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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

entry arrow8:55 PM | Sillimanian Pastor Arrested During Martial Law Tells All

Forty-two years ago, on 21 September 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. We have since then been living under the shadow of those dark years—a time recalled by many with much hatred, but also a time romanticized by others as a direct rebuttal of lingering problems. Of the latter, we could only commiserate with this truism: people do forget their history. But as Esther Inglis-Arkell once noted in her thought-provoking study of real-world dystopias: “There are very few regimes so terrible that they can’t be romanticized. This is especially true after they have been defeated. It’s easy to be sentimental about something when nobody has to deal with it anymore. Sometimes regimes can even come back. There is a British monarchy today because, after executing the British king and establishing his own supremacy, Oliver Cromwell died and left management of the land to his ineffectual son. A royal family began looking pretty good.”

With the Chito Mirandas of the world increasingly being brazen about Marcosian love, the same could be said about the Philippines and the Marcoses. We have gone through the years after 1986 in a strange lurch, which has provided fodder for historical revisionism. The Martial Law has become a passage in history that has increasingly become blurred, as if it has nothing to do with us all. We forget that if only we can dig deeper, many of us are still around who can give witness to the stark darkness of those years.

This is one such story, the account of the first Sillimanian arrested by the military in the very beginning of martial rule in the Philippines.

By 1969—two years before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law over the country—Joel Tabada had already served two years of pastoral service for the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Mangagoy in Surigao City. He had started a small family with wife Grace, who had graduated cum laude with a degree in music from Silliman, and to pass the time while serving churches, he had gone on to develop an interest in black and white photography. But all over the country, activism by students was on the rise, in response to the growing despotism of the Marcos regime. Silliman University struck a resputation as being a hotbed of student unrest: there were open demonstrations around campus, and big streamers screaming for social justice were scattered everywhere.

He decided to go back to Silliman to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Divinity—later transformed into a master’s degree—and was happily clicking away taking pictures around campus when he was chanced upon by Dr. Harry Pak, the Korean-American pastor of the Silliman Church.

“Dr. Pak challenged me to help him minister Silliman Church,” Rev. Tabada recalled—an offer he reluctantly accepted. With that, he said goodbye to his photography, and soon became associate pastor for Silliman Church. His contemporaries included Rev. Lydia Niguidula, who led the Christian Education ministry of the church, and Gideon Alegado, who, as lay pastor, was in-charge of taking care of the young people in church. “We decided to have a team ministry, with Dr. Pak as the administrative pastor as well as the chaplain of the University,” Rev. Tabada said. “My work was to be with the University’s Buildings and Grounds crew... My task included the outreach ministry of Pangas in Bantayan, and the more immediate—and restless and troublesome—Lo-oc.”

He was also given the responsibility of taking care of the Involvement Task Force, where Silliman Church people, especially students, could freely voice their concerns about city life as well as about the national situation. “My office at the left northeast side end of Silliman Church was always filled with students who had all sorts of concerns,” Rev. Tabada recalled. “They would leave their books and other things in my office.”

Each of the members of the team ministry served a monthly duty to preach at Silliman Church, and they did so with gusto. Dr. Pak delivered profound sermons on the theme of reconciliation and interpersonal relationships, while Rev. Niguidula and Mr. Alegado tended smoothly to their individual responsibilities. “I was challenged to pair up with Dr. Nona Calo who led a committee that had me producing two church dramas, ably acted in by Divinity School students, which depicted troubled students in their academic-activist life,” Rev. Tabada said. One such play was for a faculty-staff retreat for the Silliman Church entitled The Lo-oc Thing, with Ephraim Bejar directing and Rowena Tiempo and Federico Fundador acting. The plays, done in daylight and also in the evening, had undeniable activist undertones. It was an attempt by the church to be more accommodating in hearing activists who wanted to articulate what they thought about issues of feudalism, neo-colonialism, and cronyism, which were very hot issues in campus, fanned by activism.

It was a time when Atty. Jeremias Montemayor of the Progressive Farmers Federation (PPP) and his ilk were regarded as heroes of the day, mobbed with admirers when they visited and lectured in campus.

