#NeverAgain: Martial Law stories young people need to hear

Here is an article by Shakira Sison that is important for all young people to read so they know exactly what really happened under martial law, what the true cost of human suffering was. Maybe your families were the lucky ones. Maybe your families made money through the corruption of the Marcos regime. Maybe your family is Ilocano and intensely loyal to Marcos a fellow Ilocano.
These are not the obfuscations, fabrications and outright lies that the Marcos family have been feeding you since 1986 to rewrite their terrible history. These are true stories which can be multiplied across the country thousands of times.
Martial law was a shocking and brutal era, make no mistake. It was a time of fear, mistrust and betrayals. And for what purpose? All for the glorification of the Marcos family. Those of you who voted for Bong Bong Marcos should be ashamed of yourselves. It truly shows that you have not done your research, that you have turned a blind eye to the truth and that you have closed your ears to the cries of those  hundreds of thousands who were raped, tortured, kidnapped and murdered. Shame on you!

It’s convenient to look at the past with rose-colored glasses instead of with memories of needles in your nail beds, electric wires attached to your genitals, and the barrel of a gun thrust inside your mouth.

Published 3:26 PM, September 23, 2015
Updated 3:26 PM, September 23, 2015

The majority of comments on articles about Martial Law seem to be from staunch defenders of that era. There are and will always be citizens who see those years as an era of peace and prosperity in our country. 

We don’t need to debate that. Instead we simply need to tell, retell and listen to the stories of those who survived those years. As the younger generation we need to do our own research, take the blinders off our eyes and learn what exactly life was like during Martial Law before coming up with flowery images of those years as a beautiful moment in history.

Silence by force

You would never have seen an article such as this as I would have already been taken, tortured, and killed for my opinions. If Martial Law were still in effect, bloggers who wrote anything even remotely critical of the government or its cronies would be jailed like they do in other countries.

There would be none of your Facebook rants about the administration, Metro Manila traffic, or even the outfit a politician is wearing. In fact, there wouldn’t be Facebook, Instagram, and Gmail in the Philippines the way these websites are banned in China.

victims of martial law

If I wrote during Martial Law, I could be taken from my home the way 23-year-old Lily Hilao was for being a prolific writer for her school paper at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. In April 1973, Lily was taken by the military, and was raped and tortured in front of her 16-year-old sister. By the time Lily’s family retrieved her dead body, it bore cigarette burns on her lips, injection marks on her arms, bruises and gun barrel marks. Her internal organs were removed and her vagina was sawed off to cover signs of torture and sexual abuse. Liliosa Hilao is considered to be the first female casualty and martyr of Martial Law.

Zero criticism

Martial Law engineer Juan Ponce Enrile defined subversion during a 1977 BBC interview: “anybody who goes against the government or who tries to convince people to go against the government – that is subversion.” Proclamation 1081 gave the military the authority to arrest, detain, and execute anyone who even dared to breathe sadly about the Marcos administration.

Archimedes Trajano was only 21 when he questioned Imee Marcos on why she was the National Chairman of the Kabataang Barangay during an open forum. He was forcibly taken from the venue by Imee’s bodyguards, and was tortured and thrown out of a building window, all because the presidential daughter was irked by his question.

Maria Elena Ang was a 23-year-old UP Journalism student when she was arrested and detained. She was beaten, electrocuted, water cured, and sexually violated during her detention.

no more martial law

Dr Juan Escandor was a young doctor with UP-PGH who was tortured and killed by the Philippine Constabulary. When his body was recovered, a pathologist found that his skull had been broken open, emptied and stuffed with trash, plastic bags, rags and underwear. His brain was stuffed inside his abdominal cavity.

Boyet Mijares was only 16 years old in 1977 when he received a call that his disappeared father (whistleblower and writer Primitivo Mijares) was still alive. The caller invited the younger Mijares to see him. A few days later, Boyet’s body was found dumped outside Manila, his eyeballs protruding, his chest perforated with multiple stab wounds, his head bashed in, and his hands, feet and genitals mangled.

Trinidad Herrera was a community leader in Tondo when she was arrested in 1977. In this video she recounts being electrocuted on her fingers, breasts, and vagina until her interrogators were pleased with her answers to their questions.

Neri Colmenares was an 18-year-old activist when he was arrested and tortured by members of the Philippine Constabulary. Aside from being strangled and made to play Russian Roulette, he witnessed fellow detainees being electrocuted through wires inserted into their penises, as well as being buried alive in a steel drum.

Hilda Narciso was a church worker when she was arrested, confined in a small cell, fed a soup of worms and rotten fish, and repeatedly gang-raped.

Disappeared Martial Law

Necessary methods

60,000 were arrested during the first year of Martial Law alone, and many of their stories will never be told. Michael Chua wrote a paper detailing the torture methods used during the Marcos regime.

Aside from electrocution of body parts and genitals, it was routine to waterboard political prisoners, burn them using cigarettes and flat irons, strangle them using wires and steel bars, and rub pepper on their genitals. Women were stripped naked, made to sit on ice blocks or stand in cold rooms, and were sexually assaulted using objects such as eggplants smeared with chili peppers.

Forty-three years have passed. Time, as well as the circus that is Philippine governance make it easy to forget Martial Law as the darkest and most terrible moments in Philippine history. Many of its victims have died or have chosen to remain silent – silence being most understandable because these stories are truly difficult to remember, and much harder to tell.

Stories need to be told

Yet these horrific stories need to be told over and over until we realize that the pretty cover of the book of the Marcos years is actually full of monster stories. We need to bring the graphic accounts of torture and murder to light so that those who rest comfortably in their illusions that the Marcos years were pleasant will at least be stirred.

