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Martial law did happen: They were there

When September comes, I am compelled to think of martial law and to help rectify in whatever way I can as a living witness all the falsehoods and the attempted portrayal of the era as the country’s golden age.

It is reassuring that books and films on the era are also being highlighted. The efforts of universities are commendable — UP’s Days of Remembrance, a five-day webinar focusing on different aspects of the dictatorship (“Marcos Mythmaking and Deception,” “Hindi Mapayapa sa Panahon ng Batas Militar,” “Human Rights Violations,” “Not a Golden Age for the Economy,” “Nagnakaw Mula sa Kaban ng Bayan”) and the Ateneo University’s Martial Law Virtual Museum, which is available online for teachers and students since 2017.

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Also a welcome addition to this year’s 49th commemoration of that dark historical period is a well-produced 40-minute podcast, “Kwentong Martial Law with Neil Daza.” Daza is a director, cinematographer, and a photographer whose father, a former military colonel, was incarcerated during martial law in a cramped room painted black. This is the first in a series called “Podcast 1081: Untold Stories of Martial Law Resistance.”

An important book that appears overlooked and not widely known but merits mention in the bibliography of ML titles is “Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened. We Were There,” edited by Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon (Publications Group, LEADS-CEGP 6972 Inc., 2012). The witnesses in the book are members of the League of Editors for a Democratic Society-College Editors of the Philippines, 1969-72.

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Their first reunion in 40 years gave birth to the idea of documenting their experiences during the martial law years, when they, many of them only 17 then, directly confronted the excesses of the period as college editors and writers of their school publications. Many of them paid the price for being unwavering in their convictions with detention and military interrogations—and some with their own lives.

Their personal accounts are important examples of courage and defiance when human rights and civil liberties are threatened. And with that scenario repeating itself today, these stories will provide today’s youth with inspiration and guidance. Former activists represented in the collection include Angie Castillo, Calixto V. Chikiamco, Jose Dalisay Jr., Manuel M. Dayrit, Jaime FlorCruz, Jay Valencia Glorioso, Diwa C. Guingundo, Sol F. Juvida, Victor H. Manarang, Al S. Mendoza, Jack Teotico, Roberto Verzola, and Vic A. Wenceslao, with illustrations by Edd Aragon.

A misleading statement that has been repeatedly made by figures from the dictatorial regime is that there were no human rights violations then. But there is overwhelming evidence otherwise, such as the powerful and stirring account in the book by the late Robert “Obet” Verzola, whom we lost last year. Verzola was a Philippine internet pioneer, a renewable energy advocate, a social activist, and a torture victim during the dictatorship.

When Verzola, then 22, was arrested and detained after his underground house was raided, he knew he was ready for interrogations, and was determined not to name names. “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,” he wrote.

But can one truly be ready for torture? Versola received severe physical blows and belatedly realized why the military remarked about his being an electrical engineering student. He was subjected to electric torture, with one wire tied to his right index finger and a spoon in his pants, “until it rested where the leg meets the lower abdomen, near the crotch.” He likened his response to the shriek of a pig nearing slaughter, one of “helplessness, desperation and terror.” Brought back to his cell, he was physically exhausted, but still a Basilio. “… I was at peace with myself.”

Robert Verzola has since been rightly included in the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani Memorial in Quezon City. He was witness to the evils of martial law—and yes, martial law really happened. Sorry, historical revisionists intent on sanitizing the Marcos years, “Not on Our Watch” is not a piece of fiction.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is the founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and was former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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