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Martial Law: Darkest Hour I’ve Ever Experienced

As we, Filipinos, commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law this September, I have a story to share; call it my martial law story. The story is mine alone. It’s unique to me; there’s no drama, no tsismis, only factual events that happened.

Given today’s political climate where many Filipinos appear to have difficulty separating fact from fiction, it’s my hope that a story like mine will enlighten a few of the doubting Thomases that martial law was far from being a “golden age.”

Fifty years ago, on September 21, 1972, Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Presidential Decree 1081 placing the entire country under martial aw. Marcos, however, announced the declaration on television two days later on September 23. When I woke up at around 6:00 in the morning the following day to listen to the news, I noticed that my favorite radio station was dead silent. Something was not right. I switched from one station to another, but it was all static because there were no radio signals. Later that day, one network started playing the “Bagong Lipunan” anthem, which eventually became the theme song of Marcos’ New Society – a society marked by thousands of Filipinos spied on, detained, sexually abused, tortured, disappeared and summarily executed.

Truth to tell, I feel at times that we are under martial law when I watch on television a jeep load of military men arresting political activists. I can’t avoid feeling about it. I shudder in fear when I read in newspapers of aging activists, who are about my age, being gunned down in their own homes or when labor organizers or human rights activists are abducted by the military. When government officials openly support red-tagging government critics, it brings back memories of the martial law years, when the legal system was weaponized to censor political opponents.

Social and political awareness

I was in 3rd year college at the Ateneo de Manila when martial law was declared. But my own social awareness started two years before the imposition of martial law. The Philippines, as described in those days, was sitting on top of a social volcano. It was hard not to be involved. The government was going nowhere as workers, peasants, religious, students, professionals, and other sectors of society continued to clamor for reforms. Rallies, demonstrations, discussion groups, and cultural presentations in university campuses were almost daily occurrences.

In my own little way, I participated in the task of social awareness building. I remember writing an article in the Weekly Nation on March 16, 1970, where I challenged government leaders to do something constructive for the country. The title, What Kind of a Revolution?, made it to the cover of the Weekly Nation because I put the initial “SJ” (Society of Jesus) after my name. And Jesuits, at least some of them, are known for their intellectual diatribes. Yes, I was a young Jesuit in formation at that time.

As I became more conscienticized (to use Paulo Freire’s term), I wrote an article in The Guidon, the college school paper of Ateneo de Manila, where I cautioned the American Jesuits not to oppose the filipinization of the Ateneo, if they wanted to be of service to the students’ search for identity. That did not sit well with Fr. Joe Cruz, the Jesuit president of the university at that time, and he reported to Fr. Benigno Mayo, who was then the Jesuit Provincial, that I was a communist.

Fr. Mayo, who was more open-minded than Fr. Cruz, did not reprimand me or call my attention. I took that to mean that there was nothing wrong with me criticizing my fellow Jesuits.

After I graduated from college in 1973, I was assigned to teach at the Ateneo de Davao High School in Matina. While in Davao I was introduced to Karl Gaspar, Roger Antalan, Lyn Yuvienco, Sr. Regina Pil, RGS, Bert Cacayan, Francis Morales, and Nelia Sancho. We would occasionally meet as a group and discussed the national situation. I was surprised that they each had a story to tell about martial law and it centered mainly on military abuses – something that I did not personally experience while in Davao, but became awfully real for me when I returned to Manila in 1975 to continue with my theological studies.

Working as a community organizer in Tatalon

I found it hard to concentrate on my theological studies while constantly being bombarded with stories of military abuses that I read in independent newspapers. I eventually asked permission to go on a leave of absence from my studies in 1976. The late Fr. Ruben Tanseco, my Jesuit superior at Loyola House of Studies, granted my request. I was, at the same time, given permission to work as a community organizer (CO) in Tatalon, a squatters’ community in Quezon City, under the auspices of the Association of Major Religious Superiors (AMRSP).

The transition from being a theology student to a community organizer was made easy by the support I got from the other community organizers in the area. Through our weekly tactic session, I learned that to be an effective organizer one had to engage the people in a respectable way without being all-knowing. My co-organizers were mostly social work students and young graduates who wanted to make a difference.

Our work involved educating the squatters to know their rights and organizing them to avert any attempt by the government to evict them. Because of our work, though perfectly legal, we were under surveillance by the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) intelligence unit, which erected a military post in the community. As part of their web of propaganda, the military spread rumors in the community that we were communists.

During the martial law years, if someone was branded a communist, you were a marked man or a marked woman. That was the military’s way of “justifying” your possible arrest or salvaging, a term for summary execution, quite the opposite of the usual meaning of “salvage” which is to save.

It was in Tatalon that I met several organizers mostly students from the University of the Philippines who were dedicated to uplift the conditions of the poor. One of them was Ishmael ‘Jun’ Quimpo, a young UP student who used to sing in a bar until he became a full-time community organizer or CO.

Jun was treacherously murdered by a military agent in 1981 in Nueva Ecija while eating. According to the news account, the first bullet hit him in the hip; the second, in the nape. As he fell, five more bullets entered his body. His brother Ronald Jan Quimpo, a graduate of Philippine Science High School (PSHS) Batch 1971, disappeared sometime in 1977 and was never found. He was only 23.

Joining the underground

Because of my work in Tatalon as a community organizer, I was considered a subversive under martial rule. As a result, the military was after me. I was in their arrest list. In fairness, the Jesuits hid me in La Ignaciana, a Jesuit house in Pasay City. I was there for one month. Jesuit friends would visit me. But I was getting bored doing nothing as the streets of Manila were rocked by regular demonstrations that often ended violently.

