Resonance: The Southern Tagalog 10


This piece was written in 2006. 

She showed me a scar on her left leg. It was our first meeting in a long time, and that she had been shot was an unwelcome detail in her long story. What else might my sister have gone through?  I asked how it happened. 

“Well, a kasama was cleaning his rifle.  It just went off,” she remarked with a nonchalance that showed how she had been steeled in the people’s struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.

I did not anticipate meeting my sister at all. She was deep in the underground movement against the Marcos military regime, and I was a political detainee who had just been granted provisional liberty. One day, however — I am unsure now whether it was in late 1976 or early 1977, she sent me a message:  She would like to see me. And so, there we were, sharing stories in a peasant’s house in an interior village in Calauan, Laguna.

In July of 1977, I got another letter from her. She wanted to see me again, this time, somewhere in Katipunan, Quezon City. She waved by the roadside. As she spoke of a problem that I sensed to be rather serious, she carried her signature countenance — pleasant, reassuring.

Photo of Rizalina Ilagan, sister of the writer. (Courtesy of CARMMA)

“We need help, Kuya. We are missing a couple of our members.”

“What do you mean ‘missing’?”

“We suspect that they have been taken in by the military. Our posts are under surveillance. We are being trailed.”

“We need to transfer to another house,” added my sister’s companion.

I knew precisely what kind of help they badly needed.

“OK, I’ll have one house ready for you,” I assured them.

We agreed on the details of our next meeting.

My sister did not come, even as I waited long enough.

That got me worried.  Shortly afterwards, Estrell Consolacion, a former member of Panday-Sining, who had contacts with the underground, confirmed my worst fears. My sister was now among the missing.

In September 1977, about two months after that fateful meeting, my play, the daring anti-dictatorship liturgy “Pagsambang Bayan (People’s Worship),” was performed by the UP Repertory at the University of the Philippines, directed by Behn Cervantes.  It was only the fifth year of the Marcos martial law regime. Nevertheless, in the playbill, I dedicated it to my sister Lina and her seven companions who disappeared without a trace. (I did not know at that time that there were 10 of them in the group.) They were all activists belonging to the anti-martial law network of the people’s movement in Southern Tagalog (ST). Some of them, like my sister, worked underground, while others performed functions aboveground. Due to the circumstances surrounding their disappearance, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that their abductors were government military intelligence operatives.

It was July 31, 1977. Atty. Bienvenido Faustino was belatedly celebrating his 48th birthday with the family. In the middle of the merriment, Gerry, the elder of his two children, arrived to greet him. But he would not stay long.

“C’mon, Kuya,” Joey, Gerry’s younger brother, needled him, “stay, so we can have a drink!”

Photo of Gerardo “Gerry” Faustino. (Courtesy of CARMMA)

Gerry ruffled his brother’s hair. Joey was just 13.

Atty. Faustino wanted Gerry to stay, too, but knew that the son had to leave. Gerry was in his junior year at the UP College of Agriculture in Los Baños, Laguna. The campus was a long trip from Novaliches, Quezon City. Gerry was always home on weekends – until he became involved in the movement.

“Be careful, Gerry,” the father said.

Atty. Faustino knew what the “movement” was about. It was all about fighting a government that throve on repression to impose its will on the people, and its willing instrument was the whole military apparatus that, ironically, was sworn to serve the citizenry. The movement was about fighting a system that exploited and oppressed the masses, the masa who were getting poorer by the day while an elite class wallowed in wealth and abundance. How could he have the heart to prevent his son from being involved in such a movement?

“Just be very careful, my son.”

In fact, Gerry wanted to be a soldier, and had wished to enter the Philippine Military Academy.  But he acquired a social consciousness early enough to make him change his mind.  He took up agriculture because he thought that it was the better choice to help the people. In the UP College of Agriculture, however, and in the context of the despotic martial rule, there was an even better option: to take part in the mass movement for freedom and democracy.

Gerry did not proceed to the campus. He was first attending an important conference of the movement. He passed by the house of Marie Jopson in San Francisco del Monte.

“If I am not back after five days, start looking for me,” he told Marie, a student leader in UP Los Baños who was also involved in the activist network.

