In combat in old Makati
Some friends on Facebook still have their profile pictures blacked out to mourn the 44 policemen killed in an operation to extract two known terrorists from territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. As I processed my feelings in relation to everyone else’s, I realized that our anger and mourning were first steps in the pursuit of justice and truth that do not seem forthcoming. I missed a column last week because I was so disturbed by the shaky YouTube videos showing the bloodied corpses of the policemen sprawled on a parched cornfield. If that was not bad enough, you could hear banter and gloating in the background. In one amateur video, the weapons of our policemen are already gone—together, I am sure, with cell phones, watches, wallets and anything else of value taken by the victors. However, they still have their Kevlar vests and other body equipment on. In a later video, the bodies have been stripped of all these as well as shoes. What remain are their undershirts and pants.
What kind of “misencounter” was this? Why did our policemen have to die that way? Those and other questions still await answers.
Last Friday, to distract myself I accepted an invitation to the dedication of the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul in the poblacion, the old Makati, even if I was almost sure the church had been dedicated and sanctified for use at one point since it was first founded by the Jesuits as a novitiate in 1620.
Cardinal Chito Tagle was the main celebrant. It meant that many people came in the hope of catching some residual grace or blessing from the cardinal, also the Archbishop of Manila, who was physically closest to Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines last month. Before ending the Mass, Cardinal Tagle asked for a minute of silent prayer for the 44 policemen—and the long liturgy struck me, especially the anointing of the altar with the oil used for baptism, which reminds the faithful not just of the celebration of the Last Supper but also that the altar is a tomb where, traditionally, relics of martyrs are encased.
In the ancient retablo is an image of the Santo Niño de Pasion, the most unique in the Philippines because it depicts the Christ Child with a sorrowful face contemplating in his right hand an image of himself on the cross. In his left hand are the three nails that attached the adult Jesus to the Cross. In the center of the retablo is the image of the Virgen de la Rosa, which in the past was famous and venerated as the image of the Virgin of Antipolo. In the 18th century, the Makati Virgin was supposed to have a reliquary in her bosom that contained a strand of hair of the Virgin Mary. The present image, though old, is a replacement of the original that has since disappeared. One tradition is that the original image of the Virgin disappeared when the Americans looted the church during the Philippine-American War in 1899.
There were many encounters between Filipinos and the enemy early in 1899, much of them documented in letters from enemy soldiers to their families and loved ones that were published in US newspapers—a tradition that was carried on until World War II. For example, Bloomsburg Daily, a Pennsylvania newspaper, published the letters of 17-year-old Chris Reice, the son of a local butcher who joined the army sent to fight in the Philippines. The newspaper published a letter dated April 28, 1899, from San Pedro Makati, reporting that:
“We have been short of rations here for the last few days and have had nothing but hard tack and tea for six meals, but the ration wagon came out yesterday and we are getting enough to eat now. Some of the boys take their guns and go out to shoot pigs and chickens. There are lots of them running wild; nobody owns them. We have all the fruit we want to eat—bananas, pineapples, coconuts, oranges, breadfruit and grapefruit.”
On May 20, 1899, in a letter to his sister he wrote:
“I received your letter yesterday and was very glad to hear from you as I thought you had not received mine. Charles wrote to me the other day but I have not much time for writing and so this one can do for both.
“Last night we were ordered to fall in line to listen to a message from President McKinley who sent his compliments to Gen. Lawton and his men. We are in his command. On the night of the 18th of May I was on outpost. It is a very dangerous position for we are within six hundred yards of the Insurgent outpost and they keep firing at us all night. I shot one out of a tree several days ago. He had gone out sharpshooting during the night but was overtaken by the light of day before he could return to camp. As soon as I saw him I took aim and fired. The shot took effect but some of his comrades came and carried him away.
“San Pedro, Macati, is on the firing line about six miles from the city of Manila. I haven’t much time to go to the city and another reason is that we cannot get excused. The rainy season is starting and it rains every afternoon between two and three o’clock… ”
The account of the Filipino sniper, who made the mistake of getting caught in daylight, shot by the enemy seemed like a historical flashback that made me imagine the last moments of the 44 policemen outnumbered, surrounded, and decimated when they ran out of ammunition. Last weekend was not good for the nation, and we can only hope and wait for truth and justice now.
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