Awaiting the bells’ return
True to form, the incorrigible Mocha Uson was quick to try to make political hay out of the electrifying news that the United States, after over a century of resistance, has decided to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.
The development, Uson implied in an online post, was because it was one of the “demands” of President Duterte.
Indeed, the President, in his second State of the Nation Address in July 2017, bluntly told the US government to return the bells to the Philippines.
It was a reiteration of a call that had been regularly made by the Philippine government since the Ramos administration in the 1990s, but one that was just as regularly rejected by veteran American servicemen and officials in Wyoming, where two of the bells are displayed as war booty at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne.
Another bell is at the Ninth Infantry Regiment base in Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
But the recent statement by the US Embassy in Manila confirming the news of the bells’ return made no mention of the move as a response to any formal diplomatic action on the part of the Duterte administration, only that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had notified the US Congress that the Pentagon planned to return the bells to the Philippines.
In addition, according to the embassy’s deputy press attaché, Trude Raizen, “We’ve received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve.”
The mention of the Catholic Church is telling. The Diocese of Borongan, Samar, has, in fact, done the yeoman’s job of ceaselessly campaigning for the return of the bells of Balangiga, a town that falls under its jurisdiction.
On a Facebook post rebuking Uson’s claims, Andiy Egargo, a priest from Borongan, made clear that the development was largely the fruit of the efforts of the local bishop and his American counterparts.
“The Diocese of Borongan has been tirelessly working for the return of the bells,” he said. “Bishop Leonardo Medroso has had meetings with his counterpart in Wyoming ironing out legal, diplomatic and emotional hurdles (especially on the part of the veterans and their families). The return of the bells is a product of years of decent and rational diplomacy, especially on the part of the Bishop of Borongan and the decision makers (on the part of America).”
The parish of Balangiga, Eastern Samar, was established in 1859; its first bell was cast in 1863 and the third bell arrived in 1895.
Those bells assumed tremendous historic significance when at least one of them was tolled to signal a surprise attack by
Filipino fighters on Company C of the Ninth US Infantry Regiment, while the Americans were having breakfast in Balangiga on Sept. 28, 1901.
Some 48 Americans were killed and 22 injured, while the Filipinos captured 100 rifles. The Filipino attackers, armed mainly with bolos, had dressed as women attending church services to fool the American occupiers. The rout is considered one of the worst American military losses in history.
What happened after became one of the signal atrocities of that era.
Gen. Jacob H. Smith sent his forces into Samar with the instructions to kill every Filipino male over 10 years old — and to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness.”
His orders: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.”
The ensuing carnage became known as the Balangiga massacre; the Americans carted off the three bells as totems of their victory. The larger war for independence against America would kill over a million Filipinos.
Thus, as Rep. Raul Daza, a relative of a Filipino guerrilla who led the attack on US forces in Balangiga, put it, the bells are “not merely religious relics. They are an eloquent symbol of the courage and patriotism of the Filipinos.”
No date has been specified for the bells’ return, 117 years after they were taken. But America has given word that it is sending them back.
On a historic day in the near future, the bells will be restored to their rightful place in the bell towers of Balangiga church (kept empty until now, awaiting their return) — not only to call the faithful to prayer, but to serve as symbols of inspiration and courage to all freedom-loving Filipinos, for whom they once tolled, and will toll again.
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