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Ex-hostage describes jungle ordeal

Gracia Burnham survived kidnapping, but her husband did not

Former hostage Gracia Burnham
Former hostage Gracia Burnham

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CNN's Bill Hemmer talks to former missionary Gracia Burnham about her book on her ordeal as a hostage in the Philippines. (May 8)
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(CNN) -- - What started as an 18th-anniversary celebration turned into a hostage ordeal for American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham.

In May 2001, the couple was kidnapped in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf, a group of al Qaeda-linked Muslim extremists. They were held captive in a jungle for about a year. Last June, a rescue by the U.S. military resulted in Gracia's release but also Martin's death.

Gracia Burnham spent much of the last year writing her story, at home in Kansas with her three teenage children. Her book, "In the Presence of My Enemies" (Tyndale), has just been published.

CNN's Bill Hemmer talked to Burnham this week about her experiences.

BURNHAM: Every time the guns started blaring, that was always a surprise. Many times though the scouts that were out would come running back to camp and say "Pack up, pack up." And my heart would just race. That happened over and over and over.

HEMMER: When they said, "Pack up," what did that mean to you?

BURNHAM: They would say, "... Soldiers are coming. Pack up, pack up." And our hearts would beat, and we would start shoving things into our backpacks.

HEMMER: You were with your husband. I have to think at the time that relationship with Martin was absolutely critical to staying alive. Would you agree with that?

BURNHAM: Yes. It was always Martin that was the eternal optimist. He would say, when I was discouraged, "Gracia, what would the kids say right now if you could call home? What would they say to you?" And I knew they would say, "Go one more day, and maybe we'll get out of here."

HEMMER: What you can tell us about the day Martin lost his life?

Gracia and Martin Burnham appeared in a video made by their captors.
Gracia and Martin Burnham appeared in a video made by their captors.

BURNHAM: We had been about nine days without food. I didn't know a person could go that long without eating. So we were worn down, we were tired. The elusive village where there was supposed to be a ransom for us was just over the ridge. We just couldn't find it.

And some soldiers saw our footprints and had been following us. One of the unwritten rules was that we never fought in the rain. And it started to cloud up; so we stopped on a ridge, and we put up our hammocks and put little shelters over them to keep the rain off.

And Martin and I sat down in our hammock and prayed together. And we had just laid down for an afternoon nap, and the guns started blaring from the top of the hill and they had found us. I slid down the hill -- it was already slippery from the rain -- and I came to rest by Martin. And I looked over, and he was bleeding from his chest, and I knew that wasn't good.

HEMMER: Did you have final words?

BURNHAM: No. I just laid there very quietly. He looked like he was in a deep sleep. He was just breathing heavily, almost snoring. And then suddenly he just got very heavy, and I didn't really know what that meant. After the gun battle was all over, and they were dragging me up the hill, I looked back and I saw that Martin was white, and I knew then that he was dead.

HEMMER: Same day you got your freedom. An amazing irony after staying out in the jungle for so long. During your captivity, you mentioned your kids earlier -- three teenagers living back in the U.S. Were you able to communicate with them in any way during captivity?

BURNHAM: Well, several times letters from them made their way into the jungle. I don't know how. But I think on three different occasions we got letters from the children. And I think a few times we snuck things out with hostages that were being released, so the kids would have something for us.

HEMMER: You go from the jungles of the Philippines after an ordeal that a lot of people, frankly, would probably not have the strength to stand up the way you are today. How is your life today in Kansas?

BURNHAM: Life is very busy. I try to do anything, media or anything, with the book while the kids are at school. I'm finding that [if] my kids think that if there is a nice meal on the table and I'm home in the evening, everything is OK. And that is my goal, for the children to be OK.

HEMMER: Let me ask you a very trite question. I don't know the answer here. As you look back, is there something -- is there a message, is there a lesson that you carry with you today?

BURNHAM: I think it's that the Lord is there for you no matter what you are going through. Don't wait until you get in big trouble to turn to the Lord. Do it now, so your faith is strong before something horrible happens to you, because that is what is going to carry you through.

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