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eptember 21, 1972: Martial Law. The night before, President Ferdinand E. Marcos had signed the predated PD 1081, declaring Martial Law and plunging the country into darkness and terror. He who announced it, the new secretary of information, Mr. Francisco Tatad, the hawker and propagandist of PD 1081, would be as infamously known as the presidential decree itself, and its author, Despot Marcos, as the immoral progenitor of ineluctable evil. Very swiftly, before dawn that infamous, shameful day, political Opposition leaders were herded and thrown in jail. All over the country student leaders were hustled into crowded military vehicles, editors and newspapermen driven like cattle and clapped in military cells—for the writers and thinkers are the movers of ideas, the sowers of socialism, equality, and free will. Also arrested, with the same unenviable quality of swiftness and brute rudeness, were communists and their sympathizers, they whose forefathers, the Huks or Hukbalahaps, had been struggling against the government since the ‘40s. When there was no more jail space, they were thrown in cells among thieves and rapists and pederasts and murderers.
The ACTIVIST 1
The keys to the cells were thrown away; the thinkers and Huks were given this special attention. Intelligence units like the NISA, MIG, presidential guards, and military goons, roamed and combed the country, so that not one solitary rumormonger remained unlocked in a cell, to see the sun again. In Manila in the first days of Martial Law, soldiers armed to the teeth prowled the streets and universities, carrying a special weapon: a pair of scissors. Young coeds and women wearing mini-skirts they stopped, and with unparalleled lasciviousness and misdirected morality cut upwards the women’s hem, exposing more the slant and whiteness of the young girls’ thighs, so mi compoblanos. Evidently, this was contrary and beyond the scissors-wielding soldiers’ duty, for their duty and mission it was, they boasted to one and all, was to cover those salaciously revealing thighs for the imposition of a new realm of decency and morality in the Dictator’s New Society. Thus, for the first time in the history of a Southeast-Asian Christian or Moslem country, fully armed soldiers became the judges and implementers of morality, the defender of the fairer sex, and the high guru of the pure and virtuous. Hó, o! That same day the University of the Philippines, the country’s seat of learning and erudition, the paradigm of the arts and literature, had soldiers with fingers itchy on the triggers of their assault rifles and plainclothesmen with stone faces prowling the campus, breaking doors and windows of the classrooms, searching for student activists—like hunters in the forest for wild game. A barbed wire rolled out by soldiers was strung around the campuses. None could escape the hunt. Before noon all these despotic activities turned the University into a concentration camp for prisoners of war. Those picked up by plainclothesmen, NISA, and MIG agents, mi compoblanos, not a few were again heard of, succeeded in returning to their rook, under their mother’s wings, and if tortured, as was the norm, their tortured bodies were never found. A fellow-poet of a missing artist described it, was where they now existed, fading in ethereal form. Mourning for his friend, the unnamed poet, who had a name before the Martial Law
Proclamation of 1081, felt his gift as a poet ceasing, finally vanishing, like freedom filtering first in patches of clouds, then melting into the blue and nothingness. In the Visayas, the Silliman University, sanctuary of student activists, no less renowned than the University of the Philippines, was isolated from its small town community. For a barbed wire was also strung around the whole campus, the coiled metal born into a weapon no armament could easily destroy, the twisted barbs its armor, ready to spring in its tensed readiness. There was not a gap or hole so small for even a rat to slip out of or into, in that deadly springy roll. It would not have been be so bad there if a former student counselor, a middle-aged woman with an ax to grind against her colleagues, had not turned into a spy, drunk with new authority and power, courtesy of the PMT commandant, her former student, who had turned instantly into a madcap colonel as soon as he entered the regular military. Teacher and former student made a personal grudge list. On the list were student activists and anti-Marcos demonstrators, including SU staff and faculty members—all those whose face she did not like—perhaps the nose was much higher, the eyes brighter, the lips more luscious than hers—those against whom she had a grudge, or those who had said something trenchant and unsavory against her, whether in the past, the