Wednesday, 5 June 2013


I like to stay up late, sewing, drawing, reading, writing - in fact it's 2.30am as I write this. I always have the TV on, for company and I often see interesting programs that are not on at other times.  One documentary series was about people, mostly Americans I think, who had been imprisoned or taken hostage, while on holiday or travelling.  It was called 'Locked up Abroad'.

I've since discovered there were seven seasons but I only saw a few episodes earlier this year on free to air TV.  Apparently a similar Australian program was made in 2009, called 'Trouble in Paradise' and the British version was Banged up Abroad.

I managed to see several different stories over six weeks.  The program interviews the actual people involved and illustrates their story with re-enactments. Several episodes were about people who had been talked into smuggling drugs and were then caught in central American countries, or Asia, where the prisons are not nice at all.  There were also a couple of stories of people being taken and held for ransom.  One of these really stood out to me.

Martin and Gracia Burnham where an American couple, working in the Philippines as missionaries. Martin was a pilot who supplied missionary workers in the mountains with food, medicine and other supplies.  To celebrate their 18th Wedding Anniversary they had a weekend away at a tourist resort while friends cared for their three children.  It just happened that the night of May 26th 2001 was chosen by a bunch of Pilipino terrorist pirates to raid that resort and kidnap the guests in cabins near the water.  Gracia and Martin were in the group.

After a few days on a small boat the hostages were taken to an island while their captors tried to arrange for ransom to be paid.  The Islamic group, known as Abu Sayyaf, were constantly on the move to avoid the Philippine Army.  Some hostages were released quickly but the others were forced to walk around in the Philippine jungle with the terrorists for almost a year. Quite a story.

November 2001

I was really interested in how they coped and in the interview Gracia talked a lot about that.  She mentioned one thing I will never forget. After what seemed like endless walking the group camped in the mountains for a few weeks. They slept on the ground and Martin was usually chained to a tree overnight. One day Martin said that he had seen hatred, bitterness, greed, covetousness and wrong doing while they were in that camp. Gracia agreed, thinking of things she had observed as well.

But Martin explained he hadn't been thinking of the Abu Sayyaf and the way they withheld food from the hostages, their uncaring attitude or their cruelty .... he had seen these things in himself.  The acts of Abu Sayyaf had brought out hatred and covetousness and other negative feelings in him. They named the place Camp Contentment because they felt they were learning to be content with what they had.

This is a familiar teaching and one we never really believe we must to put into practice, but if you think about it we probably have opportunities to do so every day.

Three quarters of the way through the episode I suddenly wondered why they only interviewed Gracia, and then it dawned on me - Martin didn't make it.  He was killed during the rescue. Gracia made it out, wounded - shot in the leg by the Philippine soldiers who rescued her. She returned home in June 2002. What a story.  She wrote a book, called 'In the Presence of My Enemies' - and of course I had to get a copy and it was worth reading. The book answers many of the questions that came to my mind about these terrorists and their motivation and reveals a surprising lifestyle and attitude.

Arriving home

Hearing about these real life experiences leads me to wonder about the people involved on both sides, to wonder how I would cope in that situation and to look at my life and my attitudes - and that's what these stories are meant to do.  It's also a reminder that everything we have in life, family, material possessions, success and social standing can be taken away in a moment. Pirates are everywhere, in many different forms, waiting to pillage, plunder, sack and burn all that we hold dear. Often our only protection is our attitude.

Sharing personal struggles and how we overcome them is important for all of us, even more important than sharing our achievements.  From personal experience I know that sharing news of winning a prize or getting an expensive gift, gaining a promotion or some other honour can be met by varying degrees of resentment in others, while sharing about surviving cancer or disaster or overcoming poverty is greeted with joy and pride and happiness - other people are encouraged as proof of our survival helps to overcome their fears.  We humans are funny creatures. 

So, what do you think?

PS:  Piracy is the practice of attacking and robbing ships at sea, or similar crimes such as hijacking and holding hostages for ransom. Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates.  In the 21st century, the world is faced with a huge problem of dealing with pirates.

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