A week before Martial Law was declared, another group of students asked permission from Silliman Church to lead in the midweek prayer meeting. “They were led by Law students,” Rev. Tabada said. “ And I was delighted to find that even Law people could take time out for church life. I was the church authority assigned to give special permission in the leading of the midweek service. The leader of the group was a Law student who regularly came to church. He is now a lawyer based in San Carlos City. Their ‘meditation’ was an activist-fueled demonstration against ‘Uncle Sam,’ protesting the idea of the Ugly American preying upon Filipinos.”

Rev. Tabada, of course, quickly understood how the whole thing could enrage certain segments who would see this type of midweek meditation as nothing short of irresponsible activism. “But I learned much later that these happenings were in fact organized by what a group of people in the military intelligence who tactically made a decision to entrap me as a ‘communist activist’,” Rev. Tabada said.

September 23, 1972 was a Sunday.

“It was my turn to mount the pulpit of Silliman Church,” Rev. Tabada recalled. “Martial Law was already declared on Friday. There was a blackout of the media, but people knew. I remember that many students in Silliman were very apprehensive as to what would become of them, especially after hearing reports of countless arrests. Many were unabashed in crying in public. I was bewildered to see the church overflowing that Sunday. There were people milling about up to the yard outside. For the first in my three years as pastor, I saw this kind of crowd.”

Rev. Tabada’s sermon that day was titled Burn! It was based on Luke 24:32, about a critical moment in the lives of Christ’s disciples given the choice to stay or flee after his crucifixion. And it seemed like the most appropriate Scripture for the time: “It talked about the days of gloom emanating from the death of the Lord—but which was quickly fading with the rising of the sun,” Rev. Tabada said. “The idea for me was this: He is risen! He lives! So we must also take hold of ourselves and move in Christ’s way to witness, and burn. The disciples who were about to leave, because they were fearful of what might happen to them, were instead now living and facing the challenge of going back to where the action was, Jerusalem!”

“I remember the late Mrs. Udarbe, Dr. and Mrs. Beran, among others, congratulating me somberly after the service,” Rev. Tabada continued. “Dr. Proceso Udabe would later say, after Martial Law was lifted, that the sermon was touching—but it was no harmful.”

Even then, he could not sleep afterwards. He felt something was afoot—and he was right because by midnight, there was a hard knock on the parsonage door.

“The moonlight, I remember, was like daylight,” Rev. Tabada recalled.

He opened the door and saw seven fully-armed soldiers outside the parsonage.

Then their team leader asked him, firmly: “Are you Rev. Tabada?”

He answered, “Yes, I am, please come in.”

The man with the firm voice introduced himself: “I am 2nd Lt. Aurelio Palmos. I am a member of the Baptist Church in Iloilo. We are from the PC barracks. On orders of the Provincial Commander, we are here to invite you to the headquarters with us… Please, may we have a copy of your sermon delivered this morning?”

“This is my only copy,” Rev. Tabada replied. “May I have it back?”

Lt. Palmos smiled and then retorted, “Yes, Reverend.”

Rev. Tabada told his wife Grace that he would be gone for only a while to accompany the soldiers to meet with a certain Col. Noli Santua.

Lt. Palmos made one more request: “Please, may we go also to your office at the Silliman Church?”

So Rev. Tabada went with them to his office in the church. They looked around and noticed the many books scattered on the floor.

“Are these books yours?” the military men asked.

“Some of them were borrowed, and some of them were left here by students,” he replied.

They took some of the books and soon left to go to the barracks.

“But there was no Col. Santua,” Rev. Tabada recalled. “Instead the lieutenant relegated me to a guard who was also grilling Dr. Nona Calo, who was later released.

The guard soon bullishly spent the rest of the time—until the next morning—asking Rev. Tabada endless questions. “I was very sleepy by then, and then he asked another guard to lead me into the barracks, which was housed in a makeshift building. The room I was led to was good only for two people, and there were already six people inside. All were students from Silliman, who were all surprised, and were quite delighted, to see me. Welcome pastor! I remember them saying.”

The uncomfortable geniality was soon interrupted when a mauled man was suddenly pushed to their holding cell. The man was nursing a bloodied mouth, and it was then that a drunken guard stationed outside the building began shouting invectives against activists, who he blamed to be responsible for the present troubles of Martial Law. He soon came to the stockade and pointed his gun to Rev. Tabada and the cowering students, and shouted at them: “Unsa mosukol mo? Ha!?”

And then he cocked his gun.

But he was soon prevailed upon by his companions to leave.