Instead we often hear from those who want to erase the evils of the past, those who tell us that these young people, many of them barely past their childhoods when they were tortured and killed, were violent rebels who sought to overthrow the government. Never mind that it was one of the most corrupt and cruel dictatorships the world has ever known, and that it was by the efforts of these young heroes that the reign of the Marcoses ended.

Majority of Martial Law victims were in their 20s and 30s at that time – the same age our younger citizens are now – those who have the luxury of shrugging off the Marcos years as a wonderful time. Unscathed by a more cruel past, the younger generation is only too eager to criticize the current state of our government and our people as being undisciplined and requiring an iron fist such as the one Marcos used to supposedly create peace in the past.

They forget that if we were still under Martial Law (or should it return), such sentiments of “subversion” could cost them their lives, and that the same freedom and voice they use to reminisce about a time they know nothing about would have been muted and extinguished if we did not have the democracy we enjoy today.

Hindsight is always 20-20, as they say. It’s convenient to look at the past with rose-colored glasses instead of memories of needles in your nail beds, electric wires attached to your genitals, and a barrel of a gun thrust inside your mouth, the way thousands of Martial Law victims suffered and still suffer to this day.

Just because it didn’t happen to you or your family doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to more than 70,000 victims during that time. Just because you were spared then doesn’t mean you will be spared the next time this iron fist you wish for comes around. –Rappler.com


I have decided to publish this article by Norman Pearlstine from October 2013 because it demonstrates quite clearly that Imelda hasn’t changed. She is still peddling the weird ideas she was pushing back in the early 70s, a combination of wacky New Age philosophy mixed with a small dose of fact (just for the skeptics) and rounded off by some personal conspiracy theory.  Will anyone give her the $829 billion dollars a year for the next 4 years to dig 6.5 miles down into the Philippine trench to extract deuterium? I very much doubt it unless they are as fanciful as Imelda and willing to give away or invest a fortune and lose it all. Why? The reason is the deuterium can just easily be gathered, at a fraction of the cost, from the surface of the ocean. But that doesn’t stop Imelda. 

Imelda Marcos wants to save the world, albeit stylishly. Wearing a simple, discreet slide sandal, the 84-year-old former first lady of the Philippines greets a visitor to her spacious, memento-laden Manila apartment with a surprise: Before reminiscing about politics, fashion, or her years in and out of power, she wants to talk seriously about energy.

Imelda Marcos demonstrates her theory

Imelda Marcos demonstrates her theory

It seems that uncommon amounts of deuterium, an isotope also known as heavy hydrogen, reside in the water at the bottom of the Philippine Trench. To get it, all you have to do is cruise out 170 miles east of the Philippines and bring water up from the ocean floor, about 6.5 miles below the surface. Marcos, the widow of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who died in disgrace and in exile in Honolulu in 1989, says she spends millions of dollars a year to maintain her exclusive right to extract water from the trench in the hope that having an abundance of deuterium can speed the development of advanced nuclear fusion reactors. She’s seeking billions of dollars from foreign investors to fulfill her vision.

Called “Madame” by many of her admirers in the Philippines, Marcos remains a relentless, beguiling, and slightly wacky self-promoter. She says Edward Teller, the controversial physicist known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” persuaded her to develop her country’s deuterium in a 1971 visit to the Malacañang Palace, the Philippine president’s residence. Teller, she adds, was a major supporter of her efforts until he died in 2003.

While fusion holds immense promise, its progress has been stymied for decades by technological challenges and is likely to remain slow. Dennis Whyte, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, pours cold water on Madame’s assertions when he says, “Deuterium is readily available in seawater, even at the surface,” adding that “a viable demonstration fusion reactor is expected to be online in 2040 or later, with commercialization beyond that time.”

phil-trenchNevertheless, Marcos says she carries on because deuterium “can save the world.” Her current efforts are encapsulated in two booklets. One, a feasibility study, acknowledges costs but claims that deuterium pumped from the Philippine Trench could be processed “into a high-potent but environmentally friendly fuel that would eventually replace conventional or fossil fuel gas.” According to her study, the proposed venture would earn $829 billion a year in its first four years after operations begin. As for the billions she’d personally make from the project, Marcos quotes her late husband, who used to say, “What is good for all is good for me.”

Marcos says she’s in discussions with Japanese businessmen who want to team up with the Philippine government to extract deuterium from the trench. She thinks big oil companies would be logical investors, and she’d like to attract additional funding from U.S., Chinese, and Russian investors. “I have been nagging my American friends” to invest, she says. But the project “seems so unbelievable, they think I am crazy.”

While she pushes deuterium with a zealot’s ferocity, Marcos does have other passions. The Marcos brand has regained much of the popularity it lost when the family was forced from power in the 1980s, and since 2010 she has served as a member of the House of Representatives. Her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., a graduate of the University of Oxford and the Wharton School, has a seat in the Philippine Senate. Speculation abounds that he’ll run for president in 2016 when Benigno Aquino III’s term ends.

As conversation continues over a lengthy steak-and-vegetable dinner at a hotel’s Italian restaurant, Marcos journeys back into her personal history. After her mother died when she was 8, Imelda and her family (she was the sixth of 11 children) lived on a coconut plantation on the island of Leyte. She moved to Manila in 1950, where she worked as a singer in music stores while participating in beauty contests. Four years later, she met Ferdinand, a 37-year-old senator and much-decorated former soldier. “Marcos proposed to me 20 minutes after we met,” she says, “and 11 days later we were married.”



Kris Lanot Lacaba is a writer, poet, essayist and actor. His father, Jose (Pete) Lacaba (journalist, screenwriter and editor) was a friend of mine during the late 60s and early 70s. Pete was imprisoned in Camp Crame during martial law. Pete’s brother, Eman, another poet was murdered in 1976 in Davao by Marcos forces at the age of 27. Kris very kindly gave me permission to publish this account of two women who were tortured during martial law.

