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Lest We Forget — Roberto S. Verzola

Lest We Forget — Roberto S. Verzola

Roberto S. Verzola narrates his youthful experience in the National Democratic (Maoist) movement during the years of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. He recounts his capture by the military and subsequent torture. During his imprisonment he learned that the Communist Party of the Philippines was behind the Plaza Miranda Bombing, the event that Marcos used to justify Martial Law and dictatorship.

This has been a particularly difficult piece for me to write. Not only because the events I refer to happened some forty years ago, when I was in my late teens and until my early twenties, but also because the memories are painful to recall.

For years, I had nightmares about those events. These bad dreams usually involved getting the house I was staying in raided by the military, finding myself in prison again for some kind of political offense, or running from my military pursuers with my legs struggling in frustratingly slow motion. In my forties and fifties, the bad dreams came less often, though I still had them occasionally.

As I began to write this piece, however, the bad dreams have come back. Nonetheless, I have forced myself to dig up those long-­buried memories. I hope that by putting them into words and on paper, my children and grandchildren and those of my siblings, as well as some of today's youth and the next generation's, might somehow become curious enough to read these vignettes, and get a rough idea of how it was and what it meant to live under a dictatorship and to be part of a movement fighting against one.

I graduated from the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) in 1969 and entered the University of the Philippines (U.P.) the same year as a scholar of the National Science Development Board (now the Department of Science and Technology). As a U.P. freshman in the Diliman campus, I was relatively unperturbed by the student activism that had begun to draw other members of my batch. In fact, I stayed away from extracurricular activities (unless membership in the Rayadillo Platoon, U.P.'s equivalent of an “honor guard,” counted as one). I never developed the urge to join a frat, and preferred to spend my free time in the Main Library browsing books of all kinds. I couldn't wait for more advanced subjects, and once I was allowed to do so (it must have been in my sophomore year), I immediately cross­-enrolled at the College of Engineering. I used my scholarship money to maintain a home “lab” and dabble in electronics, which had been a hobby since high school. Pampered as an honor student and government scholar, My future seemed secure.

Fate, however, apparently had something else in store for me. A series of small decisions in my sophomore year eventually drew me into the social and political maelstrom that had been gathering strength outside and inside the University.

For a few days in the summer of 1970, I joined a Central Luzon summer exposure trip sponsored by the Nationalist Corps (NC), an activist “school” run by the U.P. Student Council. It was in the rural setting of Nueva Ecija, at the lower foothills of the vast Sierra Madre mountains, that the first stirrings of an activist political consciousness emerged in me. After that exposure trip, I started attending regular NC discussions (where I first heard of “national democracy”), joining rallies, and doing “political work.” In the activist movement, political work roughly means either organizing work or “propaganda” work, with the organizer getting much better respect (I thought so anyway) than the propagandist. I wasn't really very good at the former, so I focused on the latter.

Since I had decided to become a writer for the movement, the next step for me was obvious. I would take the Philippine Collegian examinations for incoming staff. I knew it would be tough and competitive, because better-­established writers, including batch mates whom I admired for their writing prowess even in high school, were also taking the exams. I went to the University Library, asked for the back issues of the Philippine Collegian, and studied past winning editorials. Mentally, I had already conceded the top position to the better writers, so I focused on the pieces of the second and third placers. After the exam, when the final results were finally announced, lo and behold, I got the third place. Reynaldo “Rey” Vea, our batch valedictorian whose writing skills were unquestionably better than mine, took the first place and Eduardo “Ed Gon” Gonzales, a quiet and unassuming fellow and another solid writer, took the second. My being the third placer earned me a Collegian column and later a position as associate editor.

I loved campus journalism. It honed my writing skills, challenged my analytical mind, and gave me a chance to be part of the “movement.” I also got to attend two general assemblies of the College Editors' Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) – in Los Baños, then in Dumaguete, to meet more of my peers. In Los Baños, I met, among others, Leticia “Tish” Pascual, editor of the UPLB school paper, and her future husband, Vic Ladlad, chair of the UPLB student government. Tish would subsequently fall into military hands and disappear, her body never recovered. Other CEGP members would also suffer either death or incarceration, as we campus journalists joined our professional colleagues in wielding our pens against the dictatorship.

I also joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK), UP Chapter, which was the preferred organization among members of our high school batch who had been similarly drawn into the political maelstrom. Rey Vea was chairman of the chapter when I joined, but he was soon replaced by . Mario “Mar” Taguiwalo, another high school batchmate. (Movement leaders were apparently grooming Rey for bigger roles.) Many other PSHS batch mates also joined but as organizers, or artists. I stuck to my role as propagandist for national democracy.

When the SDK leadership decided to form other sectoral organizations, I was assigned to help set up the Samahan ng Progresibong Propagandista (SPP), which focused its recruitment among mass communications (journalism and broadcasting) students. My colleagues in SPP included Jose “Oying” Rimon III, Joaquin “Jack” Teotico, and Jacinto “Jack” Peña. Jack P. disappeared during a trip to Cagayan Valley in the early martial ­law years and is presumed to have died. I also joined the Progresibong Samahan sa Inhinyeriya at Agham (PSIA), whose members were of similar technical bent as I was. Among PSIA's leaders was Victoria “Vicky” Lopez, older sister of my high school batch mate Mariano Lopez. “Rock,” as we fondly called him, would also eventually meet an early death in Cagayan Valley, though his body, like Jack P.'s, would never be recovered.