Marie was the elder sister of his girlfriend, fellow activist Bobbi Jopson, to whom Gerry had also given the same ominous advisory.  Bobbi was not home. She was in Los Baños. Gerry, Marie and Bobbi were members of the University of the Philippines Student Catholic Action. The church organization provided them with a cover for the risky affairs of the movement.

Gerry fetched Jessica Sales in another part of the city. They proceeded somewhere in Makati going to the underground conference.

Five days passed, and no Gerry reappeared. In Los Baños, meanwhile, a boarding house adjacent to the campus where Gerry lived had already been ransacked by unidentified men.

Photo of Modesto “Bong” Sison. (Courtesy of CARMMA)

Modesto “Bong” Sison started out in the movement in 1971 as a member of the Khi Rho in Davao, in Mindanao. Khi Rho was very much unlike the radical organizations which Marcos branded as “communist fronts” in Proclamation 1081, the decree imposing martial rule all over the Philippines. Some said that Khi Rho was in fact a reformist organization, and proof was that it was closely allied with a big church-led peasant organization that eschewed the Left.

Over the years, Bong, who graduated from the Ateneo de Davao and was a teacher in Davao Oriental, had a change of political orientation. He became a Leftist, a radical, which meant that he understood that a social movement that aimed at transforming society had to strike at the roots of the problems of the people. “Radical” originated from the Latin “radix,” meaning, roots.

In 1976, Bong and his family transferred to Luzon, in the province of Cavite. Bong was rarely home. An underground cadre who was working fulltime in the movement was not supposed to be routinely home. In the mountain villages of Quezon, he had almost died of pneumonia. He survived, but was reduced to skin and bones.

His wife Eileen was aghast upon seeing him.

“You need to rest, Bong.” You can’t do much from a sick bed.”

“I know,” Bong replied.

Perhaps it was an answer that he didn’t mean and only uttered to avoid a long discussion.  Bong left again, even as Eileen reminded him about their son’s first birthday. He did not promise to be back, but in his heart of hearts, Bong wanted to make it a family reunion on his son’s first birthday. Another child, a daughter who was four years old, was also missing him a lot.

The birthday passed, and Bong did not make it home. Eileen fought the bitterness – because she was the activist before Bong became one himself. She was the one who initiated him into the movement, even before they became husband and wife.

In Manila, meanwhile, Bong materialized in his sister’s clinic in Vito Cruz. It was July 26, 1977.

“Well!” the doctora said, pleasantly surprised.  Among the Sison siblings, they were closest to one another.

Every time Bong appeared in her clinic, which was not often, she gave him pocket money. It was a modest way to help him in his crusade. That afternoon, she was a bit surprised when it was Bong who invited her for snacks. The nearby Dayrit’s restaurant served generous sandwiches, so Bong ordered just one hamburger which they shared.  He was his usual jovial self, though there was not much to talk about. Bong told stories only on a “need to know” basis.  His sister understood.  It was enough that they shared precious moments together, and enjoyed the hamburger sandwich.

“What was that?” intrigued, the doctora asked when Bong had left. “Some sort of a farewell?’

Photo of Jessica Sales. (Courtesy of CARMMA)

Almost two weeks since leaving Cavite, there was not a word from Bong. Eileen sensed that something could be wrong. She decided to visit UP Los Baños, where she knew one person whom Bong had previously introduced to her. It was Jessica Sales.

“Should you receive information that something has happened to me, get in touch with Jessica.”

Jessica Sales was an instructor who was also taking up a master’s degree in rural sociology.  In the sociology department, however, Jessica was also being sorely missed.  She had been absent for almost two weeks already.

One late night in July 1977, Cristina “Tina” Catalla came home. Like my sister Lina, she was an underground cadre in ST, and a student at UP Los Baños.

“Good Lord, where have you been?” asked Tina’s Ate Yoly.

Tina, brows knitted, asked back, “Why?”

“Your feet. Looks like you have been marching barefoot. Do they hurt?”

Tina smiled.  She did not realize that her feet, all bruised, were showing.  Of course they hurt.

“How long are you staying this time, Tina?”

“Just for tonight.”

Yoly wanted to argue, but she knew it was going to be futile. Tina was always in a hurry. In fact, early the following morning, she was gone.

In her office in Manila, Yoly had a surprise guest.

Photo of Cristina “Tina” Catalla. (Courtesy of CARMMA)

“I am a friend of Tina,” he said.

