This is not an easy book to read. Gracia Burnham’s description of her year as a hostage of the Filipino terrorist group the Abu Sayyaf is likely to provoke a mixture of pity, anger and despair.
Missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham were celebrating their wedding anniversary at the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan, the Philippines, when they were seized with 18 other guests on 27 May 2001. If you live in the Philippines, the first selfish thought to occur to you when you heard about the kidnapping was probably “That could so easily have been me”. I have friends who were booked into Dos Palmas for that period, but then cancelled. Whether or not you live here, as you try to imagine what it was like for Gracia to live for a year without her children, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, or news, on the most basic diet possible, always on the move, in constant fear of either being executed by the Abu Sayyaf or shot by the blundering pursuers, a recurring question is likely to be “How would I have coped?”
Gracia’s straightforward telling of her story is not a literary masterpiece on human deprivation to rank with One day in the life of the Ivan Denisovitch or Darkness at Noon. Nor is a journey of self realization in the way that, say, Brian Keenan’s account of his experience as a Beirut hostage, Evil Cradling, was. Yet it is the frank and matter-of-a-fact way that she tells her her story, coupled with her "ordinariness" and decency, that makes you feel for Gracia and Martin – missing their kids, trying to keep their spirits up, dirty, smelly, starving, witnessing nightmarish events, crying as they hear the song “Imagine”. And then at the end of this year in hell Martin and Ediborah Yap, the other remaining hostage, were gunned down like dogs by their “rescuers”.
The power of faith is a constant thread throughout the book. The Burnhams would be saints if they did not question why, when they had devoted their lives to God, they had been selected for such a fate. Nevertheless, despite their occasional moments of doubt, the book is a good advert for religious belief; their year would have been even worse without it.
This is also a book to make you angry, first of all with the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf for their distorted vision of Islam and their brutality. Three of the hostages were beheaded: Guillermo Sobrero, the other American; Sonny Dacquer, a Dos Palmas cook, and Amando Bayona, a Dos Palmas security guard. Another guard, Eldren, survived a botched beheading attempt. Think about that for a minute.
Gracia’s account of the aftermath of Guillermo Sobrero’s beheading is particularly harrowing:
“… I was watching a group of the remaining captors as they horsed around with each other, just having fun. Somebody pushed a pleasant young man named Jaafar, who was probably no more than eighteen. In a slightly mocking tone, he retorted “Oooh, oooh, don’t kill me! I want to see my sons!” … In the days ahead we heard that line repeated more than once; in fact it became kind of an “in” joke among the captors. We gradually admitted to ourselves the awful truth: Guillermo’s decapitated body was lying back there somewhere on a hillside, marked only by his head raised up on a bamboo pole like a trophy.”
Anger too at the incompetent and corrupt Philippine armed forces (see post below) and at nationalists sitting cosily in Manila and opposing any active intervention by the US forces to save the hostages.
Finally anger at Time magazine for refusing to correct a serious error in its account of one of Gracia’s press conferences after her rescue:
“… there were still a lot of inaccuracies in the media accounts of our story. The one that really upset me originated with the Associated Press and was picked up by Time magazine. They quoted me as saying of Martin’s death: ‘That is God’s liking. That is probably his destiny.’ I would never say such a thing. In fact this sounds more like an Abu Sayyaf comment than anything else. I wrote to Time to protest the blatant misquote and got a letter back passing the buck to AP. The magazine refused to print a correction.”
If anything positive had come out of this hellish tale it might be some compensation for the families of the six hostages who died (some under the most terrifying circumstances); for the female hostages who were “married” to Abu Sayyaf members (in other words raped); and for the other survivors of the jungles of Basilan.
Yet nothing has changed. At the senate inquiry into the Oakwood mutiny Gen. Narciso Abaya, the Chief-of-staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines admitted that he had not even read the book. No-one in the military has been punished for the fiasco at Lamitan hospital (see next post). The escape of major international terrorist Al Ghozi from the police headquarters in Manila (see post on 17 July) showed that there seems to be no limit to the incompetence and corruption of the security forces. The president is far more interested in grand gestures and photo opportunities than in seriously addressing the issues that behind the violence in Mindanao. With the exception of a few public figures like Senator Serge Osmena, people here are much more interested in how the cake is to be divided at the next elections in May 2004 than in re-opening the messy issue of the Dos Palmas hostages. Meanwhile the country drifts on, until more unfortunate victims end up spending time in the presence of their enemies.