present, or her imagined future. Whatever. Everyone on campus feared her—they did not exactly tremble in her sight, holding it back out of vanity and pride— but they feared her no doubt; they were helpless against this boring, grouchy, fat woman. She went around the campus during Martial Law, knee-length skirts flying behind her, as a mangled kite swaying floats down winded—a woman past her menopause period, hobbled with arthritis, writing down her co-teachers’ names, administrative staff, student activists and their organizations on her now ever-companionable notebook. One on her list was a local editor-publisher of a struggling weekly paper, Albert Fontenella, lean as a bean pole, asthmatic, always needing puffing with his asthma inhalator and a breath of fresh air to rehabilitate his poisoned lungs. Thrown together with dozens of Silliman University
staff and teachers in a four-by-six meter cell, packed sardines-like, Fontenella’s lungs wheezed for air that was not there, air that was not foul and did not contain the sweat and mist of the prisoners in the cell. Among the sweaty bodies, Fontenella, gasped and suffocated and collapsed. His cellmates brought him on a passenger tricycle to the Silliman Hospital, but not before they were threatened by the soldiers with rifles who did not want to let the unconscious editor go, though they saw how bad his condition was. They stopped the tricycle when it was about to leave, then changed their minds and with their assault rifles signaled to go ahead. Fontenella survived the tricycle trip, though they oversped, as if flying, in and through the narrow streets of the tiny city of Dumaguete to the hospital. But his wheezing lungs never fully recovered. Of his incarceration, he loved to muse about finding his former English teacher in the cell with him, the statuesque, irresistible, lusty Nora, who was the love of his heart when he was her student. She who never criticized anyone, and for whom it was an extreme fault to find fault in others. But the intelligence group, NISA—or was it the MIG?—said they found in her possession a matchbox full of marijuana and posters of anti-Marcos and anti-Martial Law slogans, the least of which cried, “Down with Dictator Marcos! Down with Martial Law!” No one believed the accusation; someone must have put it there, they said. The old witch student counselor had always been envious of Nora, for the lusty teacher was beautiful as the counselor, her co-teacher, was ugly. There were more victims. For earlier that day the Silliman people met at the UCCP university chapel, and three or four faculty members, brave hearts they were, lambasted the imposition of Martial Law. There was a small crowd only. The churchgoers cried foul, and flung caustic remarks at the self-installed President-for-life, Ferdinand Marcos. They called him a hypocrite for designing himself as the Benign Dictator. When the Sillimanians were leaving the holy and sacred grounds of the UCCP chapel, soldiers with assault rifles rushed in, disrespectful, trampling its inviolable grounds. They arrested the dissenting faculty members, plus a few curious bystanders for bonus. Thereafter, the rest of
the protesters became silent. There was a bit of comedy too: an English associate professor, a poet and Shakespearean lecturer, with a masters degree from the EastWest Center in Hawaii, sporting long hair that curled down on his broad shoulders, was banned by the military at the west entrance checkpoint from entering the University. He was on his way to his classes in Philippine literature, the lesson for that day was F. Sionil José’s concept of socialism in his Rosales saga. “You must cut your hair, short, you beatnik, mother fucker!” said the soldiers roughly. Right away, he went to his barber at the edge of town, but the barbershop was full of students having their mop cut short; on its floor were locks of hair thick as cushion. Restless, waiting young men extended far outside of the barbershop already. Noon it was when he finally had his hair cut, and he decided to have his lunch at a nearby carinderia instead of at the SU Canteen. Afterwards he passed by the marketplace to buy himself a wide-brimmed buri hat. He did not return directly to the University west entrance gate, where he was stopped earlier. Instead, he turned right going southwest, the sun bearing down on his wide-brimmed buri covering his newly-shaved dome, its brim casting a shadow on half of his face. To while away time, he entered a small coffee shop, and spent the siesta hour sipping a coke bottle while waiting for his next class at two o’clock. I’ll show those nincompoops! he thought. Neanderthal fossils! Hah, mother fucking me, the imbeciles! Promptly at a quarter before two, he left the small coffee shop, which was on the other side of the street that cut across the university grounds, and went opposite the way he came in, going northeast now, the unmerciful sun blazing on his new hat. Then he turned right at the west gate entrance. With firm and short strides, he walked toward the checkpoint, built by the soldiers as only that morning. It had an iron-sheet roof without a ceiling, and the sun’s heat was so great your fingers sizzled if you touched the roof. It turned the room into an oven. He halted before the soldiers at the checkpoint, the associate professor gazing at the stern military policemen who had halted him there. He made sure that their
