Turns out Abu Sulaiman was killed on Gracia Burnham’s birthday — one of those accidents of circumstance which, if it had happened in fiction, we would dismiss as implausible, impossibly contrived. (Sulaiman was the Abu Sayyaf strategist behind the Dos Palmas abduction, and Gracia the hostage they held longest.) She told her mission partners what she felt when she heard the news, on January 17.
Gracia wrote a beautiful account of her harrowing year-long captivity; according to her website, "In the Presence of My Enemies" has already sold some 300,000 copies. I may have been one of the first to read the hardback in its entirety; I got a copy a few days before it was launched, here in the Philippines, in May 2003. I volunteered to write a report-review; a three-part series in the Inquirer first saw print on May 9.
The introductory note read: "Gracia Burnham’s ‘In the Presence of My Enemies’ answers many questions and confirms old answers about the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping spree, but it also creates new puzzles. The Inquirer, which obtained one of the first copies of the book, relates some of the highlights."
Here’s the first part.
ON THE AFTERNOON of June 7, 2001, a week and a half after the Abu Sayyaf descended on the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan and abducted 20 hostages, Gracia Burnham heard rebel spokesperson Abu Sabaya speak by satellite telephone to a very important person: President Macapagal-Arroyo.
It was not a pleasant exchange.
As Gracia recounts in "In the Presence of My Enemies," Sabaya curtly told "Madam President" that she had failed to properly understand the situation: He had three Americans in captivity and wanted $1 million in exchange for their freedom.
Gracia did not hear the President’s answer, but whatever it was she said triggered a brutal reply. An almost hysterical Sabaya berated Ms Macapagal for demanding the bandits’ unconditional surrender. He ranted on and on, finally ending with a threat: If a Malaysian negotiator was not allowed to come in to mediate within 72 hours, the Abu Sayyaf would kill one of the Americans.
The leaders of the Abu Sayyaf had been meeting on the "ground floor" of House 125 — the name Gracia gave to a "bahay kubo" on stilts on Basilan island because that was the number on the census sticker.
The hostages, Gracia’s husband Martin included, were on the "second floor," and could hear parts of the meeting below. Guillermo Sobero, who became an American citizen only 12 days before the mass kidnapping, did not hear the conversation. The Burnhams did not want to unduly alarm him with the news that one of them may be executed, but eventually they did give hints about what was to come.
The deadline — 3:15 p.m., Sunday, June 10, by the Burnhams’ reckoning — passed without incident. But on Monday, June 11, the Abu Sayyaf and their hostages came under artillery fire for the first (but certainly not the last) time. Clearly upset, the Abu Sayyaf met in a huddle, and that night led Sobero away.
Sobero’s beheading, Sabaya later told the media, was an Independence Day gift for the President.
Gracia’s harrowing, ultimately hopeful account of her ordeal and that of the other hostages (more were added when the Abu Sayyaf took over the Lamitan hospital, including nurse Ediborah Yap) is full of such riveting detail and unexpected disclosure.
It does not always get the Philippine nuance right — Gracia does not write about the Independence Day aspect, for instance, thus missing the full import of Sabaya’s insult to the President — but it is marked by a generosity of spirit for the country the Burnhams had grown to love after 17 years of missionary service.
The book, co-written by Dean Merrill of the International Bible Society and released by the religious publishers Tyndale House, is candid throughout, and its very Western candor is certain to upset many.
She writes about business executive Reghis Romero’s "connections," for instance. The day after they were abducted, Romero managed to get a government official to call Sabaya on his "sat-phone" and convince the bandit leader to release him for a sum, since Sabaya owed the official a "favor."
She writes about the indignities some of the women hostages endured — a low, mournful note that sounds through most of her narrative. She writes about the cruelty of the Abu Sayyaf, at one point arguing with them by using passages from the Koran, throwing what she calls their "verbiage" back at them, she says. She writes about the lack of training and lack of commitment of the Armed Forces, whose soldiers would often stop fighting after dusk fell. "Oddly, the AFP didn’t pursue us," she says about their escape from the Lamitan siege. "As time went on, we noticed that they never pursued us."