Kris Lanot Lacaba and his wife Francezca (Kit) Kwe

Kris Lanot Lacaba and his wife Francezca (Kit) Kwe

Martial law promised peace and order and economic development. But behind concrete walls, hidden from the eyes of the public, lay a different story.

By the time Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law at 7:15 p.m. on September 23, 1972, he had already begun his full assault on the country’s democratic institutions. The military padlocked Congress and shut down media establishments. Many were incarcerated, tortured or killed.

From Day One, the implementers of martial law knew exactly how to dish out the most horrible forms of cruelty on the people. By Amnesty International’s estimate, 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, while 3,240 were killed during martial law. [Batas Militar documentary. 1999.] The Primer on Desaparecidos [2012] placed the number of the “disappeared” at 759.

Numbers tell us only part of the appalling history. We need to hear the accounts of the women and men who had to endure the most inhuman forms of torture.

The first reported death that occurred under detention during martial law was that of Liliosa Hilao. She arrived home to find drunken members of the Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) in her house. Three days after her arrest, on April 7, 1973, the CANU said that Hilao, 23, killed herself by drinking muriatic acid. But an autopsy showed that she was tortured and her internal organs were soaked in acid. [Bantayog ng mga Bayani. 1995.]

Liliosa Hilao

Liliosa Hilao

Women can and were subjected to the same forms of torture as men. Water cure. Electrocution. Solitary con nement. Sleep deprivation. Extended periods of interrogation. Suffocation. Beatings. In addition, a number of women were subjected to atrocities that were gender-specific: rape, reproductive violence, domestic servitude, psychological threats.

Both Hilda Narciso and Etta Rosales were subject to sexual violence by their captors. Former Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair Rosales was arrested in Parañaque on August 1, 1976. She was detained for a month but it was during her first day in custody when her captors beat and sexually abused her, she says in an interview.

In a safe house in Pasig, “they [her captors] molested me.” At one point, someone poured hot candle wax on her skin. Rosales was also beaten, strangled and electrocuted.

Hilda Narciso

Hilda Narciso

Hilda Narciso also suffered from brutal treatmentat the hands of the military. On March 24, 1983, arresting of cers who were “shirtless and had their ammunition strung across their shoulders, like Rambo,” came to take her. Narciso was blindfolded and made to get into a car where two men started touching her body, while another man interrogated her. Men fondled her at a safe house until someone came and ordered them to leave. “I assumed he was the head of the team… He raped me. Afterwards he took me outside… where more people began fondling me. ‘Will you just shoot me?’ I told them.”

These are just some of the stories of women who experienced first-hand the inhumanity of martial law. Many who survived have their own stories of healing or perseverance.

But torture and other forms of human rights abuses do more than damage individuals. They wreak havoc on families and society. Even the state itself is damaged, because human rights abuses corrupt the institutions party to the atrocities. What happens when the police and armed forces are trained to believe in the primacy of violence over civilian rule?

Human Rights Commissioner Leah Armamento laments that martial law “created a culture… where human rights violations were SOP. There are people in the security sector who still violate human rights, it has become part of the culture, where abuses are thought to be normal.”

There are aggressive and continuing attempts toerase from our collective memory the atrocitiesthat happened during martial law. Nevertheless, there are government entities and non-government organizations that are working to make sure the abuses of the past are not repeated. What is important now is that we hear these and other individual stories and make sure that we, as a people, never forget the national nightmare that was martial law. –

Kris Lanot Lacaba (From Kababaihan at Kapayapaan magazine, September 2015) Author of “Torture of My Father & Other Stories”


Talk about poetic justice. Imelda Marcos attended Church this week thinking it would be a normal service. Turns out it was a memorial service for the victims of her husband’s brutal martial law regime. Torture, kidnap and murder victims were remembered in the ceremony on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Edsa (People’s Power) Revolution on the 25th February 1986, resulting in the overthrow of the Marcoses.

Imelda Marcos attends Mass for martial law victims

Posted at 02/24/16 3:46 PM

Former First Lady Imelda Marcos attends Mass at the Baclaran church, not knowing that the homily will discuss martial law and the EDSA People Power Revolution. Photo by Mark Saludes

MANILA – Former First Lady Imelda Marcos attended a morning Mass in Baclaran church Wednesday, not knowing the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was intended to commemorate victims of torture and killings during the martial law rule of her late husband, President Ferdinand Marcos.

In her wheelchair in front of the altar of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Marcos sat with martial law victims, human rights groups and people from different church denominations who fought the dictatorship during martial law.

Mrs. Marcos left the Redemptorist church right after the 11 a.m. Mass.

In an interview, a staff member at the church confirmed that Mrs. Marcos attended the 11 a.m. Mass on Wednesday. She said Fr. Teody Holgado’s homily touched on martial law and the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution ahead of its commemoration on Thursday.

“Our parish priest has always talked about human rights issues,” she said. She pointed out that Fr. Rudy Romano, a Redemptorist priest assigned in Cebu, was abducted by military intelligence agents during the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1985 and has not been seen since.

Former First Lady Imelda Marcos attends Mass at the Baclaran church. Photo by Mark Saludes

Many rights groups, including the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND), also celebrate Mass in the church, she said.

Meanwhile, the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR), an ecumenical group founded during the Marcos dictatorship, said Filipinos “should not forget the sacrifice and struggles of those who were tortured, incarcerated and killed during martial law and their contribution in bringing back democracy in the country.”

The group said the Marcos dictatorship “did not spare the church.” PCPR is a convenor of the Campaign Against the Return of Marcos in Malacanang or CARMMA, a coalition which seeks to prevent Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator, from winning the vice-presidency. Report by Mark Saludes.


