IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES is the true account of the horrendous ordeal that missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham endured after they were kidnapped by terrorists while celebrating their anniversary in May 2001. Held captive for a full year, the couple were within minutes of rescue when Martin was killed by "friendly fire" --- gunshots from their rescuers, who were soldiers in the Philippine army.
The skeletal story of the Burnhams' captivity and mistreatment at the hands of Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group active in the Philippines, is well-known to American audiences given the understandable media attention Gracia Burnham's release and homecoming generated. That story pales in comparison to the compelling account Burnham and veteran Christian author Dean Merrill provide in this book.
Whether due to Merrill's deft touch or Burnham's natural instincts, the two skillfully manage to avoid turning the memoir into a sensationalistic politic diatribe or melodramatic evangelistic treatise. The contributing elements were there: tireless workers on the foreign mission field enjoying one night of extravagance during their first real vacation in years, yanked from their cabin at gunpoint, subjected to horrific circumstances and conditions, with only one missionary left alive to tell the story. But Burnham and Merrill realized that the drama was inherent in the facts of the story, and any attempt to overdo it would have diluted the impact of Gracia's straightforward narrative.
The horror of what she experienced and witnessed during her year of captivity is difficult to fathom: beheadings, near-starvation, day-long marches that ended exactly where they began, forced "marriages" between captors and captives, even the fear that the Philippine army would make a rescue attempt --- a fear that proved to be well-founded with Martin Burnham's unnecessary death. And yet, Gracia relates the events of the year with such grace and skill that her story maintains a steady forward movement; she never stops the momentum by expressing outrage or analyzing the reasons why certain incidents occurred. What happened to the hostages on Sept. 11, 2001, for example, would have compelled a lesser person to rail against God and reject him completely, but Burnham --- who must still wonder about the timing of the events of that day --- seems to have come to terms with every aspect of her ordeal.
Perhaps the most surprising element of her story is the relationships that developed between the terrorists and the hostages. Their conversations were often friendly, and at times, the hostages realized that, in a sense, they were all on the same side, trying to avoid a deadly confrontation with the soldiers who were tracking them. In a particularly enlightening section, Gracia takes the reader into the mind of a terrorist who expressed genuine shock that the hostages thought they were being mistreated. Similarly, she recounts a conversation about the Koran in which her captor maintained that a verse condemning killing did not apply to him. Neither did an admonition against stealing.
Most of all, Burnham's account comes across as honest. She openly writes about those times when her faith in God vacillated, when her hope would turn to despair, and when the sheer boredom of the daily routine began to get to her. In short, her story rings true.
Burnham and Merrill deserve whatever honors and attention this book gets, because this is far more than a dramatic account of a momentous event --- it's an unforgettable story saturated with grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011
In the Presence of My Enemies