Yoly felt cold at hearing her sister’s name. She waited for the guest to speak some more.

“She has been arrested. But we don’t know where she was taken. Please, please start looking for her.”

Yoly froze. What was she to say or do? She didn’t know the man who was talking to her. He could be an impostor who only wanted to fish information about Tina. The man was gone in an instant. Then Yoly remembered what Tina had told her a couple of times: “If anything happens to me, you would know.”

Yoly ran out of the lobby after the messenger, but he was gone.

Lina. Gerry Faustino. Jessica Sales. Modesto “Bong” Sison. Cristina “Tina” Catalla. Add to the list:  Ramon Jasul — college student, writer. Emmanuel Salvacruz – college student, writer.  Salvador Panganiban. Virgilio Silva. Erwin de la Torre. (I have yet to get a lead on the last three.)  They are the Southern Tagalog (ST) 10. On record, they constitute the single biggest case of involuntary disappearance and summary execution perpetrated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the entire history of the Marcos martial law in the Philippines. 

Bong Sison’s corpse was dug up in a common grave in Lucena City, Quezon, while those of Salvador Panganiban and Virgilio Silva were retrieved in a ravine in Tagaytay, Cavite. The fate of the rest remains uncertain till now, although I am convinced that all had also been killed by their abductors, and the women raped.

Why am I saying this?

A year before the ST 10 were arrested, three activists met the same fate as the group did. They were Adora Faye de Vera, Rolando Federis and Flora Coronacion. Rolando and Flora were executed. Adora lived to tell the story.

Part of her testimony said: “The following days, we were still not allowed to dress.  Rolando had to sleep naked on the cold cement floor without any bedding. Corporal Alberto Trapal and a civilian called Severino P took turns in burning my fingernails and toenails with cigarettes, stroking my thighs and pulling the hair of my legs.”

“On October 13, Corporal Charlie Tolopia and a civilian named Rodolfo took me to the bartolina where Corporal Trapal and Severino P subjected me to sexual indignities, touching my private parts while uttering obscenities.”

“On October 14, I was raped by Captain Eduardo Sebastian as his method of extracting information.  Because I had no information to give, I was abused sexually from 12:00 o’clock noon to past 3 p.m. After this, I was also made to undress by Captain Jesus Calaunan, and later that evening, by Lieutenant Joseph Malilay. When Flora was finally allowed to talk with me that evening, she confided that Welen Escudero and Florante Macatangay had raped her the previous days. After supper, she was taken to the small room by Private First Class Alex Estores, and when she came out crying, she confided again to me that she was raped.”

The military men named by Adora belonged to the composite intelligence Ground Team (GT) 205 of the Armed Forces of the Philippines which she identified to be the same team that worked on — trailed and abducted — the ST 10. Adora had first-hand information. She was taken along by GT 205 whenever it changed safehouses in Lucena City and in the Manila area — as this intelligence team went in hot pursuit of the activists who would be called the ST 10.

GT 205 was composed of operatives of the 2nd Military Intelligence Group (Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines), 2nd Constabulary Security Unit, and the 231st Company (both of the Philippine Constabulary, the precursor of today’s Philippine National Police). Led by Colonel Alejandro Gallido, it had about 24 operatives whom Adora named in her testimony, including military, police, and civilian elements. The officers included two majors, two captains and one first lieutenant. After the so-called People Power Revolution that toppled the dictator Marcos in 1986, GT 205’s chieftain Col. Gallido would be promoted to general.

The case of the the ST 10 is a high point in the series of human rights violations perpetrated by soldiers and agents of the state acting in supreme authority of the Marcos government. The incidents formed a practice, a tradition no less, which thrives till the present. The bloody scoreboard since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assumed power in 2001 says that 573 persons belonging to activist organizations had already been summarily executed. As of now, Southern Tagalog scores among the highest in terms of the number of victims of political extrajudicial killings, euphemistically called “salvaging” in the Marcos martial law years.

Government accountability for these crimes did not cease when Marcos was thrown out of power in 1986. Government accountability, in the case of the ST 10 and in all the cases of human rights violations in the Philippines, remains to date because it – the government as a continuing institution — persists to harbor the criminals, looks the other way around, and in fact, rewards them with promotions.