I have decided to publish here several articles opposing Bong Bong Marcos’s run for the Vice Presidency. I have, as you know, been opposed to Marcos for many decades now having seen, at first-hand, the devastating effect of his dictatorship on both private individuals and the country. It would be out of character for me to support a return of any Marcos to a position of power in the country, particularly one who steadfastly refuses to accept and apologize for the wealth-grabbing and the extra-judicial killings carried out by his father. This article was written by MARCK.

That’s not a scarlet terno that Imee Marcos is wearing. Rather, it stands for the mountains where Macliing Dulag was killed. His blood ran down the slopes of the Cordillera in much the same way he wanted the Chico River to flow. To his dying breath—and years thereafter—Dulag fought against the hydroelectric power that threatened the survival of his people, in the hands of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

Imee Marcos on the current cover of Philippine Tatler

Imee Marcos on the current cover of Philippine Tatler

That’s not Imee Marcos gracefully crossing her well-formed, tanned legs. Emmanuel Lacaba’s legs were found in the same way, tied and chained, as his corpse was dragged to an unmarked grave. In 1976, Lacaba was captured with a pregnant 18-year-old comrade in the underground, and was shot with a .45 caliber bullet not once, but twice. His crime was to write literature in opposition to a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

That’s not a tasteful bodice that highlights Imee Marcos’s ample curves. That bodice conceals how forces of the constabulary killed Edgar Jopson in 1982. He was found alive in Davao, but was still executed. It took nine bullets to murder Edjop: chest wounds, arm wounds, leg wounds. This son of a grocer became another statistic in a very long list of human rights abuses in the 70s and 80s, and personally earned the ire of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

Those are not the features of Imee Marcos, carefully airbrushed. Those were the walls put up along the routes whenever any foreign dignitary or visitor passed by to visit Malacañang Palace. Entire edifices were built around the Philippines to celebrate and commemorate the “New Society,” all the while those displaced are kept hidden from view. For one cannot be seen poor and starving when guests come by to entertain—and be entertained by—a dictator named Imelda Marcos.


We’re not aristocrats or aficionados of high fashion: we’re not the intended audience of a magazine that represents the core of the upper crust. We have our broadsheets and our news sites, maybe the occasional glossy magazine in waiting areas: none of us have to read the Philippine Tatler.

Maybe we’re overreacting, too: who’s to say that Imee Marcos isn’t a beautiful woman at the age of 60? To be fair, the Governor of Ilocos exudes more style at her age than quite a few women half her age. In recent memory, Imee has always represented that sort of fashionable élan with minimum effort, never mind airbrushing and cosmetic enhancements.

Just a few days ago, Sen. Bongbong Marcos—who found the gall to run for the Vice Presidency just a few weeks ago—claimed that Filipinos are not concerned about the past, but are more concerned about their lives today. Never mind that we’re still paying off debts from the Marcos era, and vestiges of Marcosian kleptocracy are found in almost every public institution in the Philippines. The same can be said, I guess, for Imee Marcos: just because she’s a Marcos doesn’t mean she can’t indulge in the fantasy of being a “style icon” or whatever. At least to the Marcoses, what’s done is done.

But is it? In any other sane situation, the Marcoses would be nowhere near magazine photo shoots or lecterns in Manila. The Marcoses would be languishing in prison, impoverished in much the same way they impoverished the Filipino people in decades of tyrannical rule. That period of conjugal dictatorship would have been an instructive case in how and why tyranny and oppression will never triumph. But every waking moment that the Marcoses are free to flaunt themselves in public is an excuse for amnesia: that it’s okay to cast them as oppressed heroes, that the “glory days under Marcos” become facts, and that they become free to be part of that very public institution that they corrupted for decades.


We use the word “impunity” a lot these days as a catch-all term to the foibles and failings of government, but no political entity captures that more than the Marcoses. One cannot talk about impunity without talking about callousness: the kind of arrogance and swagger that comes with getting away with perpetrating injustices, human rights abuses, and institutionalizing cronyism and corruption in Philippine democratic institutions.

And it’s this arrogance and swagger that keeps the Marcoses thriving in the Philippines. In any other situation, dictators are usually consigned to the dustbin of history. But not the Marcoses: without justice, Bongbong Marcos can still saunter up to a lectern in Intramuros and pretend to capture some semblance of eloquence from his father, calling for a “revolution” while blithely ignoring the fact that it was revolution that brought his family’s grasp on the country down. Without justice, Imee Marcos can pretend to have a “public service record,” and the “shadow of her parents” become footnotes to her being a generation’s “style icon.” Without justice, the Marcoses can sweep all their abuses and discretions under the rug, and woo the electorate with celebrities and a whitewashed, revised history. They want us to think that discipline is needed. They want us to think that life under Marcos was a “golden era.” They want us to think that rebuilding democratic institutions is useless unless we have strong leaders out front: preferably ones named Marcos.


There is probably no democratic country out there that has given the same measure of forgiveness, leniency, and acceptance to a former oppressor than the Philippines. Perhaps it is because of our forgiving nature. Perhaps it’s in the way we are taught history: more of rote memory work than a careful analysis of facts. Perhaps it’s in our impatience—or inefficiency—at repairing and rebuilding our democratic institutions. Perhaps it’s in the penchant of politicians to cling on to any sort of political capital, no matter how ironic or hypocritical it is (like Bongbong Marcos advocating for the SAF 44 or Imee Marcos advocating for the arts). Or maybe it’s because for the lot of those who admire Marcos, we prefer the in-your-face kleptocracy than ones disguised as democratic projects.

And maybe—just maybe—there are idiots in our midst, in the same way we have dictators running the show from somewhere.

