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Between hostage and captor, an unlikely bond

In the Philippines, a US couple endures captivity - but also gets cheese, peanut butter for lunch.

By Christopher JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2002



LAMITAN, BASILAN ISLAND, THE PHILIPPINES

Kansas missionary Gracia Burnham could escape into the night anytime.

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Her Philippines kidnappers leave her unshackled in a hammock, while her husband is chained to a tree. But instead, she chooses to stay with her husband, Martin.

Mrs. Burnham has won the hearts of some of the Abu Sayyaf teenagers guarding her by teaching them the ABCs and the English words for tree, bark, and leaves.

In fact, the portrait that emerges of the American couple now held for more than eight months by the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf is one that reflects the bond that often develops between hostages and their captors. But it is likely to be tested in the coming days.

Hunted by American special forces reportedly joining Philippine scout rangers on the ground in Basilan island, the Abu Sayyaf might be on their last legs, say Philippine Army sources here.

On Tuesday, a local TV station reported that the group is now demanding a $2 million ransom for the couple. But the Philippine government says it won't negotiate with the rebels. Some 260 US soldiers have landed in the region to participate in six months of training and maneuvers.

The fact that Ms. Burnham is unwilling to leave was underscored by a note to relatives that said, according to Reuters: "[Abu Sayyaf's] losses have been great, and they will never just give us up. They are willing to take a ransom, and they need to arm themselves for the fight [for an independent Muslim homeland]."

The three-page letter was dated Jan. 26 and was brought to Zamboanga by an intermediary to be handed over to the Burnham's family.

"They [the Burnhams] are really sweet, very romantic," says Reina Malonzo, a Filipina nurse from her home in Lamitan on Basilan island. Ms. Malonzo spent four months in captivity with the Burnhams before her release in November. "I never saw Martin cry. He just comforts Gracia. When we were fleeing the hospital in Lamitan, and thought we might die, she said to him 'I love you.' She would never leave him."

But she may have been taken from him. A Philippine Army intelligence officer says soldiers attacking the Abu Sayyaf near Tuburan on Basilan island last week saw two women - possibly Mrs. Burnham and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap - riding a horse.Basilan governor Wahab Akbar told reporters that villagers believed they saw Martin Burnham walking with Abu Sayyaf on Jan. 19.

The TV station obtained copies of the ransom letter written by Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya, which he was sending to relatives in Basilan.

Brig. Gen. Glicerio Sua, chief of a Basilan task force, said he recognized Mr. Sabaya's writing on a letter.

The Philippine government denies negotiating for ransom money and demands unconditional surrender. If ransom negotiations are indeed under way, Luis Biel, the mayor of Basilan's main city, Isabela, warns of Abu Sayyaf's trickery.

He says they cheated him during talks for the release of his father and son in 1993, when he agreed to their demands of 500,000 pesos each. "They took it [the money] and said 'that's only for your father. Another million for your son.' " It finally cost him nearly 5 million pesos (about US$100,000) after 92 days of haggling via interlocutor Edwin Angeles, later shot dead.

Malonzo, the former hostage, says many think the Abu Sayyaf murdered Californian Guillermo Sobero because his wounded right foot - shot by civilian militias during their escape from a Lamitan hospital - slowed them down as they hiked on rough roads in rubber flip-flops.

She says Sabaya also wanted to show the government he was serious about his demands to have government intermediary William Castillo replaced by "a Malaysian senator."

"I heard Abu Sabaya on the phone say, 'I will give you 48 hours. If you don't agree to the demands, I will behead one of the whites,' " says Molanzo. "We thought they were bluffing. Sobero was a nice guy. He wasn't fighting with them."

The Burnhams may have time on their side, say some officials. Philippines Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes says Abu Sayyaf is down to 300 members - including 50 to 70 on Basilan island, some as young as 9 or 10 years old - from a peak of 1,200 members two years ago. Molanzo says while she was a captive, the group numbered between 150 and 180 people. They stayed in one spot for two or three days, then walked through the dense jungle for another two or three days. They ate mostly casava, sweet potatoes, and durian fruit. The food was taken from villagers, but it's unclear if it was taken by force.

The group - which Molanzo says tends not to get angry with the captives - talked to Mr. Burnham about the Koran. He would nod in agreement, not wanting to contradict them.

The Burnhams might also get inside help. Malonzo says the Burnhams have become popular by teaching English to impoverished teenage Abu Sayyaf members deprived of an education. "The younger ones are really interested in talking with the Americans. They go to the Burnhams and say 'What do you call this in American way?' " she says. "[The Burnhams] pity them for having to join such a group."

She says the friendly Mrs. Burnham promised to bake her an apple pie after their release. In turn, the makeshift family of hostages gave the Burnham's their bread rations. "They [the Burnhams] are not used to eating rice and root crops. But they became fond of eating coconuts."

Once, when the Abus asked hostages what they wanted to eat at their Sampinit camp, the Burnhams ordered bread, mayonnaise, cheese, and peanut butter, she says. But most of the time, the Burnhams are just bored, filling the time with love, conversations, and prayer.

"She does really have a lot of hope," says Malonzo. "But she bursts into tears whenever she talks about her family."

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