Sunday, September 21, 2008

Remembering martial law

I wrote the following memories of martial law for a column I used to write for Philippine Graphic weekly magazine. It came out in a September 1995 issue. If memory serves, the unnamed friend mentioned in this column is lawyer Rene Saguisag. September 21, 2008, being the 36th anniversary of the declaration of martial rule, I thought this would be a good time for a "lest we forget" and "never again" reprint.

Jose F. Lacaba

The way it was

When word got around a few years ago that a class suit was going to be filed against the Marcoses, I took note of it more as a news item than as a personal issue. I virtually ignored the forms that had come in the mail, asking me to recount the torture I had undergone under martial rule.

One week before the deadline for the submission of the depositions of torture victims, a friend called and asked why I hadn't submitted mine. My friend said that, if not enough depositions were submitted to the Hawaii court, the Marcoses would be proven right in their contention that they were not world-class torturers and executioners, and they would be justified in asking for a dismissal of the case.

What needed to be done, my friend pointed out, was not primarily to get financial reparation for the harm that had been done to us, but to prove to the world that the Marcos regime had indeed been guilty of widespread and systematic torture and extrajudicial executions. If the class suit said there were around 10,000 victims of human-rights violations under Marcos, then it needed to get as close to 10,000 depositions as it could.

My friend's arguments persuaded me to write the following account, which was submitted along with the requisite forms just a few days before the deadline set by the court for the submission of depositions:


At dawn of April 25, 1974, on the second year of martial law, I was awakened by shouts of: "Open up! We are the authorities!" I looked out and saw that the house was surrounded by armed men taking cover behind jeeps and cars that had their headlights on.

As soon as I opened the door, the first man who came in shoved the barrel of his rifle into my stomach. Then somebody spun me around and forced me to lie face down on the floor. In that position, I was stepped on, kicked in the ribs, hit in the back and on the back of the head with rifle butts.

After the house had been searched and my two house companions were in custody, someone who acted as though he was in command (I would learn later that he was a first lieutenant, but not the head of the raiding party) dragged me into the bathroom and asked if there was a tunnel underneath us. I couldn't help giving a short laugh, struck by the absurdity of the question. Angered by my response, he gave me a sudden blow in the chest with his closed fist. The lieutenant was an Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping-iron type, and at that time I was a 111-pound weakling. That single punch sent me reeling against the bathroom's tiled wall.

The sun was up when we were taken in separate cars to Camp Crame in Quezon City, to the headquarters of the 5th Constabulary Security Unit (5CSU). After some routine questioning and filling up of forms in the office, I was taken to the back, the troops' sleeping quarters. Constabulary officers and enlisted men--including a buck private who was himself under detention, for murder--took turns making me a punching bag.

Mostly I was pummelled with fists in the chest and the stomach. I was seated on the edge of a steel cot. My tormentors and interrogators sat in chairs or stood before me, hitting me each time a question was asked or an answer was unsatisfactory. Troopers passing by, on their way to their lockers or wherever, felt free to hit my nape or the back of my head with open palms or karate chops.

At one point I was made to half-squat with arms outstretched. One of my torturers then took a broom and slowly, methodically beat my shins with the broom's wooden handle. Although he seemed to be hitting me with very little force, the cumulative effect of the beating caused my shins to swell and made it sore and sensitive for a few days.

At another point I was made to lie down with the back of my head resting on the edge of one steel cot, both my feet resting on the edge of another cot, my arms straight at my sides, and my stiffened body hanging in midair. This was the torture they called higa sa hangin (lying down in air), also known as the San Juanico Bridge, named after the country's longest bridge, built during martial law and dedicated by Marcos to his wife Imelda.

"Lying down in air" is difficult enough, since you have to contend with the pull of gravity. But even before gravity could take its toll, somebody standing close by would give me a kick in the stomach and bring my body down to the floor. The steel cot scraped skin off my nape as I slid down.

I was forced to "lie down in air" twice. The third time I simply refused to get up. I stayed crumpled on the floor and said, "You may as well just kill me. Go ahead and kill me." That was when the torture stopped for the day.

I had been continuously tortured for about eight hours. Incredibly enough, we even had a lunch break. I forced myself to finish up the horrid prison food on the aluminum army tray that they placed before me, hoping that when they resumed hitting me in the stomach I would throw up in their faces. I never did.

I can no longer remember the exact sequence of events, but in the days that followed, during the fortnight when we were incommunicado and our families went desperately from camp to camp looking for us, I experienced various other forms of harassment and torture.

Once, while a deposition was being taken, the sergeant conducting the interrogation suddenly kicked me in the chest. We were both seated in one corner of the 5CSU office, face to face, and I insisted on answering only questions pertaining to myself, refusing to answer those that would implicate other people. After the nth "I prefer not to answer that question," he raised his booted foot and gave me a kick in the chest that sent the chair on which I was seated skidding clear across the room. When the chair hit the wall, I fell to the floor.

