Survivor of a hostage situation shares her story

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A woman who was held hostage for an entire year in the Philippine jungle tells her story to Kansas State students Thursday night at Christian Challenge in Forum Hall. (Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

On a regular day, Gracia Burnham could fool you into believing she did not experience what she did. Wearing a blue sweater and a big smile, she blends into the crowd of women you might see at your local grocery store.

However, her story sets her apart from the crowd. Her story is one of survival.

She spoke Thursday night at Christian Challenge in Forum Hall to Kansas State students about the trials she faced with her faith and how she overcame them.

Gracia and Martin Burnham were missionaries celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when they were taken and held hostage for an entire year in the Philippine jungle by Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization affiliated with the Islamic State in southeast Asia.

In May 2001, members of Abu Sayyaf docked their boat at a resort where the Burnham’s were staying. They abducted 20 individuals, 3 of them were American citizens.

“No one plans on being taken hostage. You don’t train for that sort of thing,” Burnham said. “We got hungrier and dirtier … we suffered from lack of sleep because we couldn’t get comfortable sleeping on the jungle floor … we got dysentery and diarrhea … I started feeling more like an animal than a human being. [At one point] we hadn’t eaten in 10 days. I didn’t know you could go 10 days without food. I thought you go three days and you drop dead. But you don’t.”

For an entire year, this was her reality. They became adjusted to the sound of their growling stomachs and the never-ending pouring rain hitting their backsides. Firefights between the Abu Sayyaf and Philippine government were frequent. The Burnhams would hug the rainforest floor in order to make themselves as small as possible during the gunfire.

“For months it looked like our release was right around the corner and then something would happen. Negotiations would break down again,” Burnham said.

Unknown to the terrorist group detaining the Burnhams, the CIA had sewn a tracking device into a backpack they sent to them. Eventually, they were located at the heart of the jungle.

On June 7, 2002, everything changed for Gracia. The Philippine Army attempted another mission. She was rescued. Her husband was killed.

“Before I was even able to hit the ground, I was shot in the leg,” Burnham said. “I slid down the muddy slope and came to rest beside Martin. I looked over at him and he was bleeding from his chest. I knew from experience that leg wounds might heal … chest wounds won’t. All of a sudden I felt Martin get very heavy. Have you heard the term ‘The weight of death’ … I think that’s what I was feeling that night.”

She returned to her home and family in Rose Hill, Kansas. What followed was Gracia’s tedious physical and mental healing. She explained that her faith was what salvaged those hurt parts of her.

“[God] can take an angry hostage and put love in her heart,” Burnham said. “God can give strength to those who carry heavy burdens.”

Gracia now shares her story of survival and faith to thousands of individuals per year and wrote a book called “In the Presence of my Enemies.”

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Katelin Woods
Hey! I am a regular contributor to the culture and multimedia desks for the Collegian. I am a junior in theatre and public relations, with an outside concentration in psychology. I am an enthusiast of a poetry, pizza roll, and pajamas. When I'm not in the newsroom, I'm visiting kittens at pet stores, wishing pet deposits weren't a thing. You can Venmo this broke college student at @Katelin-Woods-2 to fuel my pizza roll addiction.