My political work as a propagandist kept me busy in the context of the intensifying political crisis. The consecutive national elections of 1969, 1970, and 1971 were unique in Philippine political history. In 1969 incumbent President Marcos won a second term through the most brazen use of government resources, armed goons, and electoral manipulation. In 1970 delegates to a convention that would amend the Philippine constitution were elected nationwide, initiating a process of charter change that kept the entire country politically engaged and political nerves increasingly taut. And in 1971 the senatorial and local elections provided a platform for expressing anti­Marcos protest votes, harvested by opposition senatorial candidates who convincingly routed the administration candidates. This string of highly political election years kept the nation in ferment, heightened the political awareness of the public, especially the youth, and gradually brought the cauldron to a boil. While the constitution limited Marcos to two four­-year terms, the ongoing constitutional convention held the promise of an entirely new set of political rules and, with it, a chance for him to stay in power in a different guise. Because ordinary political processes might fail to extend his rule, Marcos increasingly relied on the military command, which he stuffed with people close and loyal to him. It was a race against time: would Marcos's second and final term end before the Con­Con did its work, or would a new constitution allow him to run again, for a chief executive position under a new charter? Things were coming to a head.

As the specter of military rule started to become real, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) launched an ambitious effort to recruit from among radicalized activists like us. In SPP, I was invited to join a secret study group. Although this group did not include some of the formal leaders of SPP, it made most of the major decisions. I would later learn that the group was in fact a party group (PG). With many activists facing the possibility of arrest, the party targeted a seven-­fold growth in members and was awash with candidates for membership. I was one of them.

I also became a writer in the Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP), assisting the head of the propaganda committee and later MDP spokesman Gary Olivar. Gary was a terribly good and very prolific writer. He could sit in front of a ribbon­less typewriter and type manifestos directly into stencil, which went straight to a mimeographing machine, for the tens of thousands of copies that had to be run for distribution at a rally. And these were always well-­crafted pieces. I tried to learn as much as I could from Gary’s style and became good at writing press releases, which I would also personally bring to newspaper offices in Manila towards afternoon.

On August 21, 1971, the Liberal Party rally at Plaza Miranda was bombed, killing several people and almost decimating the LP leadership. Immediately, Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The writ empowers a court to order an arresting officer to bring the arrested before the court for proper judicial trial. With the writ’s suspension, the accused lost their right to a fair trial before a proper judicial body. It basically allowed the military to detain anyone indefinitely. One of the earliest victims of the writ suspension was Gary Olivar. He joined detainees Nilo Tayag and Leoncio Co in Camp Crame and they became symbols of the rapid erosion of civil liberties and the country's slide toward authoritarianism. Aurora “Oyie” Javate took over Gary's role as spokesperson, and I became MDP's main writer. Elisea “Bebet” Gillera became MDP secretary­-general. MDP rallies were now exceeding the 50,000 and 100,000 mark, as what seemed a theoretical possibility was now becoming real. Marcos was, indeed, hell­bent on extending his rule, regardless of constitutional prohibitions.

The Plaza Miranda bombing remains unsolved today. Marcos accused the communists of doing it, though nobody of course believed him. The movement accused Marcos of ordering it and everyone thought so too. The ensuing official investigation produced some suspects, including a sergeant from the military, although the whole investigation process was not too credible. The investigations would eventually be forgotten as the country slid toward martial law. The bombing, however, would eventually haunt the movement as inside stories began to circulate that it was the CPP chairman who actually ordered it.

Sometime in my junior year – after the suspension of the writ and as the country edged toward military rule – the movement, to me, became the Movement, and eventually the Revolution. My distaste for government corruption, my general desire to do good for the poor, and my early commitment to stand by my country rather than adopt a more prosperous one – values I had picked up at the family dinner table and which led me to activism in the first place – were giving way to class consciousness, revolutionary fervor, and communist ideology.

It was a slippery slope, from accepting the necessity of violence to glorifying a strategy of violence and armed struggle. From Marx, I learned about socialism as a dictatorship of the proletariat. From Lenin, I learned about the essential role of a vanguard party – Lenin called it “an organization of professional revolutionaries” – whose job was to create the revolutionary conditions, to initiate a revolution, and to actually bring it to victory. From Mao, I learned about people's war, and the strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside. I still remember how Mao defined democratic centralism – a definition echoed in the CPP constitution. “The part is subordinate to the whole, the lower organ is subordinate to the higher organ, Party members are subordinate to the Central Committee.” In those days, I believed it too.

There was one guy, though, that I could not really swallow, however much I tried. And I tried very hard, really, to look at Stalin – “Comrade Stalin”, the old­timers called him – “80/20” or even “60/40”­style (i.e., more good than bad), as the others did. But deep inside me, no way. I eventually just learned to keep quiet whenever I would hear paeans about how Stalin built socialism in one country, stopped counterrevolution, and swung the Second World War in favor of the Allied forces.

Once, in a conversation, senior Party cadre G. who was also a very good friend, posed some “what if” questions to me. I thought he was testing my loyalty. What if a leader we thought very highly of actually had serious flaws? What if the Party that would lead us to revolution had actually committed a grievous mistake? His probing brought back to my mind the question of Stalin and the most fundamental question of all: what if Party discipline required me to do (or even to think) what my conscience told me was wrong? In fact, G. would tell me later, he was hinting at the Plaza Miranda bombing. The declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972, swept these niggling questions under the rug. We had a dictatorship to fight and a revolution to win. As we entered this dark period of recent Philippine history called the martial law period, my life in the Underground began. I turned twenty in November 1972.

Under martial law, everything changed. Except for government­-run institutions, most media were shut down. Over months, they would reopen one by one but under new management – mostly Marcos cronies – and timid editorial boards under tight censorship watch. The legislative branch,

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particularly the opposition­-dominated Senate, remained closed. With the opposition and the media effectively silenced, a pall of fear and uneasy quiet fell on the population.

In the first few weeks of martial law, I spent my time shuttling among relatives, mostly aunts and uncles who didn't have my father's or mother's surnames. Most have now passed away, but I still recall with fondness and gratitude today their love and unquestioning welcome. They became my personal support system, after I cut the umbilical cord with my parents, for their own safety as well as mine. It was a cardinal rule in the Underground: stay away from your immediate family.

In the meantime, I kept in touch with comrades, while we all tried to settle down into our new routines, test the waters under the new regime, and resume political work under much more difficult conditions.

