MANILA (Reuters) - Rescued American hostage Gracia Burnham, trembling with emotion and her eyes glistening with tears, flew to the United States on Monday to see her children and rebuild her life after a year's captivity in the Philippines.
Sitting in a wheelchair with her right leg bandaged after a bullet tore through it during a gunbattle on Friday, the 43-year-old mother of three told reporters:
"I return to the States this morning to rejoin my children and to put my life back together. Part of my heart will always stay with the Filipino people."
Her voice broke with emotion and her eyes moistened when she mentioned her husband, Martin, who was killed, along with Filipina nurse Deborah Yap, in the shoot-out in the southern Philippines between government troops and Muslim rebels.
The Burnhams, from Wichita, Kansas, were abducted from a tourist resort in May last year and held for a year and 11 days in the Philippines' longest hostage saga involving foreigners.
Married for 19 years, they had been working as missionaries in the mainly Catholic country for 15 years for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission (NTM).
Burnham, wearing a bright red shirt, called her captors criminals who deserved to be brought to justice.
"During our ordeal, we were repeatedly lied to by the Abu Sayyaf and they are not men of honor. They should be treated as common criminals. We support all efforts of the government in bringing these men to justice," she said.
Gracia avoided reference to how her husband died.
Fragmentary accounts from her family indicated she might have been saved when Martin fell over her after he was shot, shielding her from further gunfire.
"She thought she lay there for about 20 minutes," Gracia's younger sister, Mary Jones, said in an interview on Manila television.
"She said that after that 20 minutes, he just became very heavy. She said that it was very peaceful and she was glad that she was able to be with him when it happened."
Burnham beamed when she entered an airport lounge where a crowd of reporters had waited for hours for her first public appearance since her dramatic rescue.
But the cheerful facade cracked when she pulled out a pad of paper and read her statement. Her heavily bandaged leg was stretched out in front of her on a top of a pillow.
But her emotion masks an inner strength, Scott Ross, a spokesman for the Florida-based organization that sponsored the Burnhams and other missionaries around the world, told Reuters in the United States.
"She is upbeat, she really believes that God is in control, and that for whatever reason, it was meant to be," said Ross.
Burnham has three children -- Jeff, 15, Mindy, 12, and Zach, 11 -- who have been taken care of by Martin's parents.
"The three children are very excited to see her," Ross said.
Both Burnhams were children of missionaries, Martin's father having worked with Philippine tribal groups, as his son was to do later.
Martin, who spent his high school years in the country, flew passengers and supplies across the Philippines as NTM's pilot.
They were among some 3,000 foreign missionaries working in a country where 40 percent of the people live in poverty and where communist guerrillas preaching the gospel of Marxism and Muslim rebels promising a vision of an Islamic state have challenged the central government for decades.
"Thank you for the precious memories you gave us during our 15 years here. Martin loves this country with all his heart."
"We want to thank each and every one of you for every time you remembered us in prayer. We needed every single prayer you prayed for us during our ordeal in the jungle," she said.
The United States has linked the Abu Sayyaf to Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, alleged masterminds of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Regarded as the most violent of the Muslim separatist groups, the Abu Sayyaf claims to fight for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines but pursues kidnap for ransom as its main activity.