The road to 2016 saddles us with tasks more important than just voting: we have the task of ensuring that history advances. We have the task of seeing beyond the glitz and the glamor of images, and seeing to it that history—for all its faults and successes—does not repeat itself. History shows us that there is just no way that Imee Marcos should be seen as a “style icon,” but as the scion of a dictator complicit to the abuses of power. History shows us that there is no way that Bongbong Marcos can bring back the “glory days” under his father, when we all know that the only glory found there was in the Marcos bank accounts and the gun-barrels of government assassins. No thing—not from the ruling class, not from Marcos supporters, not from those harebrained enough to support Martial Law on Twitter as if no politically-motivated death happened under Martial Law—should ever get in the way of us understanding why we should reject the Marcoses, and purge them from our political life.


Because that isn’t Imee Marcos sitting on that cover, with her bare feet dangling elegantly by the folds of her scandalously-long terno. Those are the very bare feet of the millions of Filipinos who suffered from famine in Negros and other parts of the Philippines. Under the “glory days” of Marcos, they starved, subsisting on “fortified” grain, and walked barefoot on ground parched and left fallow. All this happened while Imelda was entertaining concert pianists and Hollywood actresses in Malacañang, while Ferdinand was wheelin’ and dealin’ with the cronies that made up the government. All this happened while Imelda started collecting thousands of shoes, and built her socialite dreams on the backs of the barefoot children of famine, who walked the dry ground to bury the baby that died.

That infant—like Apo Macliing, Edjop, Eman Lacaba, Liliosa Hilao, Lorena Barros, Juan Escandor, and so many others—all left a crimson stain in the ground, in a hue no different from the cloth of Imee Marcos’ gown.




Inside Los Indios Bravos Cafe, Mabini, Manila

I have decided to reblog this as Philippine Esquire Magazine has published sections from it. Some people might want to read the full story as I wrote it at the time. Also, the fact that the current Pontiff, Pope Francis, is currently in the Philippines makes it newsworthy. I hope you enjoy it. 

My second visit to Bilibid Prison was under very different circumstances. In fact the day following my second visit one of the Manila papers referred to it under a typical tabloid headline: “Balloons and Bibingka for Benjamin’s Birthday.”

My friendship with the Bolivian surreal artist, Benjamin Mendoza, began in 1969. By that time I considered myself an old Manila hand, regarded by many locals as an honorary Filipina and by the Indios Bravos crowd a resident fixture of the cafe. Benjamin Mendoza was the new guy in town. As with most newcomers, particularly artists, it did not take long for him to gravitate towards the welcoming crowd in Indios Bravos. I met him on his first visit to the coffee shop. He was sitting alone and I instantly recognized him as a South American. He had the dark, elongated face, the fine aquiline nose and the thin lips, all familiar facial characteristics of the Quechua peoples of the Andes. I introduced myself and joined him at his table.

I was curious to find out why he had come to Manila, what had brought him there? “The art!” he told me, “I read books and magazines. I read about the vibrant art scene in Manila. I wanted to see it for myself. After all, Latin America and the Philippines have a common background – Spanish conquistadores and Roman Catholic priests. I wanted to see if our art was similar too.” He pulled out some small paintings from his battered briefcase and passed them across the table to me. They were miniature oil paintings, mainly of animals and religious subjects, in dark, brooding tones, the only light emanating from them were painted shards of broken glass around the edges. “What do they say to you?” he asked as I tried to look like I was studying them seriously.

I was tempted to say I had no idea but I was certain a psychiatrist would have found them challenging. But not wanting to appear inpolite, I smiled. “They’re good. I like them. What did you want me to see in them?”

“Vignettes of life. Hope, despair. Good, bad. Love, hate. Anger, serenity. Life is made up of contrasts. You can’t have one without the other.” He looked at me sideways as he stabbed a toothpick into the fried spring roll on his plate. “Haven’t you ever ended up hating someone you really loved? Had moments of immense happiness that resulted in tears? Had instances of unparalleled pleasure that turned into pain? That’s what I’m trying to say in my paintings.”

His voice was hushed, barely audible. Not because of the background music, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles playing loudly from the café’s sound system but simply because that was the way he spoke. Benjamin was gentle, thoughtful, if slightly morose.

Over the following months we forged a friendship of sorts. But whereas Benjamin was a solitary person, I was the opposite. He joined the Manila artists’ group, participating in their weekly gatherings but at the same time remaining on the periphery, belonging but apart. Many found him aloof, slightly weird but harmless. Betsy and I enjoyed his company and he soon became yet another regular in the cast of characters unique to the Indios Bravos cafe.

One evening Benjamin and I were sitting at his table discussing religion, one of his favourite topics.

“You’re so lucky, Caroline,” he mused, “you weren’t brought up in fear. You weren’t forced to accept something you didn’t believe in. You weren’t punished for rejecting God. You weren’t threatened for questioning the Church’s motives. You didn’t feel you were sinning when you took precautions….birth control, I mean.”

“I’d hate to imagine where I’d be without the Pill!” I joked, “It would have cramped my style considerably. I’d probably have given birth to a complete basketball team by now!” I was making light of the discussion because I noticed the rising intensity in his voice.

“Exactly. But in my country and in all poor Catholic countries women die – here too, probably – because they are expected to go on and on having children. Just to keep the Church happy.”

I felt his anger. I reached across the table to touch his hand, attempting to mollify him.

“I’d be angry too, you know.”

I was grateful at that moment that the only Catholics in my family, my mother and my sister, had never tried to convert me.

Benjamin stared into his glass without saying a word. I could sense he was fighting back the overwhelming urge to share his anger with everyone in Los Indios Bravos that night. But, whatever lies were to be written about him some months later, Benjamin was quiet, mild-mannered and reserved, a person who would never consider upsetting the mood of the evening.

But on the morning of the 27 November 1970 that impression of him was about to change dramatically or, at least, called into question.  I was back in London watching the world news on television.