I was part of a group that consisted mostly of journalists and writers. Some worked on the underground newsletter Liberation, which was in English and was distributed among the “middle forces,” or what we also called the “united front” (UF). I was assigned to a team that worked on another underground newsletter in Pilipino, which we called Taliba ng Bayan. On the masthead, we put the ubiquitous “Ipasa pagkabasa” (“Pass on after reading”). We fondly called it Taba (as in “fat”). I became Vic Taba (“Fat Vic”). I would smile to myself, imagining the military looking vainly for a fat guy who worked for an underground newspaper.

We stayed in an “underground (UG) house,” a rented apartment which served as both our living quarters and our work place. We had to establish our legal cover so that the house owner would not suspect anything. After a few months, our group had become too big, so the Liberation staff (which included senior journalist Antonio Zumel) and Taba set up separate UG houses.

For almost two years, I was part of the group that published Taliba ng Bayan. Early on, we found a friendly printer, Mauricio “Jun” Suarez Jr., who was willing to print the newsletter for us (spread out, it was slightly larger than two sheets of bond paper). He actually remodeled a room in his Pasig house to conceal a chamber that had enough working space for one worker, the offset printer, a camera, and miscellaneous equipment for making the printing plates. The first issue that came out of Jun's setup was the first Taliba ng Bayan issue that was not mimeographed but rather printed in offset, as professional newspapers were. It was beautiful. Our goal was to come out twice a month, and we generally did.

Some highly respected writers, journalists and artists today were Taliba ng Bayan staffers. I can mention one who has since passed away: Bayani “Bads” Abadilla, poet, writer, and good friend. It was a rare privilege to have worked with men and women like them; I entrusted my life to them, and they their lives to me. The story of Taliba ng Bayan has not been told in full yet. Perhaps someday it will be. After me came others who carried on the tradition, the goals, and the work. I recently learned that a high school batch mate, Florencio “Jun” Montalbo Jr., would also take his turn at leading the staff that published this newspaper.

Our circulation ranged from three to five thousand copies per issue. I don't remember if we ever reached ten thousand. (Jun Suarez would know, but he died of colon cancer a few years ago.) We split the copies among the regions, the territorial districts of Manila­Rizal, the trade unions (“TU”), and the united front (“UF”).

During one delivery run to a UG house, I was using a borrowed car driven by a cousin I had asked to drive for me (I had no driver's license). A bundle of Taliba ng Bayan copies were in the trunk. As we approached the house, I noticed a crowd gathered around it. As we got nearer, I realized to my horror that it was actually a raiding team! I whispered to my cousin to keep driving. Since he hadn't slowed down yet and wisely kept his speed even as we passed the house, and the raiders were probably too focused on their target, we went by unnoticed. The major catch in that raid, I would learn later, was Rigoberto Tiglao, tagged by the military as the head of the Manila­Rizal Committee of the CPP.

Brief moments of terror such as these punctuated the days of routine work that any typical newspaper required.

We also began to work on training more writers and building a network of correspondents who would send us reports and stories. Isolated reports of spontaneous as well as planned “lightning rallies” against the dictatorship were coming in. As the economy got worse, people were starting to complain. Fear was giving way to bitterness, and defiance was not far behind. Our role as a newspaper was to keep stoking the fire against one­man rule, to generate the mass consciousness that would eventually turn into protest actions against the dictatorship.

We knew that the military would be looking for us, so we didn't stay too long in one UG house. We tended to move every six months or less. Whenever we detected any indications of surveillance or unusual questions from the owner, we looked for another place. On one or two occasions, we had to abandon a house quickly when we felt a raid was imminent. Military intelligence was looking for these interconnected UG houses. If they found one and could force information out of their captives, this would lead them to another house and more potential sources of information.

In the Underground, we had a rule: if someone misses an appointment and remains unaccounted for, all the houses whose locations he knew should be abandoned within twenty­four hours, in case he broke down under torture and betrayed his comrades. The rule had an unspoken corollary, which I was always uncomfortable with: that if the military got you and you were tortured, give your comrades at least twenty­four hours, then you can give in to the torture. I had pored over Rizal's Noli, and my model of behavior under torture was Basilio, son of Sisa, who died with his lips sealed.

On October 4, 1974, I was in a meeting with members of the Manila­Rizal Committee in a UG house in Valenzuela, Bulacan, a town just north of Manila. With me in the house were Julius Fortuna, Roger Tan, his wife, and a courier. We were worried because another member of the Committee, who headed the TU work of MR, was already hours late for the meeting. Julius was especially worried because an ice cream vendor had meanwhile positioned himself in front of the house and was acting suspiciously. Julius called our attention to the matter.

It was too late.

I was just emerging from one of the two rooms in the rented bungalow when armed men broke into the door and I found myself face to face with a gun. Julius had rushed out to the back door but they were also waiting for him. A member of the raiding team must have been too excited, and a gunshot echoed within the closed walls of the concrete house. The bullet chipped a tile but no one was hit. I felt myself freeze and blanch before the muzzles pointed at my face. Shouts of “Down! Down!” brought me to my senses and I lay face down on the floor, as the raiding team settled down to identify the captives. Their biggest catch was Julius, well­-known youth leader, secretary­-general of the pre­-martial law Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP), former secretary of the Youth and Students Bureau of the CPP, and currently secretary of the Manila­Rizal Regional Party Committee. The raiding team had taken the UG house of the MR Executive Committee. The net also caught me (but not the courier). I was one month short of my twenty­-second birthday.

Aboard the military van, I kept reviewing the story I would tell my military captors. The interrogation would be a race against time. They had twenty-­four hours to extract from a captive information that would lead them to another UG house. If they were lucky, one UG house would lead them to others, and they would get an entire network in a string of raids before anyone realized what was happening. The UG movement's term for this was “sunog” (fire), when a raid on one UG house resulted in raids on others. Whether this particular “sunog” would spread on or die out depended on the information the captors could extract from their captives.

