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Free at last

War on Terror | American missionary is slain during a U.S.-Philippine rescue attempt. On his last night, Martin Burnham said he was content and "serving the Lord with gladness"

Issue: "NEA: School bully," June 22, 2002

It ended as it began: an ordeal.

Philippine rebels kidnapped Martin and Gracia Burnham last May from a beach resort off Palawan Island one day after the American missionaries arrived there to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. More than a year of captivity later, a firefight erupted when Philippine armed forces moved in to rescue the hostages in a surprise raid on June 7.

Mrs. Burnham was resting in a hammock when a bullet ripped through her right thigh and sent her rolling down a slope. She discovered her husband slumped nearby, blood gushing from his chest. Mr. Burnham, 42, and another hostage, Philippine nurse Deborah Yap, were killed in the rescue operation.

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The Burnhams' ordeal was another chapter in the global war on terrorism. U.S. forces joined search-and-rescue efforts after the Bush administration concluded that Abu Sayyaf, the radical Islamic group holding the Americans, had ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. About 1,200 U.S. troops have been in the Philippines to train the country's armed forces in counterterrorism.

But combined forces could not overcome a downpour of rain and dense jungle foliage, complicating the operation. Soldiers were ordered not to fire as they crept within 20 yards of the rebel position. An unsuspecting Abu Sayyaf militant spotted the soldiers when he got up to relieve himself, forcing the troops to commence the attack ahead of schedule.

Also killed were four members of Abu Sayyaf, which is fighting for an Islamic state separate from the mostly Catholic Philippines. The terrorists captured the Burnhams, who have worked in the Philippines with New Tribes Mission since 1986, along with 18 other resort guests on May 27, 2001. Most of the other Philippine captives were released, but the rebels beheaded American Guillermo Sobero last summer. Nine Philippine servicemen were wounded in the rescue operation.

"On Friday God answered our prayers of one year," said Jody Crain, field director for New Tribes Mission, at a Sunday service in Manila following the raid. "Martin is now free, both in body and spirit, and has gone into the presence of the Lover and Savior of his soul. And Gracia is now free to return to her children, family, friends, and co-workers."

Mrs. Burnham, 43, was undergoing surgery in Manila for the gunshot wound at the time of the service. According to Mr. Crain, who spoke with her prior to the service, the last thing the couple did before the raid was pray together. Mr. Burnham told his wife, "We might not leave this jungle alive, but at least we can leave this world serving the Lord with gladness. We can serve Him right here where we are, and with gladness."

Other hostages, as well as Mrs. Burnham, testify to Mr. Burnham's patient endurance of captivity. Chained each night to a tree by an Abu Sayyaf guard, he made a point to thank the guard and wish him a good night. He offered to carry belongings not only for other hostages but for his captors. And he initiated many discussions with the rebels, including Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya, about Christian faith and principles. "News accounts talk about him being a hero, and that's true, but at the same time the Burnhams are ordinary people," fellow New Tribes missionary Donna Davis told WORLD.

In addition to recovering from the gunshot wound, Mrs. Burnham has other physical complications from malnutrition and the prolonged jungle captivity. On June 11 she arrived in the United States and was reunited with her children: Jeff, 15; Mindy, 12; and Zach, 11. The children have spent the year with grandparents in Arkansas and Kansas.

Mrs. Burnham displayed no sign of the inordinate sympathy with captors that often overtakes hostages. She said her captors "should be treated as common criminals." She also thanked U.S. and Philippine military personnel who carried out the raid. She told supporters, "We needed every single prayer you said for us during our ordeal in the jungle."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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