By the second Sunday of martial rule, the number of detainees at the barracks increased to over seventy. “We were held in a makeshift, tunnel-shaped contraption surrounded by roughly arranged barb wiring inside the PC headquarters,” Rev. Tabada said. “The women detainees were placed in a smaller room above us. That was my first experience of congested imprisonment.”

But they were not forgotten by people in Silliman. Dr. Levi Oracion, the new Dean of the Divinity School, soon came to do a prayer service with the detainees. “There was no sermon,” Rev. Tabada said. “But the service proved soothing for us all. Much later, Dr. Buddy Martinez, my co-pastor at Silliman Church, led regular church visitations and services, especially during our Provincial Jail sojourn.”

Meanwhile, during Rev. Tabada’s incarceration, his wife Grace became sick due to allergies. His eldest daughter Lorene, then 7, and son Callum, who was only 4 months old, were hurriedly put up at the house of Grace’s aunt, Concepcion Roble, Dean of the Nursing school. Six-year old Joel Jr., meanwhile, went with Rev. Tabada’s brother James and also his mother back to their hometown in Surigao. “Grace was alone nursing herself with a helper-cousin at the parsonage,” Rev. Tabada said. “Job, my youngest brother, who was then doing his freshman year in Journalism in Silliman, was also taken in later, but was miraculously granted house arrest.”

Then, quite suddenly, the “political” detainees, now numbering over 150, were transferred to the Provincial Jail of Negros Oriental. “The jail was teeming with inmates—mostly detention cases—of about 400 people,” Rev. Tabada recalled. Up to his release four months later, the political detainees would reach over 200. The apprehension of these so-called “subversives” went on from all over the province. Later, two American Franciscan priests, Fr. Bruno and Fr. Charles, who were both in-charge of an FM radio over at Guihulngan town, were incarcerated with Rev. Tabada at the Provincial Jail. “Rev. Francisco Malanog, fresh from his master’s at the University of the Philippines who taught Sociology at Silliman, soon joined us,” Rev. Tabada said. “The two Franciscan stayed only for a short time, as the U.S. Embassy soon took care of them.”

Two wardens administered the Provincial Jail at the time of Rev. Tabada’s imprisonment: Major Juan Dominado, a World War II veteran who was in-charge of the provincial prisoners, and a Moslem Sergeant named Aleh Mohamad who was to be their guardian. “He was a Muslim shepherd over a flock of Christians,” Rev. Tabada recalled with a laugh. “Major Dominado who used to hear me preach at the Silliman Church,” Rev. Tabasa continued, “and he quietly happy that I was in prison. His reason, he told me later, was that he would now have a preacher who would provide his charges at the Provincial Jail with spiritual nourishment. But I think I disappointed him. I never uttered a word of preaching while I was in the Provincial Jail.”

Rev. Tabada’s attention was instead drawn to the plight of the regular prisoners, who were padlocked all-day long in their congested cells. “Maj. Dominado put me on surveillance,” Rev. Tabada said. “He wanted to know what I was doing sitting for long time beside the prison bars talking to inmates. But I was engrossed over every story these regular prisoners told me, as if they were in confessional. I believe it was because they never had a chance to talk to anybody who was a pastor. They unburdened themselves of their weariness for being in detention for months, even years. Some had gone on for up to fifteen years without any word at all about their respective cases. Most of them were very poor, and half of them had rather large families. They were bread-earners who were in jail, and they could do nothing about their plight except to wait for the promulgation of their cases.”

Rev. Tabada said that this stultified him. “Here were people less than 500 meters away from Silliman Church, where we were preaching about social justice, and not one of us could spare the time to know about these detention cases. I was silently ashamed of my being a UCCP pastor who was supposed to champion the cause of justice, love, and Christian care. What I was doing suddenly seemed so academic compared to the gruesome reality I was now hearing about from these long-suffering fellowmen.” He said that he read again, and again, the passages from Luke 4:18-19 and Isaiah 61:1-2, and saw some possibilities of ministering, accordingly, to his fellow detainees.

Meanwhile, classes at Silliman University were suspended for the rest of the semester. Dr. Proceso Udarbe became Acting President. “The experience of facing the absolute terror of Martial Law made more a man out of him,” Rev. Tabada surmised. “Dr. Udarbe made sure that double-deck beds from the dormitories were provided for all detainees in the Provincial Jail, although only about a third of the detainees were Silimanians.”

