Sunday, September 28, 2008


The bells of Balangiga in Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming, U.S.A., circa 1910

Today, September 28, 2008, is the 107th anniversary of the Battle of Balangiga, known to American historians in the past as the Balangiga massacre and to Filipinos today as the Balangiga Victory, one of the few Filipino victories in the Philippine-American War.

Early in 2002, after the celebration of the centennial year of that historic event in Balangiga, Samar, I was commissioned by film director Chito Roño, who is from Samar, to write a screenplay about the Balangiga incident. This was the time when there was a campaign to recover the bells of the Balangiga church that American soldiers had carted off to Wyoming, U.S.A., in the wake of the incident in Balangiga and the subsequent retaliatory devastation of Samar.

Chito, with whom I had earlier worked on the film Eskapo (about the escape of Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña from a martial-law prison during the Marcos dictatorship), provided me with a lot of research materials on Balangiga and got me in touch with Prof. Rolando Borrinaga, the historical expert on the subject. I subsequently submitted a storyline (synopsis), a sequence treatment (which is how Filipino filmmakers used to refer to a scene-by-scene breakdown of the proposed script), and a first-draft screenplay, which I finished writing in October of 2002.

I would learn later that Butch Dalisay had also done a screenplay on the same subject for director Gil Portes.

Ours was supposed to be a Robin Padilla project, and I was told that Robin was studying arnis in preparation for his role as Valeriano Abanador, the hero of Balangiga. Partly because of budgetary problems, partly because of a falling-out between the director and the possible producer, the project got shelved. Other producers and directors have expressed an interest in my first-draft screenplay, but even in these days of relatively inexpensive digital filmmaking, the budget for a period film and war epic requiring American actors and period costumes remains daunting. So I guess the screenplay of BALANGIGA will have to remain in the realm where dream projects decompose.

For all it’s worth, here’s the storyline that I wrote.


Jose F. Lacaba

SEPTEMBER 28, THE PRESENT. Church bells are ringing. In an annual ritual, residents of the town of Balangiga, on Samar island, reenact a century-old incident that put their small town in the history books. It is an incident that American military chroniclers once labeled the Balangiga Massacre, but one that Filipino historians are beginning to call the Battle of Balangiga, or the Balangiga Victory. In documentary footage, we see Filipino men dressed in women's clothes reenacting an attack on American soldiers. ...

September 28, the year 1901. We see the attack as it must have happened. Residents of Balangiga, reinforced by revolutionists from neighboring towns, attack a company of American soldiers in this remote outpost of Empire. The attack occurs at dawn, when the colonial troops are having breakfast; the Filipinos have the element of surprise and overwhelming numbers on their side. But the Filipinos are armed only with bolos and arnis sticks; and the Americans, after their initial shock, are soon evening up the score with Krag rifles and machine guns. ...

In the heat of battle we see some of the protagonists of our story. Two Filipino boys ringing the church bells. Captain Thomas Connell running toward the sea, bolos sticking out of his back, bolomen at his heels. Lieutenant Edward Bumpus dead in a rocking chair, a clump of letters on his lap, blood oozing from his head. Town mayor Pedro Abayan leading the attack on the convent. Francisco, Connell's Filipino houseboy, cowering beneath the convent window. Private Adolf Gamlin firing away from a secure position. Two young Filipino men attempting to hoist down the American flag and being shot down. Casiana "Doday Sana" Nacionales waving her rosary and urging the attackers on. And Valeriano "Valé" Abanador surveying the scene dispassionately, trying to conceal the mixture of rage and sorrow in his heart.

We go back further in time. It is 1899, and Valé is in a Cavite dockyard with fellow martial-arts enthusiasts, going through the motions of an arnis exercise. He learns from some dockhands that an American sentry has shot a Filipino revolutionary soldier in San Juan. Although nobody in the dockyard knows it yet, the Filipino-American War has begun.

We next see Valé in a large baloto (a kind of boat) in the open sea, looking out at the unique formation of islands and islets that the boat must pass through on its way to Balangiga. Back in his hometown, Valé talks to close friends and relatives about life in Manila--and about the new conflict with the new colonizers, the Amerikano. We learn that he joined the Katipunan in Manila (or is it Cavite?).

Soon he is invited to a secret meeting in the house of Pedro Abayan. Here, Captain Eugenio Daza, who is the Revolution's top commander in this part of Samar, updates the gathering on developments in their area of operation. Samar and Leyte have been placed by President Emilio Aguinaldo under the politico-military command of General Vicente Lukban. a Bicolano who is married to a Samareña. The Revolution needs all the help it can get--funds, food, weapons, intelligence information.

In the sala of the Abayan house, while the all-male meeting is going on in a bedroom, a group of women that includes Casiana "Doday Sana" Nacionales is going through the motions of choir practice. The women are covering up for the men's semi-clandestine activity.

Under the auspices of the revolutionary government, an election is held in Balangiga. Among those elected are Abayan, as presidente (town mayor), and Abanador, as "delegate of police" in charge of military intelligence. Both men, incidentally, are related to Daza. In the days that follow, the town officials raise more than 532 pesos, a princely sum in those days, in taxes and war contributions for the Revolution.