Curiously enough there were several firsts that day. In London the first Gay Rights demonstration, a candlelight vigil against police harassment, was taking place in Highbury Fields.

“A milestone in gay history,” said Peter Tatchell, one of the 150 participants. “Today instead of fear we feel pride and defiance!”

In Plesetsk, Siberia the communications satellite Molniya 8 was launched successfully into orbit. This was followed by the news of a plane crash in Anchorage, Alaska. A Capitol Airways DC 8, flight number 472, crashed on take-off, killing 48 and injuring 226.

pope paul arriving ManilaAnd in Manila 180 Bishops had convened for the first ever Pan-Aseatic Bishop’s Conference.  They were shown at the Manila International Airport waiting for the arrival of Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI. And, despite the Philippines 400 years of Spanish Catholic colonization, Montini was the first Pontiff ever to set foot on Philippine soil.

Leading up to his visit there had been much speculation in the local and international Press as to whose guest the Holy Father would be – the Catholic Church or Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. For the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, this visit was considered to be a momentous occasion and the kudos to be gained, both politically and commercially, from having the Pope stay in Malacanang Palace was immeasurable. Marcos hoped it would be viewed among the population as an endorsement of his increasingly dictatorial rule. In the months leading up to the Papal visit the value of the peso had plunged, food was in short supply and jobs were scarce. Civil disorder, student demonstrations and organized rallies had become commonplace. These confrontations had been met by violent, sometimes bloody, resistance by Marcos, his constabulary and his armed forces. Marcos was more unpopular now than he had ever been and he blamed many in the priesthood for fomenting political unrest among the students. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate to his predominantly Catholic nation and to the world that he had the full approval and support of the Vatican. Both Ferdinand and Imelda were determined to exploit the event to the full. But neither had counted on the formidable personality of Cardinal Santos, whose increasingly vocal opposition to the Marcos regime now turned into open warfare. His stand against the Marcoses on this point was very public, vociferous and humiliating. He stuck his ground, declaring this was purely a pastoral visit by His Holiness to address his flock and to attend the Bishops’ Conference. He went further, the Holy Father would not be staying at the Palace nor would he be driven from the airport into the city in the Presidential limousine. Fuming, the First Lady, too, refused to give way, insisting she had extended a personal invitation to the Pope during her visit to the Vatican the previous year.

The heated battle of the two adversaries was still deadlocked on the day of the Pope’s arrival. Whether His Holiness knew of it or not, separate itineraries had been prepared for him by both his Cardinal and the First Lady. But it was all deference, bell-pealing, flag waving and smiles as the frail seventy-year old Pontiff stepped off his Alitalia plane at Manila International Airport.

Waving to the crowd, the Pope stooped for a moment to accept a bouquet of white flowers from Irene, the Marcos’s youngest daughter. He shook hands with the President and First Lady and began to cross the red carpet towards the dais. The crowds roared their welcome and pitched forward upsetting the barriers, hoping to get closer to their Pontiff. Under strict instructions from Cardinal Sin the Catholic hierarchy moved in immediately to flank and protect the diminutive figure of Paul VI.

One by one the Cardinals and Bishops bowed down to kiss the Pope’s ring. The Marcoses, who planned to demonstrate their closeness to His Holiness in front the world’s TV cameras and the masses of Filipinos who had assembled at the airport to witness this historic occasion, had to be content to walk behind the Pope. I watched the news report live as Paul VI slowly made his way along the red carpet towards the dais, stopping to shake hands with all the dignitaries lining his route.

Among the many faces I recognized, the politicians, the journalists and the clergy, there was one face that made me sit up and take notice. No, I thought, it can’t be, I must be mistaken. I peered closer hoping for a better look. And there he was. With his hand outstretched towards the approaching Pontiff and dressed in a long, black priestly sutane, the person I saw was my erstwhile friend, the Bolivian artist, Benjamin Mendoza. benjamin mendozaIt couldn’t be. Why on earth would he be there? How did he get past security? Was I just imagining things? Or was it one of his surrealist jokes?

I tried to convince myself that Mendoza must have been on my mind because I had just received a postcard from him a few days earlier saying he was planning to return to Bolivia. So perhaps this man, whoever he was, was simply an Andean priest, part of the Vatican’s entourage. I continued to scan the screen but the image I was searching for was obscured.

Suddenly there was pandemonium, a glint of steel, screams, shouts, gasps and lunging, writhing bodies scrambling to the ground. I had no idea at that moment what had happened. An hysterical voice on the news report informed us an attempt had been made on the Pontiff’s life by an unknown assailant armed with a knife. Silence. Then we were told that, mercifully, the Pope was safe. The assailant had been overcome by Papal security guards. This last piece of information was vital considering the story put out less than twenty-four hours later by President Marcos.

Several times that day I watched for further news to learn the identity of the assassin. Finally I was both rewarded and shocked to learn that the would-be killer was none other than a Bolivian painter by the name of Benjamin Mendoza y Amor. I was stunned. Even more extraordinary was Imelda’s revelation that she had witnessed her husband saving the Pope’s life by delivering a karate chop and a flying kick to the would-be assassin, knocking the 10-inch knife right out of his hand at the crucial moment.

There must be some mistake, I thought. I knew Benjamin disapproved of the Catholic Church but he would never have gone this far, I could have sworn it. It must have been a practical joke gone very wrong or, more likely, a scenario dreamed up by the Marcoses to upstage the Cardinal. The next day film footage was released showing Benjamin Mendoza attending a very obviously rehearsed press conference at the Philippine Constabulary Headquarters at Camp Crame. He was being grilled by members of NBI, the Philippine’s National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine Armed Forces.

In an uncharacteristically animated voice Benjamin said, “I feel disappointed for failing to kill the Pope and would do it again if given another chance.”