The women detainee from Silliman, who were mostly members of the Christian Youth Fellowship and were volunteers in various church missions, held on to Rev. Tabada as their “jail pastor.” “They used to send me, on all sorts of notes, bits of papers, hello’s, thank you’s, and others,” Rev. Tabada remembered.

“Once I sent them a photo of our ‘Martial Law babe’—Callum at four-months, smiling and naked for the camera—and I was told they pinned the photo after passing it around. They looked at the photo as if it was a hopeful consolation of some sort. I responded by writing them open letters in long-hand. I still remember some of their names. There was Doris Abellanosa, Melandrin Empeso, Juliana Laura, Elizabeth Lasmarias, Virgina Orteza, June Loon, Anne dela Plaza, and Ethel Adela Raterta. The other names escape my memory. And among the Sillimanian boys, there were Edgar Rosero, Danilo Saturion, Oscar Lacuesta, Dindo Daruin, Bruce Banglay, Wilfredo Totatanez, Tomas Matic, Nimrod Porra, Jesus Georlin, Sever Mamhot, Dionesio Baseleres, Andy Manalo, Vic Padayhag, Franscisco Malanog. Together with myself, these were the names in the list of Group I of our Meal Schedule,” Rev. Tabada said.

When he was finally released before Christmas time, he had interviewed more than 70 prisoners, mostly the regular ones with criminal or civil cases. He would continue to interview more than 300 prisoners in detention after his release, and in 1993 Rev. Tabada would earn his Master’ degree in Extension Administration (MAREXA) from Silliman based mainly on his experience in prison.

Going back to regular life was a challenge, and some bridges were broken. “On 16 December 1972, Silliman Church decided to call me back to work with the Team Ministry, this time with Rev. Lydia Niguidula, Mr. Gideon Alegado, Mrs. Adela Raterta, and Dr. Buddy Martinez. Dr. Pak was on leave,” Rev. Tabada recalled. “But not all members of the Church Council wanted me back. The late Maj. Rustico Paralejas—who was my teacher in Religion I and was an elder of the church—was totally against my coming back because of my ‘activism.” But he was out-voted by the council, after which he resigned from it. It was sad because I was rather close to the Paralejas family. The eldest daughter, a campus beauty, donned on me my winning medal in an Inter-University oratorical contest during my sophomore year in college. I even officiated the wedding of their second daughter.”

By the mandate of Martial Law, Rev. Tabada’s official release—and of course his resumption as Silliman Church minister—was subject to several conditions. He was allowed to do priestly functions such as officiating wedding ceremonies, baptisms, communion services, and special services for funerals and dedications, worship services in public worship, and jail services, as well as being able to hold pastoral office hours where he could receive and counsel visitors. He was also allowed to resume ecumenical relations with other Christian churches, other than the UCCP, within the city, and also to preach the Gospel in any public worship, as well as do pastoral visitations to the homes of church members and students, as well as do sick calls in hospitals.

But he was not allowed to resume church liaison in relation to the Negros District Conference, the UCCP National Office, and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. He could no longer serve as pastor to the Bantayan Missions and the Lo-oc Outreach, as well as the Silliman Church’s Visayan congregation in Nangihayag, which was composed of home helpers, janitors, and working students. He also could not resume radio ministry with DYSR. Rev. Tabada’s story has a happier ending, but let us consider those who did not.

Here’s Fr. Benjamin E. Alforque on being a witness: “I was forced to witness the torture and sexual harassment of seven farmers from Samar province that the military had arrested and accused of being NPA members. The farmers were blindfolded. They were made to face one another and the wall and to throw punches with all their might. They were hitting at each other and the wall, according to the whim of the military torturer. Bruised and in great pain, the farmers were then told to masturbate and drink their own semen.”

But it wasn’t just hapless farmers accused of being communist rebels. Martial Law’s victims cut through cross-sections of Filipino society.