What befell Adora Faye de Vera, Rolando Federis, Flora Coronacion and the ST 10 was an utterly beastly crime that has violated all laws of the land as well as all international conventions and standards for respecting human rights and treating political dissenters.  To date, not one among the thousands of cases of human rights violations that were documented and filed has ever been solved in the Philippines. This is not to say, however, that we can simply relegate the cases to the filing cabinet and let them gather dust.

For some, the 29 years that passed might have eased the pain and the passion to seek justice. “Diyos na ang bahala.” God will provide. For some, that could be some kind of a settlement. But it does not justify that we allow a situation where the victims are all but forgotten and where they become mere names even to their children and their own families.

On December 10, 2002, International Human Rights Day, families and friends of the ST 10 met with the newly installed president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the State Dining Room of the Malacañang Palace to petition for a revival of the case. National Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and Acting Justice Secretary Merceditas Gutierrez were in attendance.

Over breakfast, I read a letter to the President, part of which says: “Madame President, we are among the thousands of Filipino families who are bonded together by the same pain of “salvaging” and forced disappearance of our loved ones, especially during the years of Martial Law.

“Some 25 years and three administrations have passed since the case of the Southern Tagalog 10 happened. The families of the “salvaged” and the disappeared have died one after another, waiting to the last minute for the final word on their kin. The surviving members of the families continue to hope for justice, or perhaps even for the bones of the missing.

“When we met last July, we celebrated the lives of our martyred beloved – and asked if that could be enough for a closure to our collective grief. Some fell silent and were once again unable to bear the burden. But there were those who declared that we must rekindle the quest for justice one more time.

“In all humility, may we present to you five items for your consideration: One, that the state take full responsibility for the case of the Southern Tagalog 10; two, that your administration declare a policy against the practices of “salvaging” and forced disappearance; and three, that an investigation be conducted regarding the case of the Southern Tagalog 10.

“In this connection, military files and information relating to the case of the Southern Tagalog 10, as well as to all reported cases of “salvaging” and forced disappearance, must be declassified.

“We pray that your administration assists us in finding the remains of our loved ones, assuming them to be dead by now.”

I could see that the President was all ears. She was looking at me and nodding as I read the letter. She could very well have been acting. Nothing came out of the meeting. (My note: In fact, the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presidency continued one of the Marcos martial law “best practices” of political abductions and extrajudicial killings.)

Whoever said that Filipinos have a short memory is probably correct. And that is precisely why we need to perpetuate the memory of our loved ones who made the supreme sacrifice so that, one day soon, we may begin to live in justice, freedom and democracy.

But it is not only in their honor that Filipinos need to always remember and never to forget. It is, more so, for the sake of the generations to come.  Those who are unable to remember the past – and learn its lessons — will never be able to create a future for their own.  Without a remembrance and a learning of the past, they will forever be enslaved.

Today, the greater tragedy is not that our loved ones went missing some 29 years ago. The greater tragedy is that those they left behind have forgotten what had befallen them, and why.

Ramon Jasul was called Monching in the family. He was much loved. He held so much promise; he had many dreams for himself and his family. But the reality of a society gone awry dawned upon him. Way back in 1970, when Monching was still in school, the Philippines had been described as a social volcano at the throes of a violent eruption. A resurgent people’s movement for social change was sweeping over the land, and the generation of Monching – including the rest of the ST 10 – got caught in it.

“Monching,” his mother pleaded, “could there be other ways for you to get involved in the movement?” The old woman had reason to fear. An elder son, Alfredo, had already been killed by soldiers. “I don’t want to lose another son.”

“We are seven in the family, Nanay.” Monching still counted the dead.

“Six,” the mother corrected him.

“Yes, Nanay. There are six of us remaining. When I leave, there is still going to be five of your children with you. Won’t you give just one more of us to the country we all love? I hope you will let me go, Nanay.”

His mother wept as Monching left. And he was never again seen.

It has been 29 years, yet the voice of Monching has retained a peculiar resonance by which all of us may remember the ST 10 and their tribe.

Bonifacio Ilagan is the spokesperson of Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang (CARMMA) and vice chairperson of Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda). He is a multi-awarded playwright, winning in such tilts as the Don Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Literary Contest and the Palihang Aurelio V. Tolentino. Ilagan was also one of the founders of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), the broadest militant youth organization during Martial Law.

Read other Martial Law stories here.


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