The NBI Director leaned towards the artist and asked, “And who saved the Pope’s life?”benjamin mendoza 2

“I had thought it was President Marcos,” Benjamin dutifully replied, intently looking at his interrogator and sounding well-coached, “but I wasn’t too sure. But then when I saw the pictures you showed me, I am convinced it was really the President who prevented me killing the Pope.”

In fact the photos that were published showed the President far too distant from both the Pope and the artist to have either saved the one or delivered a crippling karate chop to the other.

Members of the Catholic Church who had surrounded the Pontiff at the time all agreed with the Bishop of Sarawak who, on his return to Indonesia some days later, stated categorically, “I was very close to His Holiness at that moment and I do not remember seeing President Marcos give the Bolivian painter a karate chop and a kick.” He went on to say, “It was one of the two papal security guards who played the vital role of saving the Pope for it was he who stuck out his hand to parry the attacker’s lunge and pushed His Holiness away – right into my arms. I held him tight, pulling him away until the security men grabbed the assailant and dragged him away.”

Despite the credible rebuttal the filmed interview with Benjamin Mendoza at Camp Crame was replayed all week on Philippine television. For the time being, it seemed, in the eyes of the majority of Filipinos, President Marcos was presenting himself as the hero of the hour. Since Benjamin Mendoza had played right into the President’s hands, he was treated leniently. He was sentenced to four years in Bilibid Prison and deportation upon his release.

Pope Paul in Manila

When I returned to Manila in 1972 I got in touch with him. Because of my previous visit to Bilibid I was allowed to speak directly to him without going through the authorities. Benjamin sounded content. He told me he was well looked after but that he was looking forward to returning to his family in Bolivia.

“It was a surrealist gesture, Caroline,” he told me, answering my unspoken question. “I had no intention of killing him.”

“And Marcos,” I asked, “where did he come into it?”

“Now that’s a question you know I can’t answer,” Benjamin chuckled. “You’ll get yourself into trouble if you ask me such things and I’ll get into trouble if I tell you.” Abruptly he changed the subject. “When will I see you? Will you visit me?”

“Of course,” I answered, “when?”

“Well, next Sunday’s my birthday. I’m thirty-seven. Why not come then?”

“It’s a date,” I said, “and I’ll get the Indios Bravos group to come along too.” I replaced the receiver and immediately started planning. Betsy and Henry jumped at the opportunity. The dancer Delia Javier agreed to come too. Ben and a few of the other artists, writers and poets were ready to join in the fun. Together we assembled gifts galore, hampers full of picnic food and a birthday cake with thirty-seven candles. In the early afternoon we started out from Indios Bravos towards Bilibid in a convoy of jeepneys festooned with coloured balloons and streamers announcing “Happy Birthday Benjamin”. People in the street watched in amazement as we passed by, horns blaring and tapes blasting out loud music.

Caroline with Benjamin Mendoza and fellow prisoner in Muntinglupa prison

My feelings were mixed when I approached the gates. There would be many new faces but few of the old familiar ones. It was only three years later but Pancho had been released and Jaime, Dominador, Adriano and Mariano had been executed.

Security at the prison that day was lax. Everyone, officers, prisoners and guards, were all determined to have a good time. It was odd seeing Benjamin in his ill-fitting orange prison overalls. It was strange to see him squatting on the ground outside his cell and not sitting at his habitual table at Los Indios Bravos.

We spread the picnic around him and called all the guards and prisoners within hearing distance to join us. We lit the candles and methodically Benjamin blew them out, screwing up his eyes and making a wish as he did so. Everyone immediately burst into song. I found it ironic that here they all were singing Happy Birthday to possibly the most hated the man in the Philippines, the man who had almost succeeded in assassinating their beloved Pope.

Benjamin must have noticed my astonished look. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Yes, and there are a lot of born-again Christians in here too. Funny, isn’t it?”

I laughed. “Do they give you a hard time?” I asked, concerned that religious fanatics might single him out for harsh treatment.

“No. They love me,” he smiled, “I’m a celebrity, remember. And more than God they love celebrities in the Philippines, you know that, Caroline!”

It was true, of course. I should have known. Imelda had known it too from the beginning of the Marcos presidency. And she had exploited the cult of celebrity to the hilt. “Escapism for the masses” she called it. “It gives them something to brighten up their dreary little lives!” She also discovered it was a useful tool to smokescreen a multitude of sins carried out by the Marcoses, their government, their relatives and their cronies.

It was a memorable day but it was sad as I realized it would probably be the last time I would see Benjamin Mendoza. Soon after our visit he completed his sentence and was driven straight to the airport to board a plane back to Bolivia. I received one more postcard from him and then silence. I never knew how he was received back home, as celebrity, as prodigal son or as religious enemy.

I often wondered about it. And as to my unspoken questions, “Did Ferdie or Imelda organize the whole episode to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino people in her war with Cardinal Santos?”

Possibly. And if so, “why would Benjamin have agreed to it? Money?” I didn’t think so. “Notoriety?” I doubted it. Or simply, as he said, “as a surrealist gesture against the Church’s policy in impoverished countries such as Bolivia and the Philippines?”

In my opinion, that was far more likely. But whatever the reasons only Benjamin Mendoza knew them and he was keeping them to himself. For me, I would put my money on the Marcoses. They certainly proved themselves capable of staging a murder at Manila International Airport. Eleven years later, on 21 August 1983, in the full glare of the world’s TV cameras, the Philippines’ prodigal son, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was making his triumphant return from exile in the United States when, as he stepped out of the plane, he was shot down in a hail of bullets, his body left sprawled on the tarmac.


