A visit to the San Pedro Cathedral evokes a pungent memory that I can never forget. The year was 1981. One Sunday, worshipers gathered to commemorate the risen Christ. Suddenly, a grenade lands into the crowd. Moments later, there were lifeless bodies. The curtains of fear and panic fell on the city on a day now called the “Black Easter Sunday.”

It brought back those dark days of disquiet under the iron hand of Ferdinand Marcos. I was in High School when martial law was declared in 1972, and where I was in a remote community where national issues never affected peoples’ lives, and where everything seemed normal and no one really bothered about what happened outside this community, I was blind about the realities then.

For several years during that darkest period of our peoples’ lives, I was in limbo, never aware of the gravity of the situation until I finished secondary education and had to move forward to college.

As I made my entry in this prestigious university, my naiveté persisted and I often wondered why some people seemed to be making a fuss about Martial Law when for me, it’s “Bagong Lipunan”, a new society where everything was taken care of by a strong president, or so I thought.

Never in my ignorance did I thought that that one step would change everything that I had been the day I started to see the world differently. Having joined campus writers in this University opened a new vista that was really far from desirable, as it was the time when that kind of “new society” had debunk itself and its monstrosity was exposed for the world to see.

The process by which my “peaceful, naive world” was slowly breaking down, brought so much pain, the realization that it wasn’t all bed of roses after all, was too much for me, and that in actuality, it was all turmoil, confusion, and suffering.

Suddenly I seemed to have been thrown right smack in the middle of the Filipino struggles that I have never dreamed existed. With my fellow aspiring writers, some of whom were like me, a newbie in this craft, little by little, I surprised myself when it actually inspired me to seek knowledge about Marcos’ martial law. I discovered that the ordinary citizen on the streets who courageously voiced their indignation became the sources who could tell me what I needed to know.

They were the small and the weak, the unschooled, whom I saw among the multitude that marched and filled Davao streets countless times, to call for an end to the abuses that they were undergoing under martial rule.

Being young and energetic, my mind took in all of the new knowledge, and there was just too much to learn from the stories of the ordinary folks: the farmers who lost their lands, from mothers who lost their children, the Lumad who were discriminated and driven out of the lands where their ancestors had lived before them, and many others.

In a nutshell, the real face of that regime was unmasked by itself, when the people could no longer endure the abuses such that eventually, fear of reprisal and death no longer stalked them but instead, emboldened the Filipinos to take action, to oust a dictator who was making their lives miserable.

What I missed about the so-called new society in the early days of martial rule when I was ensconced in my little nook for several years came rushing into my consciousness, and it wasn’t really fun.

There was this event in the Davao City that was etched so deeply in my psyche not only because of its monstrosity but because it was one of the first assignments I had as a budding journalist in one of the local tabloids in the city who dared stand up at first.

My editor/mentor assigned me to cover some of the families of victims of the bombing of San Pedro Cathedral in 1981, as the faithful celebrated Easter Sunday. Touted as the “Black Easter”, I had to do a story about a family who lost five members in the grenade blast, some of them very innocent children whose lives were snuffed in the blink of an eye. I thought I would just make some interviews among the surviving members of the family and my assignment would be done.

But I was wrong.

The magnitude of the family’s grief was such that it was impossible to listen without tears streaming down my cheeks as I became deeply affected. I was driven by emotions that seemed to capture my whole being, I was sad, sympathetic, then angry, and a kind of revulsion seemed to be building inside that took hold of my whole being.

As I wrote that family’s story, it was no longer a sense of duty, it was more of a sense of urgency that I felt I needed to tell the world, to make this family speak their truth, their grief and their fury. When I handed my piece to my editor, I asked him to do whatever he wants with my story because I could not go back and relive the pain that enveloped me for several days as I wrote that piece.

When the story was published and read by so many people, it was gratifying to know that somehow, I have done my part. From there on, I became almost enslaved with the desire to write people’s stories, on how their lives had been affected and crushed by a government who stole from them what they owned, including their dignity and their lives.

