The Avsecom van of Ninoy’s assassination
“F**K YOU BOY” and “POKx2” are graffiti texts that wouldn’t look out of place on a sidewalk wall marked with the warning “Bawal umihi dito.” But that graffiti was definitely out of place, almost sacrilegious, inside the now decrepit Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) van where it is believed Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. breathed his last, before he was delivered to a nearby military hospital and declared dead on arrival.
Everyone of my generation will recognize that van from the colored stills of a foreign journalist’s video and the iconic black and whites taken by Times Journal photographer Recto Mercene at the then Manila International Airport on Aug. 21, 1983. It did not matter whether this was the actual van or a twin; the mere sight of it brought a chill up my spine. Neglected for decades, the van was rescued from the Philippine Air Force motor pool and now awaits restoration before its display in a Human Rights Museum.
Walking around it, I asked if this was “the” Avsecom van, and was informed that there was only one such van in the Air Force motor pool, and that after the assassination and the two investigations that followed, it was never used again. Its engine and everything else that could be cannibalized were taken, and the empty shell left to rot.
I took photos of it, front, side and back, but couldn’t step inside. I merely peeked from the open back door and was repelled by the graffiti and the memory of what happened inside it 36 years ago. That Ninoy Aquino died from a gunshot wound to the back of his head from a .357 Magnum is history, but the important details remain obscure: Who really killed Ninoy? And if there was a conspiracy in the assassination, who was its mastermind? After two Aquino presidencies, we have no closure, the vacuum filled with conjecture and some very wild theories.
When the van is restored and displayed in a museum, what history, what stories will it tell? More importantly, how will a new generation take to the narrative? Under the present administration, which is keen to revise history, it may not take long for the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to be renamed back to Manila International Airport. The Aug. 21 nonworking holiday that commemorates the Aquino assassination may be removed from our calendar, together with the Feb. 25 People Power anniversary. It may be argued that we have too many holidays, so Aug. 21 and Feb. 25 could be retained but downgraded to “working holidays.”
I shared the photos of the van on Facebook and Instagram Monday night, and by Tuesday morning was informed that it had been shared on a vintage car page where it generated a heated online quarrel. Checking the comments on my page revealed a lot about how people respond to history. Those who lived through martial law saw the significance of the van and described the photo of the interior with the graffiti as “creepy.” Others paid tribute to Ninoy’s sacrifice and rightly credited it for turning the tide against Marcos and martial law. However, that Ninoy’s death led to Edsa 1986 was also questioned by some. Other comments were insensitive, smart-ass and “pa-kwela,” making fun of a turning point in our history.
While I welcome differences of opinion and constructive criticism on my wall, I delete those that are disrespectful, insulting to me or others, or have no point except argument rather than discussion. I banned a person who posted this offensive remark: “Ninoy’s death was secretly welcomed with joy by Cory and Pinoy (sic). Had Ninoy not died none of the two would have been president of RP.” To add insult to injury, it was followed by three laugh-out-loud emojis.
Someone who worked for many years in a hospital emergency room commented that a head wound like Ninoy’s was almost always fatal, and if he did survive he would never be the same. Other comments were so absurd that they were laughable. One asked why I focused on Ninoy’s death and not the 30 years after. Another said that Cory and P-Noy didn’t care to find out who the mastermind was because they are of Chinese ancestry, and we are going to be a Chinese colony. A video of Kris Aquino was posted; I don’t know why.
All this made me reflect on the value of history and historians against social media inundated by fake news, and a world populated by those confronted with the truth and yet believe what they want to believe.
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