weight loss.
I turned to Martin with a heaviness starting to press down upon my shoulders. "We are in big trouble," I said.
"Yeah, we are," he quietly agreed.
I watched as the white cabins of Dos Palmas grew tiny on the receding horizon, and soon I couldn't see any land at all. We roared out into the Sulu Sea, heading who knew where? The ride across the open water grew rough, and we found ourselves bouncing into the air and slamming down onto the floor again and again. The boat was seriously overloaded with thirty-five bodies aboard. We bumped ahead regardless.
I wasn't crying or shaky yet; all that would come later. I was steeling myself to stay calm, trying to stay focused as each event unfolded. I was also working to recall a class I had taken back in the late 1980s, when New Tribes Mission had sent their contingency planner, Guy Sier, to prepare the missionary team for hostage situations.
"The first few moments, when everyone is being rounded up," he had said, "is when the captors are the most trigger-happy. So do what you're told. But soon after that, begin to make eye contact with your kidnappers. Start to become a real person to them, not just an item. Go ahead and let them know what your needs are. That helps establish your individuality in their minds."
What else had he said? I hadn't really been paying full attention that day, and neither had Martin. Kidnapping was something that happened to other people, not to us.
I decided to put into practice the part I remembered. When the driver throttled back just a bit, I caught Solaiman's eye and announced with a firm voice, "We need a CR" (the Philippine abbreviation for "comfort room," or bathroom). After all, we'd all been pulled out of our beds and hustled straight onto the boat. "Where can we go?"
"Yeah, yeah," the other hostages agreed, nodding.
"There's no CR here," Solaiman declared.
That wasn't good enough for me. "Well, we need to go to the bathroom, so we're gonna go," I retorted. I got up and headed for the stern of the boat.
One of the other hostages volunteered to hold up a malong (the big Philippine wraparound skirt made of batik material) to give us women a bit of privacy as we squatted, one after another, right on the floor. When this process was complete, the engines powered up again, and we were off.
As we sped through the sea, the spray of salt water came flying over us from time to time, leaving us drenched and chilled. An older man began to visibly shake with cold, and someone passed him a shirt to wear.
A young woman sitting near me was almost hysterical. I began talking with her and learned that her name was Divine.
Excerpted from In The Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham Copyright ©2003 by Gracia Burnham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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