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Letter from missionaries reveals life as hostages

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Norvin and Betty Jones of Cherokee Village don't expect to see their daughter, Gracia, and her husband, Martin, this Christmas, but the letter they received from Gracia last week was a priceless gift. It was proof Gracia and Martin are alive.For many Americans the terror of Osama bin Laden started Sept. 11, but for the Joneses it started May 27 when Gracia and her husband, Martin Burnham, both missionaries for New Tribe Mission based in Florida, were kidnapped by Muslim militants in the Philippines. Betty Jones said the militants who kidnapped her daughter and son-in-law are associated with and funded by bin Laden.The Burnhams have now been in captivity for over six months. They are the only remaining hostages of the original 20 who were kidnapped, including one other American who was kidnapped and later executed.The letter the Joneses received last week was brought out by a freelance journalist who was allowed into the guerrilla camp to interview the Burnhams. It is the first direct correspondence they have had with their daughter since she was kidnapped. Mrs. Jones said she is encouraged by the letter and described the tone as "upbeat." She anxiously awaits the opportunity to see the videotape of the interview. She said the journalist and prior hostages have described the Burnhams as weak, tired and undernourished.The reports have also included good news. According to Jones, prior female hostages have been abused, some returning home after captivity pregnant. But so far reports indicate Gracia has been treated with respect. Though she is being made to dress as a Muslim woman, she is being treated with the respect due to a married woman. Jones attributes this to the fact the Burnhams have been allowed to remain together; for this she is grateful.In the letter, Gracia describes one of her job duties as peeling green bananas. She said it is a messy, sticky job that no one else wants to do. She also said they have received items from some of the packages that have been sent by New Tribe Mission.Jones said several packages have been sent, but because they go through so many different people before reaching the captives, items such as blankets, clothes and food have not reached them until recently. Jones said Gracia mentions in her letter she has shown "everybody" the pictures of her three children; Jeffrey, 14; Mindy, 11 and Zachary, 10.Jones said since there are no other hostages, she assumes "everybody" refers to the militants holding the Burnhams hostage. She said the Burnhams have apparently befriended some of their captors and are even sharing what little food they have received in their care packages with them. "Gracia always made friends with everyone she ever met," said Jones. She said all supplies have been cut off from the militants, leaving them as well as their captives hungry. She said Gracia said in her letter they couldn't eat while others went hungry -- exemplifying the compassionate and giving nature of her daughter and son-in-law. Gracia said in the letter she never knew how good peanut butter and crackers could taste.The letter comes just before the Burnham's youngest son's birthday. In the letter they wish him a happy birthday and tell the children they love them and hope to be with them again soon.Jones said the children would normally have been with their parents in the Philippines where they were captured, but because the couple was celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at the time the incident occurred, they weren't."I should have been with them; if I had, I wouldn't have let them take them," 10-year-old Zachary told Jones.Jones said the children seem to be doing OK. They are being cared for by Martin's parents in Kansas.Jones said she is pleased with the assistance they have received from the U.S. government. She said the State Department has been in constant contact with them and has kept them informed of any information and reports that have been released so they will not be surprised by any news reports. One report that was particularly upsetting to the Joneses was when the other American hostage was executed. She said the State Department called and spoke with them before the report hit the news.According to Jones, New Tribe Mission has made several trips to Washington to speak to representatives and senators from Kansas and Arkansas requesting their help. Gracia's sister, Mary Jones Perry, and Martin's father accompanied New Tribe on one of the trips. Jones said Rep. Marion Berry and Sens. Tim Hutchison and Blanche Lincoln have contacted them. She said New Tribe made another trip to Washington last week to petition the congressional leaders to request that President Bush address the hostage issue when he meets with Philippine President Gloria Maapagal-Arroyo.Jones said Martin Burnham grew up in the Philippines; his parents were missionaries there for several years. She said Arroyo called the Burnhams and expressed her sorrow and concern regarding the situation. Arroyo said the Burnhams had done a great deal to help the Philippine people and she was very upset over the situation."The Lord has held us up through the prayers of our friends and loved ones," said Jones. "We want to thank everyone in the community who has helped us and prayed for us during this trying time."Jones said she and her husband pray the militants will grow weary and will abandon the hostages, allowing them to return home safely. She said she feels that may be the only chance they have of surviving since the U.S. government does not pay ransoms for hostages.

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