The trip to the military camp seemed short. We were taken to the headquarters of the Intelligence Service AFP (ISAFP). I was briefly asked a few questions by the raiding team's commanding officer, Captain __ Esguerra. I gave him my real name, told my Story, and asked to be put in touch with my parents. He must have found the Story incredible because I got a “pompiyang” from him (a strong, simultaneous slap on both sides of my head with his two palms, which made my ears ring and hurt). Esguerra then turned me over to other members of his team, who took me to a small room for further interrogation.

Of all the body blows, I found it hardest to deal with those to the solar plexus. Exhale all the air in your lungs. Then force more air out – twice, three times – until you can squeeze nothing more out of your lungs. Hold your breath as long as you can. Now try to breathe in. If you somehow cannot, that's how it feels to get well-­placed blows to the solar plexus. It leaves you gasping for breath, for air that won't come because of the cramp on your diaphragm. The physical pain of fists hitting skin, muscles ,and bones recedes to the background, until it's just you and the air that won't come. (I wonder if Sisa's Basilio felt the same, hung upside down and dunked into a well?)

Three, perhaps four, men were coming at me with their fists and occasional kicks. Fists hit me on the chest, back, sides, and of course the solar plexus area of the abdomen. After watching me gasp for breath, they would let me catch some, then ask the questions. Essentially, they wanted from me names and addresses. I would give my name and home address, and start with the Story. Then the blows would come again. I told them that when I wasn't home, I stayed with uncles and aunts. They then wanted my uncle's address. More body blows. Esguerra peeks into the room and asks his men, “Anything?” They shake their heads, “Sir, ayaw ibigay yung bahay ng uncle daw nya, e!” (“He doesn't want to reveal the house of his supposed uncle.”) Esguerra reminds them, “Tactical, tactical!” I took that to mean he wanted them to focus on the tactical interrogation objective, which was to trace the network of UG houses. Raiding my parents' or any relative's home would have given away the information that I was already in military hands, and wouldn't net them any UG house.

I don't really remember how long it took. An hour or two, perhaps more. Probably less than what it seemed to me. At one point, when I felt I was about give in (the bone of contention was still my uncle's home address), I told myself to last a little longer. A few seconds more, a few minutes more. No, not yet. Then they would pause for the questions. And we'd go one more round. Subconsciously, I felt that giving away my uncle's address would be giving away nothing at all. It would, on the other hand, inform my relatives and subsequently my parents that I was in military hands. And that information might protect me from a worse fate. But then I didn't want to impose on my uncle and my aunt the terror of getting raided in their home. My frustrated interrogators probably did not realize it, but they were testing not my loyalty to the Movement, but my filial love for Auntie Orang, a cousin of my father, and her husband Uncle Domeng, who gave me sanctuary in the earliest days of martial law when I had nowhere to go.

I felt numb and totally exhausted when I was finally put inside a jail cell, which was in the same building where I was interrogated. In a way I was lucky. I was a junior catch. The interrogators were focused on Roger, Julius, and their prize catch, number two in the communist hierarchy, CPP secretary­ general Monico “Nick” Atienza. If they spent their time tracing up instead of down, Nick's household could lead them to an even bigger catch, the chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines who, the military said, was Jose Maria Sison.

Before dawn came, captives trickled into the jail cell one by one. Onie __ (tall, fair­ complexioned, square-­jawed, with a lilting Ilonggo accent), Roger, Julius, Agapito “Ka Pitong” Medina, Nick, and one or two more. In the other cell was Nick's wife, tall and frail Edith Sangalang. Nick wasn't himself. He appeared really disraught and harassed. I would learn later that the military's preferred mode for him was the “truth serum” (sodium pentothal), which was supposed to make captives talk. Could an overdose of “truth serum” lead to psychotic problems in the victim? Nick thought we were out to kill him, so he was moved to the other cell, to be with Edith. Nick's condition would subsequently worsen and he would be taken to the V. Luna General Hospital for treatment and, possibly, further interrogation.

Ironically, I felt relief inside the jail cell. It seemed like a haven because it meant I wasn't under interrogation. When a guard opened the cell and called out a name, our hearts would leap. It meant somebody was being taken for further interrogation and possible torture. My relief at not being called would only be tempered with concern for those whose names were called. I was tense but safe in the Haven.Sometime in the afternoon, still within the critical twenty-­four hour period after our arrest, my name was called. I braced myself for another round of interrogation. It was Esguerra and a few more officers. I repeated my Story, which no one believed, of course. So they made me do a “squat jump.” With one foot forward and the other back, you squat first, then jump as high as you can, falling with the other foot forward. Then you jump again, for as many times as you can. Until I could barely stand. No body contact at all. Esguerra told me, “O hindi yan torture ha! (See, that's no torture!) We do that to PMA cadets all the time!” Well, I'll take the “squat jump” over blows to the solar plexus anytime. After the session, my legs hurt so much and I couldn't walk by myself. Two men had to assist me on the way back.

But I was not going back to the ISAFP jail cell. I was being “borrowed” by another intelligence unit for further interrogation. ISAFP had its methods; Metrocom intelligence had its own. Metrocom was the Metropolitan Command of the Philippine Constabulary (PC), headed then by Gen. Fidel Ramos. Lieutenant __ Garcia of the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) took me to Camp Panopio along EDSA near the PC headquarters. He made a perplexing comment which made sense only later, “So, you're taking up electrical engineering!”

