Surviving Martial Law
MARIAL LAW’S 39TH ANNIVERSARY MARKED IN TORONTO
Hearing family members tortured in your home, showing forgiveness to prison guards, smuggling cameras into jail cells in pancit. These were among the harrowing stories of survival of martial law shared at “An Evening of Music and Poetry, Solidarity and Memories of Struggle.”
Dozens gathered to share and hear testimonials from the Philippine martial law era at St. Paul Trinity Church on Bloor Street West on Friday, September 23.
For those who lived it, martial law, was a time that will never be forgotten. Declared by former President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972 and lifted in January 1981, the period was marked by dictatorial rule, when civil liberties were taken away by force and decree. Congress was suspended. There was no press freedom. Tens of thousands were arrested, detained, and executed without trial.
“My sister was the first woman victim of martial law,” said Josie Forcadilla in an interview before she spoke at the event. Her sister, Liliosa “Lily” Hilao, was a 23-year-old graduating student at the time of her arrest, torture, and death while in detention. Hilao seldom participated in protests, but she was a prolific writer and would have graduated magna cum laude in mass communications if martial law didn’t happen, Forcadilla said.
Forcadilla’s house was raided when she was in high school. She was forced to hear the sounds of the guards torturing her sister downstairs. Hilao was taken away and died in detention. Forcadilla was also arrested.
The trauma of hearing her sister’s torture was repeated in a detention centre when Forcadilla was tied down and held under a powerful light that bruised her face. Nearby, she said, her sister was tortured with a needle.
Occasionally when Forcadilla spoke to the audience, her sad eyes would look down and start darting back and forth. You could see a flood of memories returning to her as she tells her family’s story. Some memories she didn’t want to share because of the nightmares.
“When my family saw her, they cried and cried,” Forcadilla said about when they first saw her body. She said her sister’s internal organs were removed to cover signs of torture and possible sexual abuse. “In the house they tried to rape her,” Forcadilla said to the audience, “What more when they were not there, when there was no family to see her.”
Forcadilla was one of the 10,000 plaintiffs who won a class-action suit against Marcos in the US state of Hawaii. The judge awarded the victims and relatives of execution, torture and disappearances $2 billion. She said in an interview the lawyers found it hard to compensate the victims from the Marcos estate because of the dummy accounts hiding their assets.
Ricky Esguerra began the event with a history of the martial law era and the corrupt Marcos government. This included the many “mindboggling scams engineered by the dictatorship,” Esguerra said, reading from a column by the chair of BAYAN, Carol Araullo. Marcos confiscated businesses during martial law and used them to launder money taken from government funds.
Secretary general of Migrante Canada, Christopher Sorio talked about how he survived prison. “The first task as political detainees was to retain our sanity,” Sorio said to the audience. “That was our main task, and release– whether you get released from the officers or you release yourself [through escape].” Keeping his sanity meant keeping a routine, which for him included reading. Others wrote songs.
Seeing the humanity in his captors and facing them when they came to his cell was another way Sorio retained his sanity. At first when the guards came to search his cell, he would “hide, shivering,” he said. After some months, Sorio changed his behavior and stopped hiding. He told the guards that they should come again to have coffee or breakfast.
It became so that the colonel in his detention centre told Sorio the guards were complaining about his behaviour. Sorio’s response to the colonel was, “If I was on your side, I think I would do the same thing to you. This is part of the war. Unfortunately, I’m on the other side. I’m not going to let this scare me, so I’m treating your men the same way that I want to be treated.”
This struck the colonel, who said to Sorio, “How can you do this when we have tortured you and beaten you up?” Sorio waved his hand in the air dismissively and said to the audience, “I left it at that.”
Organizing was another way to survive prison life— organizing duties, and organizing for more rights, such as prisoners being allowed to cook their own food.
At the Bicutan Detention Center in Camp Bagoong Diwa, Forcadilla said 140 detainees went on a hunger strike demanding the release of two nursing mother detainees, Mila Garcia, now the managing editor of The Philippine Reporter, and one of Forcadilla’s sisters, Marie. Their hunger strike worked, and they were released.
Garcia added to the story when she spoke. She said she participated in the hunger strike, but she had powdered milk hidden in Christmas decorations to help ensure enough nutrition for the two babies.
Connie Sorio told the audience that she grew up in a protected family of politicians. She was scared of joining the activist movements while she and her other privileged friends were in university because of the “horrors and fears that we felt growing up in a martial law environment.”
But she soon became involved. She told the audience about how she and other students in the late 1970’s became defiant against the intimidation that was created by Marcos. They began the resurgence of the student movements that went underground when martial law was declared and many students were arrested. She was the secretary of the National League of Filipino Students, a group that is active to this day.
Priests and high-ranking military officials were not spared from arrest and torture. Jojo Geronimo told the audience he was a priest at the time and was arrested because he was suspected of being a communist sympathizer. Danilo C. Vizmanos Jr. said his father was a captain at the Philippine navy. His father was arrested, detained, and interrogated with truth serum.
The loud microphone amplified the voice of the speakers as their words resonated with the audience– the vibrations of the sound felt just as much as the touching words. Chants, songs, and poetry added more emotional overtures.
The power of memory could be felt when Geronimo asked the audience to stand and shout out the names of their loved ones who died during martial law and in other struggles for human rights. After each name, the audience exclaimed in unison, “Presente!” The names were spoken from all directions in the crowded basement, and lasted several minutes.
Throughout the night, pictures taken of political detainees were projected behind the event’s speakers, bringing the experiences to life and adding faces to names. One picture was the first family portrait taken of a young Protestant priest, seated with his visiting wife and two young children. Others had young men with prison bars casting shadows on their faces.
Now the editor-in-chief of The Philippine Reporter, Hermie Garcia, detained for years, took the photographs. His wife, Mila, had snuck the camera into the prison in a container of pancit.
Some participants such as Rhea A. Gamana, a young woman who sang at the event, heard about experiences of martial law for the first time at this evening’s commemoration. “I studied history back home, but none of this. It was an eye-opener,” Gamana said.
An audience member, Fe Grzinciz, said she was in Canada at the time and protested the Marcos regime here. She shouted one of the chants in the interview, saying “Marcos, Hitler, diktador, tuta!” She said the chant calls Marcos a dictator and a puppet of the US.
An audience member, Chris Vance was there because growing up in Vancouver with Filipino friends, he realized the connection between Canada and the exploitation in the Philippines. Active in the labour movement, Vance said he attended because, “It’s important for non-Filipinos like myself to learn more, to build a stronger unity to make improvements for all our rights.”
Glenn Alegerbas said he came because he was active in student movements in the Philippines and events like this make him feel like he’s at home. “I don’t know if I could have survived it if I went through it,” he said after hearing the stories.
Many speakers reiterated that the lessons of martial law are just as relevant today. “As an offshoot of martial law, we have a government held hostage by the military,” Vizmanos said after sharing his story, “Nothing has really changed since. Now more people are being killed than being arrested. It’s gotten worse.”
(The event was organized by Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), Migrante Ontario, Anakbayan, Filipino Migrant Workers Movement and Philippine Advocacy Through Arts and Culture)