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Stories of ‘Susana’

Martial law “deniers,” who view the years between 1972 and 1986 as some kind of “golden age” for the country, would do well to try to get their hands on the book “O Susana!: Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao.”

Despite its rather whimsical title, “O Susana!,” edited by Macario D. Tiu, is a sometimes searing chronicle of the years immediately before, during and after the era of police and military raids, “hamletting” of poor rural communities especially of lumad, summary arrests and killings, and yet also of challenging and gratifying grassroots work in different areas of Mindanao.

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The book’s title refers to the Susana building, described as “an unpainted and tired-looking two-storey wooden building” in Davao City. It housed on the ground floor the offices of Menzi, an agribusiness concern, as well as the store of Davao Farms, a “popular source of eggs and dressed chicken,” whose products unfortunately permeated the premises with the stink of chicken feed and manure.

In 1971, the building already looked ramshackle, recall the early residents. Its vacant second floor was given over to the offices of various foundations and agencies, including those of the association of banana growers, and eventually of various NGOs (before the term even came into fashion) and Church-based organizations. Flora Ninfa Santos Leocadio, one of the pioneer occupants of Susana, writes in her essay that as more and more offices were established there, “it began to draw people and visitors, perhaps because it was housed in an unprepossessing no-frills building, with no artifice.”

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With time, though, especially after the declaration of martial law, Susana also “became known as the activists’ lair, never mind if some of us did not deserve the credit.”

Already coming under suspicion, Susana would soon be subject to almost constant surveillance, raided time and again, although its offices were never shot at or subjected to “extreme harassment.”

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But “O Susana!” is not just a chronicle of life in an otherwise anonymous building. It is also a retelling, told through the lens of remembering, of life in the volatile dangerous place that was Mindanao in the 1970s.

Those were the years when the Moro rebellion broke out, while the communist New People’s Army began to gain ground and adherents. The denizens of Susana were made of different stuff: mainly community organizers and Church-based researchers who reached out to communities in isolated areas, especially those of indigenous peoples.

My copy of “O Susana!” was sent to me by a good friend, Mary Lou Birondo-Caharian, known to one and all as “Belo.” Her story (and those of many other contributors to the book) is illustrative of the tough and resilient characters who frequented Susana building: young, idealistic, courageous and devoted. They braved rough roads, crossed rivers and streams, and sought dialogue and understanding with the poor and impoverished, including indigenous tribes, Muslim communities and marginalized farmers and fishers. And the irony was that their organizing work was both derided by those in the Left and viewed with hostility by the powerful.

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Karl Gaspar, a well-respected figure in the religious and activist community and himself a political prisoner in 1983-1985, writes that “if one were to write the history of the Filipino people who struggled through the dark years of martial rule, the part played by the religious women in this historical drama could not be ignored. In fact, even if most of them only played silent roles by standing quietly at the back during rallies and demonstrations, their very presence in the public sphere across the country empowered thousands of people. Long before the photos of those nuns facing the military at Edsa holding rosary beads became iconic images of the 1986 People Power Revolution, there were already fearless nuns in Davao who had stood their ground facing the military eye-to-eye.”

Indeed, what “O Susana!” makes clear is that years before the political and social opposition to the Marcoses and martial law coalesced after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, in Davao and other places in Mindanao, individuals were raising their voices and risking their lives to initiate change and empower the most powerless among us. Their stories need to be told.

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Know a woman whose life, work and dedication to a cause is worthy of emulation and celebration? Then why not nominate her for this year’s Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) awards?

Given every two years, the TOWNS awards recognize women of accomplishment who can serve as role models to generations of younger women. Awardees are recognized for their achievements, character (or personality), commitment and pioneering zeal.

Nominees must be no more than 46 years old by Oct. 31 this year, and no younger than 21. Open to Filipino citizens, the TOWNS awards are administered by a distinguished panel of judges who, by tradition, are headed by the Chief Justice. In the last awards ceremonies, the distinction gained even more significance as Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is herself a TOWNS awardee.

Nomination forms are available at the TOWNS Foundation Secretariat office, care of Cristina dela Paz at Unit 9A, MDI Corporate Center, 39th Street corner 10th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City (mobile number 0917-8124836). You may also get in touch with Amihan Bonifacio Ramolete, who heads this year’s TOWNS Search Committee, at the Dean’s Office, College of Arts and Letters, UP Diliman. Call her at 928-7508 or e-mail her at [email protected] The deadline for the submission of nominations is July 30.

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TAGS: Davao City, martial law, O Susana!: Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao, Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service Awards, TOWNS Awards
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