On another occasion, a lieutenant reviewing my deposition made me stand in front of an air conditioner going full blast while he interrogated me. And he smiled when he saw that I was shivering uncontrollably.

On still another occasion, another lieutenant ordered me to close my eyes in the course of an interrogation. A hand that I assumed to be the lieutenant's then slapped my closed eyes and my nape repeatedly, almost rhythmically.

Once, the detained soldier who had been one of my torturers on my first day took me out of the cramped prison cell that I shared with about 30 other political prisoners. He gave me a tongue-lashing for having poked fun at his rather unusual name. While he was spewing saliva in my face, his fellow soldiers gave me a few jabs in the ribs.

One day I was led out of the small prison cell, handcuffed, and made to board a jeep with three or four of the men who had tortured me on my first day. I thought for sure this was it, they were going to take me to wherever their killing fields were and blow my brains out. Instead, we went to a military hospital, the V. Luna in Quezon City. I recognized the place because it was there that my father, a war veteran, had died of cancer about a dozen years earlier.

It now seemed to me that my torturers were humane after all, that they would have me treated for the bruises on my nape and shins. But as soon as we were inside a doctor's clinic in one of the wards, I was blindfolded with my own snot-splattered handkerchief, made to lie down on the examination table, and injected with what I would later surmise to be a "truth serum." In a couple of minutes I felt like I had downed half a case of beer. My head swam, and my body seemed to float. Once again the third degree began. I can remember talking drunkenly and trying to give misleading answers that would still somehow sound credible to my interrogators.

I don't know how long the interrogation took before I finally lost consciousness. It was dark when I was roused from sleep, taken to the jeep, and brought back to my prison cell. They had to half-carry me all the way. My legs felt like jelly, and I didn't seem to have any control over any part of my body, although I kept mumbling my own mantra: "Mind over matter, mind over matter..." The mantra didn't work.

About two weeks after my arrest, I was taken to the office of the lieutenant who had slapped my closed eyes. He said my wife and my mother were in the other room. They had finally found my place of detention. But the lieutenant said he would only allow me to see them if I would name one name and give one address of a person involved in the underground resistance. "Have pity on your wife and your mother," he said. "They would very much like to see you." After a few moments of agonizing, I said I couldn't do it. He eventually let my wife and my mother come in and talk to me for about ten minutes, but not after subjecting them for a much longer time to the mental torture of knowing I was just in the other room and fearing they would not be allowed to see me.

I was detained without charges for close to two years. In the first six months of detention, I was made to wash cars and clean the enlisted men's incredibly filthy latrines. Halfway through my detention I experienced a recurrence of the pulmonary tuberculosis of which I had already been cured before martial law. I had to be confined for about a month at the Quezon Institute, a hospital that specializes in tuberculosis cases. Three shifts of prison guards kept me company.


On the basis of close to 10,000 depositions similar, I suppose, to the one above, the Hawaii court declared the Marcoses guilty of human rights violations and ordered them to pay a billion plus, in dollars, as reparation to the claimants in the class suit.

It was, I thought, primarily a moral victory. I joked about what I would do with the loot, but I didn't really believe there was any way the government or the Marcoses would give a billion plus, in dollars, to victims of human-rights violations, quite a number of whom remain not only nonconformist but also active, militant, even dissident.

Today the papers tell me that a deal is being worked out: if the Marcoses and the government agree to pay 100 million dollars, the claimants will drop all charges against the Marcoses. This is supposed to be a win-win-win solution.

I don't know what to think. I have friends among both those who defend and those who denounce the deal, and I don't know what to think. I could be a million dollars richer, but if the Marcoses are absolved of their crimes against humanity, then what I wrote about how I was tortured would turn out to be a lie, a figment of my overheated imagination.



dana batnag said...

hi sir! ngayon ko lang nakita ang blog mo...hindi ako masyadong nagsa-surf, e. sarap basahin ng mga entries. wala ka bang bagong libro?
sana dumami pa ang mga nagsusulat sa martial law. i don't think the kids today know what we mean when we describe it as a "dark" time. kahit ako nga, hindi naman ako nagdaan sa mga pinagdaanan ninyo. kailangang hindi makalimutan para pag naulit,..

dana batnag said...

by the way, i added you to my blogroll, hope you don't mind. pwede na kong maging fan now that you're no longer my boss :)

tina said...

i know i read about that proposed deal in the newspaper when it came out, but i don't remember the part about the human rights victims having to drop the charges. great big what-the-f___?? it's entirely absurd. honestly.

it's disturbing how little my generation knows about martial law. i'm a fifth-year student at up. some of my batchmates and the younger students in my department, as well as one of my former math teachers, actually believe that the marcoses were wrongly accused of human rights violations, and that the philippines was "safer" and "quieter" due to martial law. as far as i can tell this is what they heard from their parents, or from their teachers. i'm ignorant as to the details myself, but my family is aware of the torture (although i don't think anyone in my family personally knows anyone who was tortured) and keeps track of the marcos cronies who are still in power. i've had teachers who were tortured during that time and have mentioned it in class. i guess for us it's a matter of what our elders have told us about it, and how interested we are in verifying what we've been told. i was born the year after the edsa revolution; martial law isn't even a memory for me.

i'm glad that the survivors of that era continue to talk about what happened; it's doesn't just refresh the memories of the ones who lived through it, but passes on these same memories to those who have no idea what it was like. this is the kind of thing that just shouldn't be forgotten.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Pete, teaching a bit of Philppine history here in Pennsylvania, to youths in a situation far (but not too far to yours). Thanks for this account. I just showed 'Imelda' to them, and pointed you out; they wanted to know more about your experiences. This is just about perfect. Could I print this out and have them read it? Thanks.

