Remembering the ‘Bahay na Pula’
The state visit this week of Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko must touch many Filipino lives, starting with the overseas Filipino workers in Japan who are in the hundreds of thousands; the “Japinos” or offspring of Filipino and Japanese parents, many of them of Filipino mothers who worked as entertainers in Japan; and the academics and scholars who spent time in prestigious universities in the Land of the Rising Sun. And just as important, the so-called “comfort women” who suffered during World War II as sex slaves of Japanese soldiers and who are now dwindling in number, hobbling their way toward the sunset.
A recent news report described Akihito, 82, as a pacifist who had seen Japan devastate its Asian neighbors with cruelty during World War II until the US government dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese. Said the Emperor on Japan’s sordid military misadventure: “This is something the Japanese must long remember with profound sense of remorse.”
I expect a not-so-feeble show of protest from the long-suffering women, now grandmothers, to seek a belated straightforward apology if not remuneration for those who had refused any with strings and conditions attached.
Years ago, before flying to Japan to cover the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal initiated by international women’s groups on behalf of surviving Asian comfort women, I was invited to go to the “Bahay na Pula.” To see, smell, feel and meet the ghosts of the past.
I don’t know whether the house, so named because of its reddish color, still stands, or has collapsed due to age and neglect. How I wish the National Historical Commission of the Philippines had been called upon to preserve it.
If you were going north via San Ildefonso, Bulacan, you would have noticed on the left side of the highway a big, ancient house standing solitary on a vast grassy field. Tall, huge tamarind, camachile and duhat trees grew around it. The first time I passed by, it reminded me of the house of Norman Bates in the “Psycho” thrillers. It also reminded me of a grand old lady wearing a shawl the color of a fading roseate sunset.
These I learned when I finally set foot in it: The Bahay na Pula was used as barracks by the Japanese Army during World War II. Here scores of young women and girls from Bulacan and Pampanga were held for months and used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. It is a house with a dark, painful history that has been pushed to the light, thanks to the brave, aging women who chose to emerge from more than half a century of silence and grieving.
The house and the green acres around it are/were owned by the Ilusorios. Yes, the famous feuding Ilusorio family. But that is another story.
The day I visited 15 years ago, some 50 or so women, mostly in their mid-70s, came to the Bahay na Pula. They had held many meetings there and the place had become their regular haunt. But the gathering that day was special. Clad in colorful Filipino dresses, the women sat for noted visual artists who wanted to immortalize them on canvas and paper. It was a happy occasion but when life stories were shared, tears flowed and hearts broke into many pieces.
I had heard a number of them before and had written about them, but listening to them speak about their ordeal in the very place where that dark chapter happened gave me goose bumps. “Here soldiers stood in line, waiting for their turn….”
I was the only journalist present so I was able to just blend in, watch the whole-day sketching session and have solemn conversations with some of them. The women were mostly from Barrio Mapanique, Candaba, Pampanga, which is less than a kilometer away from San Ildefonso, Bulacan.
On Nov. 23, 1944, after Japanese soldiers had set fire to Mapanique and massacred the men, they ordered the young women to carry the loot and provisions to San Ildefonso where the troops set up their barracks and where the women were held as sex slaves for months.
Lola Beniang, the livewire in the group, recalled to me what it was like. All the men that the Japanese could find were killed, beheaded, mutilated, then tossed into the burning school house. She could remember the details, the sound, the smell. “Mabango ang amoy ng taong nasusunog. Kung gutom ka parang gusto mong kumain.” (Burning human flesh smells good. If you were hungry you’d feel like eating.) I gasped.
All that, she had tried to put behind her until it was time to tell the world. “Pagkatapos noon, parang humukay ako ng butas na napakalalim at linagyan ng takip. Na ayaw ko nang mabuksan.” How does one translate that? Perhaps: “After that I dug a hole that was so deep and then put a lid on it. I didn’t want it opened ever.”
She said these while we were seated on the front steps of the house littered with tiny tamarind leaves. All that green vastness around, I was told, was where the troops set up their tents. The officers lived in the big house where the women were held.
Later, I asked Lola Honor ever so gently if I could see the scar of a bayonet wound on her thigh. She raised her saya and there it was—straight and white and long. Only a prepubescent girl at that time, she had tried to refuse the sexual advances of a soldier. He would not hear of it. He wounded her thigh and bloodied her soul. There would be more harrowing months ahead.
Women’s rights advocates have worked to get this “forgotten” chapter included in history books. I am pleased that at least two whole pages—the color of faded rose—have been devoted to it in the 10-volume “Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People.” It’s in Volume 7, “The Japanese Occupation,” pages 110 and 111, in case you want to look it up and cry. I wrote it.
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