By Caroline Kennedy



Zadar before the bombing

Over the years friends have given up asking me what I am doing. Few of them are ever surprised any more. From journalist to radio producer, from traveller to film researcher, from actress to antique dealer, from jewellery designer to theatre director – at some time or another I have dabbled in almost everything. These days I am running a small charity involved in helping the refugees and displaced people of former Yugoslavia. Every two months a group of volunteers, including myself, drive deliveries of medical, surgical, food and sanitary supplies down to the hospitals, refugee camps, orphanages and homes for handicapped children in Croatia and Bosnia.

A year ago, when the war began, I was woefully unprepared for the horrors I would find there. Typically middle-class I was uneducated in dealing with any family problems more complicated than deciding what to watch on TV, what we would eat for dinner or where we would take our annual holiday. And I was certainly unfamiliar with life as a long-distance truck driver. But it didn’t take long for all these things to become very much part of my everyday life. Unlikely as it may seem, I soon became inured to stories and images of brutality, rape, loss of dignity, destruction of homes, and of death. I soon learnt to witness, silently and without tears, small children with limbs blown away, elderly people without anything or anyone left in the world and young women traumatised by violent rape. And soon I felt more at home driving a heavy truck loaded with medical supplies than the family saloon car loaded with school trunks.

Local newspaper article on delivery of incubator and emergency theare lights to hospital.

Local newspaper article on delivery of incubator and emergency theare lights to hospital.

This is part of my diary from one convoy, this summer of 1993, when my film-maker son, Elisar, accompanied me to record the devastating effect of the war on just one seaside town on the Dalmatian coast – Zadar.

Zadar after the bombing

Zadar after the bombing

“On 10 July we set off for our second visit to the Croatian town of Zadar, formerly a beautiful coastal port. On our previous visit in May we had brought medical supplies and an incubator to the local hospital. This time we carried two more incubators, battery/mains operated theatre lamps, anaesthetics, a vast supply of medicines, intravenous antibiotics, heart monitors, ECG machines and a great deal of surgical and sanitary equipment.

We arrived at the Zadar hospital at a time of great confusion. Ten minutes earlier a shell had hit the house directly opposite the hospital, across the street from the ward we would be staying in. People were screaming hysterically. Confused, panic-stricken and traumatised, they were rushing in all directions unable to predict where the next bomb would fall. For the last 18 months Zadar has been shelled like this on a daily basis. But, although when the immediate panic is over, the inhabitants of Zadar appear resigned and surprisingly philosophical about their particular fate, there is no denying the absolute fear that prevails while the bombs are actually falling.

Newspaper article on incubator I delivered to local hospital

Newspaper article on incubator I delivered to local hospital

The hospital, airport and bridges are the main targets but many bombs are destined to go astray. This daily shelling of Zadar is devised to cause the most devastation. The shelling is devised to instil the most panic and fear among an already-terrified population. And the shelling is devised so life can never be lived normally. In all these ways the shelling of Zadar and its residents has been successful. For two years all the schools and colleges have been closed down, cinemas and restaurants only operate intermittently and at their own risk. And swimming has now been banned because, just before we arrived, several rockets had fallen into the sea killing many people, mostly mothers and small children taking an afternoon swim. The shelling is devised to kill, injure and maim indiscriminately.

Zadar during the bombing

Zadar during the bombing

For the past two years the Zadar doctors and nurses have been working round the clock, operating on the wounded from the front line. Being a prime target, the hospital itself has already received several direct hits. For their own safety, therefore, all the patients are housed in the basement, either on rough mattresses on the floor or swinging from hammocks attached to the ceiling. In these most appalling, distressing and stressful conditions limbs are being amputated, babies are being delivered and life-saving surgery is being performed – without electricity, without water – and without privacy.

11th July. Today one of the surgeons, Dr.Martin Mikecin, arranged for us to be escorted by two military officers to the front line, 10 kilometres inland from Zadar. Driving in zig-zag formation along the pockmarked roads, we visited the ruins of Crno, Murvica and Dracevac, once prosperous rural villages – now mini Vukovars. Everything that once moved is dead. Everything that once stood has fallen. Houses have been burnt, fields scorched, livestock massacred, churches desecrated and graves ripped open, their bones scattered, epitaphs erased by vulgar grafitti. What is left is eerie, haunting – silent. Fresh laundered shirts, encrusted by soot, still hang on a washing line. A child’s kite dangles from the scorched branch of a tree. Carcasses of what were probably once cows lie rotting and fly-infested in the fields. A rusted tank, a trophy of war, provides a makeshift playground for two little boys with plastic guns. A frightened dog and her pups cower and whimper in the ruins of their family home. Grass and flowers, blackened and brittle underfoot, crackle as we walk.

graveside tears

We light a candle on what remains of the altar in the small, gutted church at Murvica, only a week before the scene of a joyous local wedding. The soldiers cross themselves, kneel down. They mouth a silent prayer. As I bend down to pick another charred candle from the ground, rockets streak over our heads in search of their targets. We watch mesmerised as one lands near the airport, another near the main bridge and a third somewhere in the residential area of Zadar.

By the time the young officers return us safely to the hospital, more wounded are being brought in for surgery. Bodies of young children, swathed in makeshift bandages, carried by parents, themselves bleeding and wounded. One child, playing on his own, had accidentally shot himself with his father’s gun. Another young boy, walking his dog in the field, had unwittingly stepped on an anti-personnel mine. A little girl, no more than three years old, lies bloodied and twisted in a cardboard box outside the hospital’s main gate along with a mounting pile of rubbish. Small, limp, lifeless bodies – now just no more than statistics.bombed church

Reluctantly we say goodbye to the soldiers. They are going back to the front line and, although unspoken, we all know – maybe tomorrow it could be their lives ended prematurely, their broken bodies lying on the hospital floor, their children’s corpses discarded in a cardboard box. I promise them I will take the candle home to my Croatian mother and, together, we will say a prayer for them – and for their ravaged country.