Thus, when I started out as a campus writer telling my stories in my little world, I became another person when I began to be curious and then conscious that my world did not revolve only around me. That awareness of being “Man and Woman for Others” which, this institution instilled in me, began to make sense, and took on a deeper meaning, especially when not a few of our colleagues and comrades in the pen during those dark days themselves became targets of repression, coercion, and intimidation, and yes, censorship, even death.

Not a few among our friends had become victims of summary executions, students and youths from all walks of life who defiantly stood for their birthrights and who believed that it is our basic right to struggle against unjust structures that curtailed peoples’ basic human rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Sadly, the supposed EDSA “Revolution” that was celebrated as the breaking point of martial rule did not end our people’s misery but instead, created another batch of dictators and greedy politicians who turned the tide in their favor. The building up of people’s indignation that drove them to the streets for several years was actually the tipping point that brought down the haughty and barbaric dictatorial regime.

But why are we seemingly back now where we started? Did the Filipinos forget so easily those dark days?

We fought the dictator in our time because we have wanted that our children will not experience undergo and suffer the consequences of allowing the ruling elite to run government service in circus.

Have we failed? Through the years that we thought we have earned what we struggled for in our younger days and made the next generation better and helped build a more humane and just society, we must have failed to remain vigilant. We have allowed selfish interests and materialism blind us and sway us away from the real, the true essence of human existence.

And of course, with the aid of a tame established mass media that is even actively censoring itself to please the powers-that-be, and with an educational system that glorifies the country’s dictators, never really helping this generation to understand the excesses that continue to enslave Filipinos in their own land, the status quo is assured and continuous to enjoy the benefits.

Was there really any difference between the Digong martial law and that of Marcos? Much too early to tell, but there’s another story that gave me a glimpse of what might be in this current martial rule.

There was this little girl in Kidapawan who was with her mother when several among farmers who were only asking their government to help them out of their misery when a long dry spell sapped the very life of their existence, were instead given the “iron glove.” This happened not so long ago before this martial rule, but it gave me hope that her generation would somehow be more involved than ours.

I allowed that little girl to tell her story in one of my columns, and it did break not only my heart but also many others who were able to read that piece. At that time, some of us who went to their sanctuary were unable to hold back our tears as we overheard without intending to eavesdrop, mother and little girl talking together.

After the shooting that drove them to seek shelter, the mother naturally was beginning to have second thoughts about her decision of bringing her little girl along. But then, the specter of hunger was more real than imagined, and she cannot bear to see her children going hungry, and so she thought, they would be able to bring home the much-needed rice after their audience with the governor. The aftermath of their efforts, however, had made this mother regret why she brought her little girl along.

Thus, she quietly told her daughter that they would be better off if they would go home the next day as she was already fearful for their safety. Without any qualms, the little girl stood on the empty sack they were lying on that night and blurted out to her mother, “Nay, wala pay sulod atong sako. Dili ta pwede mouli kay dili ta makakaon, magutom gihapon ta!”

The story of that indignant little girl had reached not a few hundreds but went around for some time, and perhaps it even reached the national leadership that seemed unfazed, undisturbed by the hunger that stalked thousands among farmers in Mindanao.

That little girl had touched the hearts of people simply by expressing herself, refusing to be cowed, such that it became a household cry. Hunger can embolden even the innocents to assert their right to live.

Not a few among today’s generation could have been like me in my time when martial law was declared in Mindanao. Naïve, uncaring, unperturbed… Perhaps some of the youth today might have thought why such a fuss over this Martial law when things seem the same?

In my time, not a few among the youth have given up their lives so that others may live, so that this generation may have a better society than what we had then. In the cities, the young people may seem uncaring, but among children of those in the outskirts, it could be different, because the children of the Indigenous peoples and those farmers who continue to live in dire poverty are learning early in their existence that this society does not care if they have enough food to eat, or if they have the basic rights as Filipino citizens.

We cannot really tell, but history has already given us not only a sneak preview but a lived experience of what it was when one man’s lust for power could not be contained anymore. A few decades ago weren’t that long, and it is up to us to recognize portent of things to come or continue to ignore these signs. We cannot really say we are clueless and play naïve again. (davaotoday.com)

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