There was Liliosa Hilao, for example, an asthmatic student who, in 1970, nevertheless joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan. Accordingly, even while suffering from asthma attacks, she joined rallies as part of her job as Associate Editor of Hasik, the campus paper at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. In 1973, she was taken from her family’s house by drunk members of the Constabulary Anti‑Narcotics Unit (CANU), who had come to look for her brother. She had demanded for a search warrant, but was slapped around instead by the soldiers, then handcuffed, and taken in for questioning. She was found dead the next day. Her brother‑in‑law had earlier come to see her at the military camp and had found her face swollen. Hilao claimed torture. When her sister Alice proceeded to the Camp Crame Station Hospital, Lilli was dead. The official CANU report stated that she had “committed suicide by drinking muriatic acid.” Post‑mortem findings, however, confirmed torture: her face was severely swollen, her lips bore cigarette butts burns, her arms had eleven injection marks, her wrists had deep handcuff marks, her torso was badly bruised. The possibility that she was sexually abused was raised.

There was Dr. Potenciano Baccay. According to the New York Times, he was one of Marcos' personal physicians and was Vice President of the National Kidney Foundation. But he made the mistake of revealing to the foreign press that the late strongman had kidney transplants in 1983 and 1984, fueling speculations that Marcos was seriously ill. He was later found stabbed to death, shortly after he spoke to The Pittsburgh Press. Police later said he was kidnaped and slain by communist rebels. A spokesman for Marcos later called the report “sheer fantasy.”

Then there was Archimedes Tajano. According to a GMA News Online report, Trajano, then a 21-year-old student at the Mapua Institute of Technology, once stood up in an open forum on August 1977 to question Imee Marcos, the eldest daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, on her capability to lead the youth. The nation was then under Martial Law, and Imee Marcos headed the national youth organization Kabataang Barangay and was at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila where she addressed thousands of students. Trajano told Marcos that she would not have assumed the leadership position if she was not the presidential daughter. He also questioned her on her father's role in human rights violations. On 2 September 1977, the bloodied body of Trajano was found on the streets of Manila. The student’s parents were told he got into a dormitory fight. Witnesses later came forward to testify that Trajano was last seen being forcibly removed from the university forum by Marcos’ security escorts. It is believed Trajano was tortured for 12 to 36 hours before he died. His mother sued Marcos before the US district court in Honolulu, Hawaii, on 20 March 1986, barely a month after the Marcos family fled the country following the EDSA people power that year. In 1991, the US court awarded $4.4 million to the Trajano family.

I remember a poem by Merlie Alunan that expresses the terrible consequences regarding our forgetfulness about Martial Law. “The Bells Count in Our Blood” begins with an epigraph about Fr. Rudy Romano, the Redemptorist priest who was “disappeared” by Marcos’ men, and whose body has not been found, until now. The epigraph, a 1985 statement from the Redemptorist Community in Dumaguete City, stated: “Every night at 8:00 we shall ring the bells for Father Romano, and we shall continue to do so until he is found.”

I grew up in Dumaguete hearing those bells in Dumaguete. Ten counts, in the dark, which the poem recalls beautifully, if also sadly:

        Every night just as we settle
        To coffee or a mug of cold beer,
        They ring the bells—
        A crisp quick flurry first, then
        Decorous as in a knell, ten counts.
        Into the darkness newly fallen
        The cadence calls for a brother lost.

        At home as we try to wash off
        With music and a little loving
        The grime of markets from our souls—
        The day’s trading of truth for bread,
        Masks of honor, guises of peace—
        The clear sounds infusing the air
        Deny us the salve of forgetting.

        We know for what they lost him,
        Why expedient tyrants required
        His name effaced, his bones hidden.
        As we bend over the heads of children
        Fighting sleep, not quite done with play,
        The bells vibrating remind us how
        Our fears conspires to seal his doom.

        We could say to the ringers:
        Your bells won’t bring him back,
        But just supposing that it could,
        What would you have?
        A body maimed, perhaps, beyond belief—
        Toes and fingers gone, teeth missing,
        Tongue cut off, memory hacked witless.

        The nights in our town
        Are flavored with the dread
        The bells salt down measured
        From their tall dark tower.
        It falls upon our raw minds wanting sleep.
        Shall we stop them? Though we smart
        We know they keep us from decay.

        Shared in this keening,
        A rhythm beating all night long
        In our veins, truth is truth still
        Though unworded. The bells
        Count in our blood the heart of all
        We must restore. Tomorrow, we vow,
        Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

Should we forget? The poem already has pointed out, a long time ago, that we have already forgotten. Our ultimate tragedy, beyond the blood and a dictator’s mayhem, is our forgetfulness.


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