But Gracia is candid about herself, too. In her admissions of hatred, in her confessions of doubt, in her moments of weakness, she is unsparing. She also captures in print an abundance of good deeds that — like the 6 a.m. prayer sessions in Wichita, Kansas, or Martin’s steady humor-laced optimism, or the fluorescent leaves her guard and guide Hurayra attached to his backpack — literally lit up the dark.
"In the Presence of My Enemies" (the title, of course, comes from Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd psalm) belongs rightly to the literature of captivity and liberation.
In countless interviews during the search for the Dos Palmas and Lamitan hostages, military spokespersons said troops pursuing the Abu Sayyaf were careful to spare the hostages. More than once, the safety of the hostages was used as the reason for the slow or even deliberate pace of the pursuit.
But Gracia’s account shows a radically different picture. The AFP used force indiscriminately, often subjecting both captors and captives to aerial bombardment, or directing artillery fire from several miles away.
The first gun battle — Gracia recalls a total of 17 — erupted mere hours after the Dos Palmas hostages and their abductors landed on Basilan island, five days after the abduction. In the firefight, the military’s take-no-prisoners pattern of engagement was set.
The second battle was the biggest of the entire ordeal: the June 1-2 siege of the Lamitan hospital. The fighting was intense, and the scene at the hospital was pure chaos. When the captors and their hostages exited the hospital, the firing started again. A grenade exploded, hitting Martin and Sobero and badly wounding hostages Buddy and Divine Recio, whom the Abu Sayyaf decided to abandon.
(This account contradicts some parts of the testimony of Lamitan parish priest Cirilo Nacorda about the aftermath of the siege.)
The engagements continued. "More battles, more running in the rain, more missed meals, more desperation," Gracia writes. Sometime in October, Gracia observed a dramatic increase in AFP firepower: helicopter gunships and A-10 Warthog attack planes had joined the fray. The hostages feared even more for their lives, but in the end, Gracia notes that only one bandit was injured and none was killed.
Tragically, the pattern held in the 17th encounter too. On June 7, 2002, just as the Burnhams lay down to take a nap, in the hinterlands of the Zamboanga peninsula, gunfire erupted, immediately hitting the bandits’ last three hostages: Gracia, Martin and Ediborah.
Only Gracia survived. While waiting for the helicopter to take her away from the clearing, she was approached by the lieutenant in charge of the rescue operation. Please don’t be mad at us, the officer said. We were only doing our duty.
The official government policy in the hostage crisis was strictly no-ransom. In practice, the book reveals, this meant the not-so-long arm of the law had a mailed fist at the end of it. To the terror of the hostages, however, the mailed fist kept coming down on both captor and captive.
In a letter to her sister Mary read aloud over Radyo Agong, a Radio Mindanao Network station, Gracia wrote: "To be honest, we do not want to be rescued, as they come in shooting at us."
This may explain in large part Gracia’s ambivalent feelings toward the President, which find occasional expression in the book.
When the President was about to pay her a visit at the US Embassy, days after she was evacuated from the mountains of Zamboanga, Gracia realized she needed to pray to prepare for the visit.
When Ms Macapagal finally arrived, Gracia recalls, she felt honored by the presence of the President, who had obviously just had a "long, hard day."
But the conversation was awkward at first, and not helped by Gracia’s blurting out something she had learned: That the Abu Sayyaf were upset "a woman was running the country."
But before long, Gracia recalls, the two were talking like old friends.
She had feared she would "chew out" the President. She recalled that, sometimes, late at night in the jungle, she used to "think of all the unkind things" she would direct at the President, "about how her military was on the take, and how they were too proud" to ask the Americans to lead the rescue. "It wasn’t nice. My natural self wanted to blame someone."
But at the meeting, she writes, "none of my venom came even close to the surface."
She told the President what she would find herself repeating again and again: The hostages never forgot who the bad guys were.