The MISG office was bigger than the ISAFP office I saw. It was longish, and the middle served as an aisle separating a row of perhaps eight to ten tables. I was taken to the far corner, on the right. With Garcia was a senior officer whose name escapes me now. After the usual questions, I told them the Story. They didn't believe me. They gave me paper and time to write my personal background and history in the movement. Same Story. Then they brought in the Machine. Two lengths of wire extended from it, both ending with bare wire, the insulation stripped. One end was tied around the handle of a spoon. The Machine is a field telephone generator. It has a wheel with a handle. The wheel turns a dynamo, which generates electricity that causes a distant telephone to ring. An operator at the distant end picks up the phone, and the two ends can talk. The field generator probably generates forty to sixty volts and, if turned really fast, may give as high as ninety volts or even more. The standard house wiring in the Philippines is 220 volts. In the U.S. it is 110. My interrogators tied the end of one wire around my right index finger and inserted the spoon into my pants, on my right waist, until it rested where the leg meets the lower abdomen, near the crotch. My body would complete the circuit.

When I was young, I used to watch my uncles and older cousins as they slaughtered a pig. As soon as the pig realized something bad was going to happen, it would shriek for dear life. It was a grating shriek of helplessness, desperation, and terror, one that rang in your mind long after the pig was dead. It was that kind of scream that issued from my throat every time my torturers spun the wheel around. It was totally involuntary, the automatic response of a body invaded by an alien current of a thousand spikes snaking through one's cells and nerves. I could stifle it no more than I could stop my hand from jerking away when shocked briefly by live house wiring.

Across the aisle were two civilian Metrocom employees. They were women, apparently on overtime. They went on with their work, as if they heard or saw nothing. Business as usual. No sign of surprise or concern. Metrocom apparently used the electric shock treatment often enough to make its civilian employees inured to screams.

Since it was mid­ to late afternoon by the time we got to the Metrocom headquarters, I knew that my twenty­four­hour margin was almost up. I had already missed several meetings. Within twenty­ four hours, houses whose locations I knew would be abandoned. In those twenty­four hours, I had forced myself to forget all the names and aliases I had ever heard in the underground. (As a consequence, my memory of people's names has been bad ever since.) I also realized that the smallest information the MISG got from me now would only lead to more questions and further interrogation. And if I gave some more, then they would want even more, and the torture would not stop until I had given all. So I'd have to spill all, or nothing. At this time, they were still asking me details about the story I had made up. And we all knew that this was leading to a dead end.

Eventually, they moved the spoon's position so that it now cupped my genitals. The senior officer had become so exasperated by this time that he spun the wheel really hard, earning them a particularly bad case of screaming. He admonished me, “Ang hirap sa iyo, alam mo na, na alam namin, na nagsisinungaling ka, ipinipilit mo pa rin ang istorya mo! Kaya pala Obet ang pangalan mo, e. Obstinate ka! (“The problem with you is, you know that we know that you are telling us lies. Yet, you insist on your story! So that's why your name is Obet. You're obstinate!” I thought back: Well, it’s all or nothing. Whether my twenty­-four hours are up or not yet, I choose nothing.

Spin a wheel. All or nothing?

Nothing. Like Basilio.

When they escorted me to my cell, I was utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally. But I was at peace with myself.

A day after, the jailers brought in a new detainee. It was Jun Suarez, who handled the printing of Taliba ng Bayan! I stared at him, unbelieving. I was never even asked about it, so how did they trace him? Apparently, Jun's wife, who was a journalist, was under suspicion and placed under surveillance. That led the military to their home, where Jun kept the printing paraphernalia. So, the “sunog” (series of raids) was still raging.

One or two nights after that, we were telling each other stories to pass the time and distract ourselves from the tension. Onie was telling us about his girlfriend, who had broken up with him, a real sob story. Then it was the turn of somebody else, who ended up telling us about his girl too. After he gave a detailed description, Onie's ears perked up. He was suddenly curious. Then Onie asked, pointing to his face, “Did she have a mole here?” Silence. When it dawned on us that he thought that was his girlfriend, we all spontaneously erupted into hard, long, boisterous, tearful laughter. As the laughter rolled on and on, we sensed that the tone had gradually shifted, and it was now directed at our jailers. As it died down, someone shouted a defiant, “'Tang 'na 'nyo!” (cuss words are the same in any language, aren't they?) That triggered another round of even more boisterous, intentionally louder laughter, directed this time at more than our jailers. It sounded like we wanted the whole camp – no, the whole city – to hear our taunts. In the darkest days of martial rule in the Philippines, inside a cramped jail cell in a military camp that housed captives with battered bodies, unbroken human spirits proclaimed their freedom and flaunted their defiance of dictatorship with contemptuous laughter at their military captors and the authoritarian system that jailed them. I slept well that night.

After nearly two weeks in ISAFP, we were finally transferred to a regular detention center for political prisoners, Ipil Rehabilitation Center (IRC). I had looked forward to the transfer. No visits were allowed in ISAFP; in Ipil, relatives could visit regularly.

Unlike ISAFP, Ipil had the ambiance of a dormitory. Around a hundred detainees lived like a small community. As long as the detainees didn't cause any trouble, the guards basically left them alone. Nobody worried anymore about interrogation. The detainees read books and magazines, made handicrafts, played ball games, tended vegetable gardens, cooked their own meals, entertained frequent visitors, and basically kept themselves busy. Doing so also kept away the dreaded “buryong,” the boredom syndrome that afflicts detainees once in a while, making them moody and quarrelsome, they become frustrated awaiting release from prison.

If I can't seem to identify myself with Ipil detainees, that's because I didn't stay there long enough to enjoy its “amenities.” In less than a week, I was called to the detention center office, told to pack my things, and taken to another intelligence unit, the dreaded 5th CSU, for further interrogation. I had heard horror stories about the 5th CSU, its ruthless commanding officer, Colonel Miguel Aure, and the emotionally volatile Lieutenant Rodolfo Aguinaldo. Now I was being taken there for interrogation. Among my interrogators were Captain Cecilio Penilla, Lieutenants Victor Batac, and Rodolfo Aguinaldo, and __ Manlulu.