One day, my superior asked me to attend a spiritual retreat at the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches, Quezon City. While on retreat, there was a report that several Metrocom operatives were on their way to Novaliches. I did not know if they were after me or another Jesuit who was also involved in social apostolate. Without any hesitation, before the Metrocom arrived, I had already escaped without informing my religious superior. Simply put, I went AWOL from the Jesuit Order and joined the underground movement organizing the workers in Quezon City. That was the end of my Jesuit vocation.

It took quite sometime (I don’t remember how many months) before I could sign my release paper from the Society of Jesus because I was in hiding. Finally, a Jesuit friend, after taking all the necessary precautions, secretly arranged a meeting between me and Fr. Joaquin Bernas, the Jesuit Provincial at that time, and Fr. Catalino Arevalo so that I could sign my release paper. The signing took place at the Jesuit-run Manila Observatory in the middle of the night in order not to compromise my safety.

My decision to join the underground movement was inevitable. I didn’t want to become a faceless statistic, buried in an unknown place, a victim of military salvaging. I know quite a good number of acquaintances and classmates who were not as lucky as me. In fact, one of them, Manny Yap, also an Atenean who graduated magna cum laude, disappeared in 1976 on Valentine’s Day as he was about to meet his mother somewhere in Quezon City. His body has not yet been found up to now.

Another acquaintance who suffered a brutal death in the hands of the military was Billy Begg. He was an ex-seminarian from the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary in Quezon City. We used to play basketball at the Ateneo covered courts almost every afternoon when we were college students. A few years after Martial Law was declared, he quit his studies at the University of the Philippines and joined the New People’s Army (NPA), convinced that armed struggle was the only way to bring about a more humane and just social order. Sometime in March of 1975, his group encountered a band of government soldiers somewhere in Isabela. Billy was captured alive. But when his body was found, it was obvious that he was heavily tortured.

The arrest of a friend was always emotionally and mentally taxing. When three of my colleagues, Rolando Federis, 24, Flora Concepcion, 18, and Adora Faye de Vera, 16, disappeared on their way to the Bicol Region on October 1, 1976, the harsh reality of martial law hit me like a sharp knife scraping my spine. We knew each other, and I was worried that I could have been implicated. I became more security conscious. Later, I learned that Federis and Concepcion did not betray anyone and they paid for it. They were killed by their military captors after they were heavily tortured. De Vera, who was repeatedly raped by her captors, was made a concubine by the military until she was able to escape.

I had to inform the mother of Federis what happened to her son and it was so heartbreaking. She was sobbing almost uncontrollably, and I did not know what to say to comfort her. I just sat in silence, imagining the horrifying experience Federis went through.

A glimpse of what Life was during martial law

Life during martial law was difficult, especially if you were involved in the anti-Marcos struggle. It was risky, too. All school fora, cultural presentations and programs were teeming with military agents and spies in civilian clothes and with cameras. They would take pictures of the students, the speakers, the program participants, and would follow some of them on their way home. “Bubuntutan ka,”as the activists would say in Tagalog. It was actually a form of intimidation and the military’s way of identifying individuals connected with any organization against Marcos.

I purposely did not inform my parents about my whereabouts because the military could always threaten them or blackmail them to reveal where I was living. For many months, I did not have any communication with my parents and my brothers. To evade the various military intelligence personnel who often masqueraded as balut and ice cream vendors, I and my fellow organizers never stayed long in one place. We moved from apartment to apartment quite often. We survived on sardines and tuyo (dried fish). On certain occasions, I could not resist going to my cousin’s apartment to feast on homemade cooking, but only after taking all the necessary security precautions.

But despite the danger, life in the underground was also fulfilling. I derived fulfillment from organizing the workers in Quezon City, by listening to their stories, and learning from them. The workers I met, for example, in various factories did not have any material possession, but they would go out of their way to share with me whatever they had, be it food or even money. The experience was cathartic. It felt good educating and organizing the people to fight against the dictatorship. It was also in the underground that I met the most generous, nationalistic, committed, and selfless people. One of them I ended up marrying.

Many activists who lived through the martial law years have their own specific stories to telI. But unknown to many, martial law also had the effect of turning family members against one another. I was lucky because when the military asked my cousin, who was a member of the notorious Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), the para-military unit of Marcos, to spy and snitch on me, my cousin did not – an obvious case of blood is thicker than water even under the most difficult conditions.

But a former Jesuit was not as lucky. Sometime in 2012, a former Jesuit emailed me about his cousin, the late Col. Rolando Abadilla, a known Metrocom torturer who was feared by many activists during the martial law years. He wrote, “Do you know that Col. Rolando Abadilla was my first cousin? We grew up together. His father is my mom’s dearest brother. Roly was in LST (Loyola School of Theology) for my ordination. Then our relationship had a falling out when I heard all the abuses he committed. Until now I do not talk to his wife, his kids, his brothers and sisters….Of course, he was killed in Katipunan. I did not shed a tear.”

The same anger that this former Jesuit felt toward his cousin is also what I feel at times. Sometimes I purposely suppress the feeling. I succeed but only for a short time. Then it comes back. The memories of the thousands of martial law victims continue to haunt me.

Martial law was no joke. It was real. It was not like tsismis. It was the darkest hour in Philippine history. This is the reason why I continue to oppose the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (LNMB). Marcos can never be a hero.

Which brings me to what then Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, posted in his Facebook account a few years back: “…Sure, there are lessons to be learned from the past and it is obvious that Martial law, and all the succeeding administrations for that matter, was neither “a bed of roses nor a bed of nails,” to paraphrase Bon Jovi’s lyrics. That’s all I will say on the Presidency of my father and those that came after. I will resist indulging in the blame game and continue to look forward ....”

Bongbong’s statement presages a doomed future for us if we forget, and worse, distort the past and not learn our lesson – something that Bongbong, now as president, appears to condone in more ways than one.


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