The parish priest, Father Donato Guimbaolibot, is aware of what is going on in his town. He's unhappy about the fact that Lukban is a Freemason who has been making things difficult for Catholic priests in other Samar and Leyte towns. But the priest is also a patriot who took part in the movement for the Filipinization of the clergy during the Spanish era, and he is wary of the new Protestant colonizers. He thus tolerates the activities of his lay preachers, Abayan and Daday Sona, who are none too subtly using their parish positions to solicit support for the Revolution.

Meanwhile, Balangiga's fishermen have been coming home with rumors that American troops, currently stationed in the Samar town of Basay, may soon be sending a contingent to Balangiga.

On August 11, 1901, the rumors come true. Company C, an 80-man force commanded by Captain Thomas Connell, arrives in Balangiga on board the rickety boat Liskum. With him are two other American officers--the company doctor, Major Richard Griswold, and and an indefatigable letter writer, First Lieutenant Edward Bumpus. Two Filipinos are also with Company C--Connell's houseboy, Francisco, and an interpreter whom everyone refers to as Lieutenant Macabebe.

Trying to hide their apprehensions, the Balangigan-ons welcome the American troops with cheers and the ringing of church bells. But their apprehensions only intensify with the actions of the occupation troops, who take over the convent and some choice houses and turn these into barracks and officers' quarters, without paying rent. Connell's personality further aggravates the situation. An Irish Catholic, he gets along with Father Guimbaolibot, with whom he plays chess. But he antagonizes most everyone else with his brusque methods and insensitiveness to the local culture.

One of Connell's first official acts is to demand that the whole town take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Father Guimbaolibot, Abayan, and Valé Abanador protest on behalf of the people, but finally decide that the better part of valor at this time is to comply.

Connell then orders all of Balangiga's able-bodied men over 18 to clear up the jungle surrounding the town--a military measure to deprive Filipino guerrillas of possible hiding places. Ostensibly as a health measure, he also orders the cleaning up of the ground underneath the residents' nipa huts, where rural folk traditionally keep and feed their pigs and chickens. To top it all, he compels all these men, after each day's cleaning, to stay inside large tents within sight of the American garrison. There are no beds or chairs inside the tents. Balangiga's men are forced to stand, sit, or squat the whole night, and the women and children have to bring them food.

Some friendships are made, despite the inevitably uneasy relationship between colonizer and colonized. Valé plays chess with Major Griswold and tries to teach the intricacies of arnis, a martial art, to Private Adolf Gamlin, and Sergeant Frank Betron seems to be displaying a romantic interest in the spinster Doday Sana. The cook organizes the neighborhood boys into a baseball team, and Francisco the houseboy is befriended by the church bell ringers.

But boredom and homesickness and perhaps colonizer's guilt begin to take their toll on the American soldiers. Less than a month after coming to Balangiga, Private William Denton disappears, leaving his shoes on the banks of the river, and only later is it discovered that he has defected to the Filipino side. Not long after, Private Schechterle goes crazy and blows his brains out with his Krag. Other soldiers become overly fond of the local coconut wine known as tuba and become rambunctious when drunk. Two drunken soldiers start being too free and easy with the woman tending the store that sells tuba, and end up being beaten up by the menfolk.

It is in the midst of this volatile situation that another secret meeting is held in the house of Pedro Abayan, with Daza and Valé among those in attendance. Plans are made and plans are junked and plans are changed, but finally, on September 28, 1901, the battle plan goes into operation. Valé's battlecry and the ringing of the church bells signal the start of an attack that causes the bloody death of more than half of Company C and the unceremonious retreat by sea of the survivors.

In the unequal battle between Krag and bolo, the casualty count among the Filipinos is even larger, but clearly this is a victory for the people of Balangiga and the army of the Revolution--a brief shining moment of liberation.

It is also a pyrrhic victory. In retaliation for their defeat at Balangiga, American occupation troops under the command of Colonel Jacob "Jake" Smith turn the entire province of Samar into a "howling wilderness." For three bloody months, from October 1901 to January 1902, they wage a kill-and-burn campaign, and any male who is over the age of 10 and capable of carrying a bolo is mercilessly killed. In a symbolic gesture, Colonel Smith's forces cart off, as part of the war booty, the church bells that tolled to signal the attack in the town of Balangiga.

Eventually, General Vicente Lukban is captured, and with his capture Valé Abanador, Pedro Abayan, and Eugenio Daza are forced at different times to surrender. After the population of Samar has been cut down by nearly half, a more liberal colonial policy allows these revolutionists to hold positions in the colonial government. But the ideals of liberation and independence that they fought for do not see fruition until the Stars and Stripes are finally hoisted down from the last remaining American military bases in the late 1980s.

To this day, however, more than a century later, Balangiga's church bells are kept on display at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, U.S.A., hostage to a historic grudge fight. The Wyoming state government refuses to give them up despite countless appeals and petitions calling for a return to the Philippines of the freedom bells of Balangiga.


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.