Until then, I had no idea that a soft­drink bottle could be used for torture. I was made to squat inside a room with the air conditioner fully turned on, and the session began. What I got were not the hard body blows that I had endured in ISAFP, but sharp taps on my limbs with a soft­drink bottle. These taps were unlike the jarring shock of a chest blow or the asphyxiating cramp of an upper cut to the solar plexus. They brought instead a gradually growing numbness that became an ache that grew sharper as muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone began to get sore and the nerves on the skin became even more sensitive to pain. The taps weren't done in a hurry. In fact, they came at a deliberate pace. Starting with the left upper arm, gradually going down to the elbow and the forearm. And then the right upper arm. Then the legs, one at a time. The knees, and the shins, finally. Have you ever bumped your knee or shin into a hard object? Remember, that was a single bump.

The taps were interrupted by the usual interrogator's questions. This time, however, they were not tactical questions, and there was no hurry. It had been more than two weeks since my arrest. The UG houses I knew had long been abandoned. My interrogators fielded more strategic questions. What was my exact position? What exactly did I do? In what unit? What did I know about this or that person? I stuck to the Story, and the soft­drink treatment went on.

When they finally gave up on me, I was so sore I could hardly move. I ached like I had never ached before, to the bone. Reddish blotches had started to erupt all over my limbs, which soon turned bluish­violet and then almost black. Parts of my arms and legs had literally turned black and blue from the beating. Dark blotches would remain visible almost two months later. When the blotches became unnoticeable, I was allowed to have visitors.

My 5th CSU torturers would subject me to a similar treatment one more time, after a few days. They knew it was pointless, but they did it anyway.

There was no jail cell for me. They assigned me to a table – a regular office table which no one apparently used. This would be my living and sleeping quarters for more than two months. When I sat at my table as an office worker would, on my left was a shoulder­-high long divider that separated my table and the row of tables behind me from an aisle which led to Colonel Aure's office. The other end of this aisle, which I faced when I sat at the table, led to what appeared like a side entrance. In front of me, two more tables separated me from another aisle, which toward the right led to the main entrance to the building and toward the left led to a big armory that housed more 5th CSU detainees. On my right was another row of tables and then some rooms. The room directly across to my right had served as my torture chamber. Above the door into that room hung a wall clock. Chow came three times a day. At night, I lined up three chairs for my bed. I would spend the cold months of November and December of 1974 here.

I had no blanket. The cold nights were particularly hard because my sore muscles and bones would ache so much that I couldn't sleep. The pain would often rouse me at two or three in the morning. And I'd lie awake on particularly bad episodes, gritting my teeth or moaning from the pain, until morning and warmth came.

Boredom was a big problem. Before I learned to deal with it, I would literally watch the minutes go by, and mark the progress of each hand of the clock as the time passed, from breakfast, to lunch, to five o'clock. I never knew time could move that slowly. One day I realized I had a few coins left in my pocket. I managed to fold bond paper into an 8 x 8 grid that could pass for a chessboard. With different coins serving for various chess pieces, I tried to work out all the end­game problems I could remember. King vs. King and Rook (easy), King vs. King and Bishop (impossible), King vs. King and two Bishops (easy but takes longer), King vs Bishop and Knight (possible but hard), King vs two Knights (I didn't think it could be done), and so on. Once I had solved a problem, I would do it again and again until I had committed the whole thing to memory. Some guards thought I had gone crazy.

One day an intelligence officer took an interest in my coins.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I'm playing chess,” I said. He looked at the coins again.

“You play chess?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

So, he got a real chessboard with real chess pieces, pulled a chair across my table, and Lt. Billy Bibit challenged me to a chess game.

“Sure,” I said. “Thank you,” my mind added.

Chess books say that the best way to improve your game is to practise with a better player. When Lieutenant Bibit lost that first game, he was hooked. With the occasional games, time passed a little faster for me.

Lieutenant Aguinaldo frowned on those games. I once overhead him mutter, “Ha! Giving aid and comfort to the enemy!” Another time, in the middle of a particularly hard­fought game, Aguinaldo suddenly called out, “Verzola!” I looked up. He was along the aisle to my left, behind Billy Bibit. I realized he was holding a gun. He aimed the gun at me, squinted, and pulled the trigger. As it hit me on my left chest, my heart stopped beating. Aguinaldo cackled; the projectile was a pencil.

I went back to the game. Bibit didn't even look up.

Although boredom was still a problem, I knew that the interrogation was winding down. My interrogators had lost interest in me. Sooner or later, I hoped I would be moved to a regular detention center. Throughout my confinement, I held a remote hope that I would be moved back to Ipil and freed from the day­to­day fear of interrogation and possibly torture anytime. But it wasn't meant to be. I was instead moved to the main 5th CSU detention area inside the armory, with the rest of the 5th CSU detainees. I spent more than one year in the hands of the 5th CSU. Others would be there longer.

Prison life at the 5th CSU was far more tense and pressured than it had ever been at Ipil. When I arrived in Ipil, five prisoners had just escaped and security precautions were then at their strictest. Yet, because there was no threat of interrogation or torture, the atmosphere within the detention center was far more relaxed than a typical day at the 5th CSU, where military intelligence held us and could subject us to harassment, interrogation, and even occasional torture anytime. Whenever the unit conducted raids and brought in a new batch of captives, some of us would be taken out of our cells and again questioned about certain individuals or documents.

No reading materials were allowed. No radio or TV. Immediate family members, usually limited to two, were allowed to visit, once a week, for a brief period.

Ten minutes. When I was in solitary at the 5th CSU office, ten minutes took six hundred individual seconds to pass. I would watch the second hand on the wall clock move slowly a quarter minute at a time, until it made one round. Then I'd watch its slow progress again until it made a second round. Yet, after ten of these excruciatingly slow rounds, not even a quarter of an hour would have passed. But a ten­-minute visit seemed to fly. My father and my mother would sit across me at a small office table, while an intelligence agent sat to our side, listening to everything. Even so, we savored these visits and the small talk. When the ten­-minute visit was cut short by a guard, I would instinctively know we were short by one or two minutes, and I would complain to the guard. But my parents would assure me it was okay and acquiesce by standing up, concerned, I'm sure, that complaining might make matters worse for me.