Ka Pete said...


Re: "i added you to my blogroll, hope you don't mind."

No, I don't mind. Will check out your blog.


Re: "Could I print this out and have them read it?"

No problemo. Balitaan mo na lang ako kung ano ang reaction nila. Maybe my post on my brother Eman, another martial-law story, can be a companion piece.

Noel Vera said...

I'd love to see a piece on Emman, yes.

Ka Pete said...

The piece on Eman is one of my April postings on this blog.

Noel Vera said...

Pete, This is what I got. Might not be much, they are not a very eloquent bunch, but their reactions were more or less real.

They do still ask if Imelda has been arrested, or is still alive, or has been elected president. Seem to think we're crazy enough to do that (and for all I know, we still are).

That one girl did ask about you, if you accepted the money yet. She's very smart, one of the smartest, I think.

Ka Pete said...


Tell your students, no money was ever released--whether by the Marcoses or by the government--for the martial-law victims. Nobody won in what government billed as a win-win-win solution. So: no, I didn't accept something that was never really offered in the first place.

But note that this piece was written in 1995. Back then, as I wrote in this piece, "I could be a million dollars richer, but if the Marcoses are absolved of their crimes against humanity, then what I wrote about how I was tortured would turn out to be a lie, a figment of my overheated imagination."

Today, we're in danger of losing the townhouse we're staying in because of problems with the mortgage payment, so frankly I don't know what I would do if Imelda were to come over to my house and offer to take care of our mortgage problem, in exchange for absolution.


Noel Vera said...


I know how you feel. Have not yet missed a payment on my house but it gets harder and harder. Just received an overdrawn notice from the bank. We don't feel like putting up a Christmas tree.

howie said...

Hi Pete, Nice piece.

"Open up! We are the authorities!"

-- Just wondering: did the arresting party actually say this in English? Or was all the dialog in this piece originally in Tagalog, and translated for print? And if so, why not report it exactly the way it was said?

Pls provide the link to your essay on Eman.

Ka Pete said...


The part that you quoted was from a deposition submitted for the class suit filed in a Hawaii court, so everything got translated into English. What one officer of the arresting unit shouted, if memory serves, was: "Buksan n'yo'ng pinto! Awtoridad ito!"

The piece on Eman is in the April 2008 postings. Here's the link:

Jack said...

Hi sir! Your blog roll saved my Literary Criticism (although I am not in the position to criticize) of the poem Brave Woman. I never experienced Martial Law but your writings made me and that helped me analyze the poem with greater empathy. Thank you Sir.

Ka Pete said...

Kamia: Hindi ako familiar sa tulang "Brave Woman." Sino ang sumulat nito?

Jack said...

Si Grace R. Monte de Ramos po ang sumulat ng tula, asawa ng anak ni Franz Arcellana; pawang mga manunulat.

Ka Pete said...


Salamat sa info. Kilala ko si Grace Monte de Ramos, asawa ni Juaniyo Arcellana. Staffwriter ko si Juaniyo sa magasing ineedit ko noong araw, ang yumao nang National Midweek. Si Grace naman ay nasa staff ng kabiyak kong si Marra PL. Lanot, noong si Marra ang head ng Visual, Literary, and Media Arts section ng Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Jack said...

So that's how all of you are connected. =)

Maraming salamat din po sa tulang "Prometheus Unbound" mula sa koleksyong "Kung Baga sa Bigas" na naging malaking tulong sa aking analysis. Sa ngayon po ay palaisipan pa rin sa akin kung saan nagmula si Ruben Cuevas.

Ka Pete said...


Hindi na pala ako nakapag-comment sa comment na ipinost mo noon pang 2009. Hanggang ngayon ba ay palaisipan pa rin sa iyo kung saan nagmula si Ruben Cuevas?

Ang "Ruben" ay galing sa pangalan ng Flemish painter na si Peter Paul Rubens. Isa sa kanyang mga pamosong painting ang "Prometheus Bound."

Ang "Cuevas" ay plural ng salitang Espanyol na cueva, na pinagmulan ng salitang Tagalog ng kuweba. Nasa isang kuweba sa Montalban si Bernardo Carpio, naiipit sa pagitan ng dalawang higanteng bato na itinutulak niya sa paghahangad niyang lumaya.