eyes met his, so they would not miss his next move. Pues, with the flair of Cyrano de Bergerac curtsying to his fräulein, the associate professorpoet bent his head and took off his wide-brimmed buri hat, with a flourish, brandishing and flaunting it so vigorously before him, that were the pathway made of dirt instead of concrete, the hat would have blown a cloud of dust at the soldiers’ faces. At the same time, he exposed a completely shiny bald dome, egg-shaped, with a sharp crest orphaned of all its hair, sun rays oscillating over its smooth surface. “Is this short enough for you, Sir!” he said, mocking. “Short enough!” With disgust in their faces, the soldiers said nothing. There was this story in Zamboanga city, a day after Martial Law was declared, of a matron and owner of the biggest book-and-appliance store there, right there in the heart of town, just in front of the historic Plaza Pershing. She was a Chinese mestiza in her middle 40s, a smallish woman, very humble and with fair habit. There was nothing to indicate she was an activist, an MNLF sympathizer or spy, a bomber, least of all a communist, more than least of all a terrorist, so modest was she and simple in appearance. About this time a group of soldiers was patrolling the area, looking for victims for their fun. They were men from Southcom, general headquarters of the “Little President” Admiral Romulo Espaldon in barrio Calarian. The armed soldiers saw some scraps of paper and cigarette butts on the sidewalk before the fortyish Chinese mestiza’s bookstore, so mi compoblanos, and in their mother tongue Tagalog started calling for the owner of the establishment. (Sino ang may ari nitong tindahan?) “Who owns this store? Mother whore!” the soldiers shouted. “Where is she? Tell her to come here, at once!” A faithful salesgirl went to the back of the store, and reappeared with the Chinese mestiza. She was in plain dress and her hair was uncombed. Trembling before the Southcom soldiers, she stood without raising her head, and the soldiers stared down at her and bullied her. In slipshod shoes the Chinese mestiza was barely five feet tall.
The Southcom soldiers warned her that there was no place for dirty sidewalks, dirty canals, dirty you in the New Society. They ordered her to pick up the scraps of paper and cigarette butts. She had never done this before, having salesgirls, help boys, and servants. She called her salesgirls to do it for her. “You should do it yourself, you communist!” the Southcom soldiers shouted. Frightened, avoiding their hard eyes, she asked for a broom. Her faithful salesgirl brought it to her. “What’s the matter with you?” the bunch of soldiers, very angry now, shouted. “Don’t you understand, communist-lover! Pick up all those scraps of paper and cigarette butts with your hands, gága... idiot. Pick with your own hands.” Shaking in her household dress, the Chinese woman began picking up the scraps of paper and cigarette butts around her bookstore. The soldiers ordered her to praise Oppressor Marcos’ Benign Dictatorship. “Hail the New Society,” she cried to comply, She was ordered to shout louder, and louder she shouted, “Hail the New Society!” Student activists from different Manila universities, many the cream of their class, fled to Davao City. They rode on airplanes or interisland ships to escape the military dragnet. However, there in Davao City they were caught, tortured, and thrown in cells, so mi compoblanos. Not a few had a worse fate. Unknown yet to the public was Davao’s Killing Fields, where those who opposed Dictator Marcos were “salvaged,” a coined word meaning executed. Hundreds of student activists, NPAs, and suspected communists were murdered, after Dictator Marcos’ goons in military uniform tortured them and they were dumped like so many carcasses in the Killing Fields—without a tombstone to mark their graves, or coffins. One such student activist was the Philippines Free Press poet and short story writer Emmanuel Lacaba, whose decomposed body, rather bones, were found years later by poet and novelist Fred Salanga, himself a former detainee, in an unmarked grave in the Killing Fields. The Lacabas, it was noted, had given their ultimate sacrifice: the life of their talented son, Emman, for liberty and freedom.