A converted armory with thick concrete walls, our prison cells were meant to store guns, not to keep detainees. Roughly ten feet by ten feet, a cell would have four, perhaps five double-­deck metal cots. If there were not too many inmates in a cell, only the lower levels would be occupied. My first cell mates were Jose “Pete” Lacaba (multi-awarded writer and poet, who would later stand as godfather to my son Antonio) and Teodorico “Jun” Ramirez (who would become mayor of Maragondon, Cavite, during the Cory Aquino administration).

The cell had one small window with iron grills. It was around two feet by two feet, too high up to reach. This was our only window to the sky, exactly as the prison song described, “Munting pisngi ng langit ang tanging nasisilip.” (“A tiny piece of sky to stare at.”) Opposite it was the huge door to the cell. The solid steel door was shut from the outside and locked with a big horizontal iron bolt that had a curved vertical tail for a handle. Held by its tail, the bolt slid on two metal rings into a short, thick cylinder welded on the door jamb which held it in locked position. The guards locked the big steel door every night, making a characteristic pattern of metallic screeches and clangs that marked for us the end of each day. We had no toilet facilities inside the cells or the detention hall itself, so we each kept a personal can for our urinal and emergency toilet facility. The cell doors were opened in the morning and kept open throughout the day, so on the corridor between the two long rows of cells, the twenty or so detainees in the facility could socialize. Once a day we would be allowed to go outside the building and access a toilet where we could dump the contents of our cans, fetch some drinking water from a faucet, and get a little sunlight – “sunning,” we called it. On red alerts, which could last a few days, these once-­a­-day occasions to go out were cancelled.

We spent most of our time talking to each other or thinking to ourselves. Once we were talking about food and what our first sumptuous meal outside prison would be. One thing led to another and soon some were imagining how things would be if we had won victory and our torturers had fallen into our hands. And I still remember the kind of torture some said they reserved for their torturers. To me, it was just imagination running wild to pass the time and I thought nothing of it. Some Party leaders and followers, it would turn out, did have in them the capacity to inflict such torture when their turn came.

At the 5th CSU, the detainees included several top-­ranking leaders of the Central Committee of the CPP. Among my prison mates were men who, the military said, had smuggled arms into the country using the ships MV Karagatan and MV Doña Andrea. It was here where I was introduced to the second woman in the Party chairman's life, and learned about their child. So within the party, the rank­and­file suffered severe punishment for sexual opportunism, as it was called, but the chairman's indiscretions were tolerated? It was in the 5th CSU where I learned that the chairman spent most of his time in UG houses, unlike his role model, Mao Tse­tung, who stayed with his constantly harassed guerrilla forces in the Chinese countryside.

It was in the 5th CSU where I first heard it told and confirmed that the Party chairman had secretly ordered the Plaza Miranda bombing. This information was not forcibly extracted but freely volunteered to us by conscience-­stricken Party leaders in prison who were in the midst of their own soul­-searching, perhaps suffering from pangs of guilt that the confessions helped ease. Kumander Dante (Bernabe Buscayno, then commander-in­-chief of the New People's Army), I learned, was not part of the group that planned it. And Dante supposedly shed tears when he learned about the Party's role. I did too. When I came across these revelations in 1975, I was not even twenty-­three years old yet.

Due to the inhumane prison conditions in the 5th CSU, we would subsequently launch a hunger strike to demand some reforms, with support from the outside by our immediate families and a group of nuns led by the fearless Sister Marianni Dimaranan. The support group of nuns and other religious would later become the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP). Some representatives of Amnesty International would also visit us and document some cases of torture. Despite the hunger strike, conditions at the 5th CSU would barely ease. Only with our eventual transfer to a new detention center, Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig, Rizal, would 5th CSU inmates like me taste the relative autonomy of “normal” detention life. My 5th CSU prison ordeal lasted for more than a year.

Something good came out my years in prison, though. It was in the 5th CSU where I met fellow detainee Flora Valencia­Glor, a transferee from Camp Vicente Lim, Laguna, and my future wife. We would have two children.

The transfer from the 5th CSU Detention Center in Camp Crame to the Camp Bagong Diwa Detention Center in Bicutan, Taguig, Rizal, about an hour south of Manila, gave me a taste of life in a regular detention center. But not for long. After we launched a hunger strike in Bicutan to demand better conditions and the release of nursing mothers and some women, the military would transfer me again, along with others, to Stockade 4, back in Camp Crame, then subsequently back to Bicutan again. I would eventually get what was called a “temporary release” in March 1977, after two and a half years in prison. Released with me were ___ Abreu and Abrino “Abring” Aydinan of Hungduan, Ifugao, who later became the Cordillera director of Agrarian Reform. Within a few months, military agents would again pick me up from home, take me away from my wife Flora and our baby daughter Cecille, and throw me back in prison for no apparent reason. I would spend six more months in Camp Bagong Diwa – no torture this time – before getting a second “temporary release” that required another year or so of monthly reporting to a military camp.

After prison, I sought more information about the Plaza Miranda bombing. Here's the gist of the non­denial by a former secretary­-general (I am told) of the Party.

Me: “Totoo ba yung Plaza Miranda?” (“Is it true about Plaza Miranda?”)

Him, laughing uneasily: “A, yun? Aba, hindi ko alam yan! Wala akong kinalaman diyan!” (“Oh, that? Hey, I don't know anything about it! I had nothing to do with it!”)

Here's an indirect confirmation from a lower-­ranking official.

Me: “Totoo ba yung Plaza Miranda?” (“Is it true about Plaza Miranda?”)

Him: “Isipin mo, boks, ginugunita pa ba ang Plaza Miranda bombing sa AB?” (“Think about it, man, is the Plaza Miranda bombing still commemorated in AB?” “AB” is Ang Bayan, the official newsletter of the CPP.)

Among Party insiders, if you ask about “Plaza Miranda,” they know right away what you are referring to. In fact, the topic apparently cropped up so often that they even had a code word for it, “PM” or “PMB.” And I've never gotten from those who were in a position to know an outraged denial, only confirmations, non­denials and sheepish “retractions”.

The Plaza Miranda revelations were a watershed for me. So, the Party had been telling us lies. And I had echoed the lies too, recalling the pieces on the Plaza Miranda bombing I had written in the Philippine Collegian, Taliba ng Bayan, and elsewhere. What if, on the basis of those lies, I had managed to convince people to join the struggle and these people died along the way? I was mortified. I was wracked with questions and doubts. Although I would not immediately renounce my commitment to the national democratic movement, fundamental questions would flood back and I would replay in my mind all the internal debates many times. I would retrace all the arguments between me and myself, as I gradually abandoned the distaste for corruption, the urge to do good to others, and the commitment to stay with my country – which I picked up from my parents – for class struggle, revolutionary violence and dictatorship of the proletariat. I realized that in trying to convince myself into, then out of, and then back to positions that would be considered “correct” at one time and “wrong” at another, depending on what the “higher organ” or ultimately, the Central Committee declared as “truth”, I was losing my own sense of right and wrong and allowing someone else's to dictate it to me. It would take not months but years of self­-cleansing, guided by nothing but my own conscience, before I could again face the world with confidence in my own system of beliefs.

In my mind, these events are inseparably intertwined: the Plaza Miranda bombing and Marcos' suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; my radicalization through a series of street protests and my subsequent embrace of the communist ideology; Marcos' imposition of martial law and my subsequent life as an underground activist; my eventual arrest, torture and imprisonment; and, finally, the secret admission by imprisoned communist leaders of the Party's role in the Plaza Miranda bombing.

I had gone a full circle.

The tortures I went through were part of a trail of torture, disappearances, executions, and murder that the Marcos dictatorship left. For our generation that went through the horrors of martial law, this was common knowledge, especially because the post­dictatorship president, Cory Aquino, was herself the wife of one of its victims. But when Gloria Macapagal­Arroyo, following Marcos's footsteps, was on the verge of imposing full military rule to cover up her own brand of corruption, yet not enough crowds formed to kick her out, I realized that subsequent generations never really knew what it meant to live under a dictatorship. What they read in history textbooks are just classroom topics to them, and often sanitized accounts at that. They have no memories of dictatorship, so there is nothing to forget. Unlike me, they don't have marks on their bodies, bad dreams at night, or friends who died in the prime of youth to remind them.

This piece is my contribution to the collective memory of that period, so that we may never forget.

But there is a much lesser known trail of torture, disappearances, execution, and murder that we must not forget either.

The Plaza Miranda bombing, if indeed the CPP ordered it, as some of its repentant leaders voluntarily confessed to prison mates like me, was just a minor preview. I didn't realize then how much worse it could get. But, in fact, it did. Purges had happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin, in China under Mao, in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and possibly elsewhere too, when communists were already in power. In the late 1980s, before they had even won power, those who professed belief in national democracy and wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat in the Philippines prefaced their mission with an internal purge. This purge left nearly a thousand or so of their own members and followers dead – after a horrible ordeal of interrogation, torture, and eventually, execution in the hands of their own comrades. Robert Francis Garcia's heart­-wrenching book, To Suffer Thy Comrades, is a first­hand account of such an ordeal in the hands of the communist party and its military arm, as this piece is a personal account of torture in the hands of the Marcos military. I extend my hand in solidarity to these other victims and their families.

In a way, we who suffered under Marcos are better off. Many of our dead are honored at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a monument to martial ­law martyrs and heroes, and their families stand proud. Some would claim and get a share, however small, of the Marcos wealth. Today the victims of the CPP purges remain mostly nameless, as do their torturers and executioners. Identifying the guilty is confusingly bound with Party in­fighting and internal ideological struggles, with the victors writing the movement's history and deciding who would become its heroes and villains. The victims' families mourn mostly among themselves, unsure of the details surrounding the victims' deaths, unable to prosecute the shadowy figures behind the Party's purges, or perhaps hesitant to put in a bad light the movement that their loved ones had served so selflessly to the very end of their young lives. The glory of these young lives lived in struggle against dictatorship is incongruously marred by their heart­ rending deaths, at times under torture, in the name of the national democratic struggle.

Those of us still living, who carry the marks of torture, who suffer the nightmares, who grieve for our loved ones murdered by these two faces of dictatorship, or who have never even found their bodies, leaving us in limbo and without closure for the rest of our lives, must put these events on record so that others will not forget. Future generations, when themselves faced with a non­reversible choice between one dictatorship and another, or between dictatorships and non­dictatorships, must know the tortures and murders that some political systems or their polar opposites are capable of inflicting, even among their own.

When we of this generation go, our memories should not leave the world with us. No, we must never forget.

These events caused my acquired structure of beliefs to unravel and forced me to search deep within my soul for a new set of core values. When I finally emerged from years of soul­-searching, I would stay on as a social reformer, subsequently become an ecological activist, and eventually focus on positive advocacies. I would acquire a deep distrust for advocates of systematic violence, centralized power and monothitic mindsets and would embrace non­violence, decentralism and diversity as core values.

Today, I work with colleagues in promoting ecological and income-­enhancing methods among farmers and helping them adapt old and new technologies to their changing needs, a farmer at a time, a family at a time, a neighborhood at a time. With the ecological crisis compounding our economic problems, the country and the world needs change badly, more than ever.

This too, we must never forget.

Roberto S. Verzola
10 May 2012

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kasama_libsoc
May 27 2020 09:56

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  • So, the Party had been telling us lies. And I had echoed the lies too, recalling the pieces on the Plaza Miranda bombing I had written in the Philippine Collegian, Taliba ng Bayan, and elsewhere.

    Roberto S. Verzola

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