Lola Fidencia and her campaign for justice
By Mila Astorga-Garcia
TORONTO –LOLA Fidencia David, an 87-year old Filipina “comfort woman” survivor, once again spread her message so eloquently and powerfully as she spoke in a series of events in Winnipeg and Toronto: Japan should apologize to all comfort women for the abuse they received as sex-slaves of the Japanese military during World War II. Japan should do it now, as many “comfort women” survivors have already died.
It was the same message she brought when she came to Canada in 2007 with four other comfort women from China, Korea and the Netherlands, bringing their cause to the Canadian Parliament. That campaign resulted in Canada’s parliament unanimously passing a motion calling on Japan to sincerely apologize to foreign women forced into military brothels during World War II.
The motion asked that Japan must “take full responsibility for the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Forces in the system of forced prostitution” and offer “a formal and sincere apology expressed in the Diet to all of those who were victims.” The motion also calls on Tokyo “to address those affected in a spirit of reconciliation” and publicly refute claims by deniers of the “sexual enslavement and trafficking of ‘comfort women.’” At that time, the US Congress and Dutch Parliament had already passed similar motions.
Six years after that historic win in Canada, however, Japan has yet to apologize to Lola Fidencia and all comfort women. Of the four women who campaigned at the Canadian Parliament, Lola Fidencia is the only one alive. To many involved in the campaign led by Toronto ALPHA (Toronto Association for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia), her story and those of other “comfort women” which are heartbreakingly personal and full of human suffering, should be heard far and wide throughout the world, so that justice will be finally won.
I first met Lola Fidencia in that 2007 visit, when the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ) was invited by Dr. Joseph Wong, founder of Toronto ALPHA, to be the Toronto-based Philippine partner in the campaign for justice for “comfort women”. Just like in this recent visit – led by Toronto ALPHA and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — Lola was then a very compelling speaker for the comfort women cause, as she would articulately narrate in Tagalog her story about the abuse she and her family suffered in the hands of the Japanese military, and call for support from everyone for their campaign for justice, ending her talk with a raised clenched fist.
She did the same thing during her last speaking engagement at the Barbara Frum Library, where many in the multicultural audience were moved to tears when she again narrated her story, then recited a poem titled Babae/Woman, which she so eloquently and passionately delivered from memory, and then urged her audience for support as she noted that many of her comfort women friends had already died, stressing the urgency of their campaign for justice.
Through it all, Lola, though frail-looking, was a picture of courage and strength as she withstood the rigors of travel, not to mention jet lag, and the series of speaking engagements in Winnipeg (where 150 people came to a community event to hear her speak) — and in Toronto, where she spoke at a Sunday church service; in two schools before an audience of 800, and another 500 students and faculty; at a university, where she spoke with a panel of speakers; and in a public library, with an audience coming from different ethnic communities.
In these events, as she spoke about her experience, with her face at times contorted in sorrow as she relived her painful memories, everyone listened intently. As she would always end up her talk with her favorite poem and a brave call for support in their campaign for justice, many in the audience would marvel at how she could manage to resolutely carry on with her struggle, with vigor and grace, despite her age.
It helped that she was accompanied by Cristina Rosello, an educator and psychologist, and author of the book Disconnect: The Filipino Comfort Woman, who also served as her able interpreter. Rosello revealed how she herself was healed and helped by the comfort women like Lola Fidencia, whom she was supposed to help and heal. Rosello said that the inspiring courage of the “comfort women” helped her deal with her own torment since childhood, from knowing the pain of a similar abuse suffered by her own nanny, as well as her (Rosello’s) own experiences during the repressive martial law years, when she was one among the many who fought for national democracy.
One thing Lola Fidencia had stressed during her speech at the Barbara Frum Library was her frustration with the Philippine government for not supporting their cause. She said former president Gloria Macapagal – Arroyo had promised them she would support the “comfort women,” hence they had campaigned for her. However, when she became president, she disavowed such claim, Lola Fidencia said. The “comfort women” also approached both the House of Representatives and the Senate and showed them the resolution of support for their cause by the Canadian Parliament. They were also promised by both houses that they would do a similar move, but up to now have not delivered on such promise.
In August this year, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Philippine President Aquino, six “comfort women,” accompanied by supporters, marched with placards to Malacanang Palace to bring to both heads of state their cry for justice. After an hour at the palace gates, they silently went back to their jeep which took them to the site, with nobody in Malacañang meeting them, according to a news report from Vera Files in Manila. Meanwhile, many lolas (grandmothers) who had been part of the campaign for justice have already died. According to an advocacy group, out of 101 “comfort women” that their organization had accounted for, 73 lolas have already died. One of the comfort women interviewed at the Malacañang rally said that their campaign for justice will not end with their passing. “Our children and grandchildren will continue the fight (for us),” she said.
As I write, Lola Fidencia and Rosello are on a plane that will take them to Manila, where they will continue on with the fight for justice. This would have been their nth international travel to campaign for the somewhat elusive justice, but it does not matter, for they know the local and international campaign will go on. What matters to them and their supporters are the gains they make every step of the way to spread the “comfort women” story to the whole world.
Meanwhile, it is worthwhile noting one of the big strides made with their campaign. Next week, Toronto ALPHA will be signing a memorandum of agreement with the Toronto District School Board which will hopefully lead to the inclusion of the World War II period and the stories of “comfort women” in the school curriculum, according to Dr. Wong.
The comfort women campaign in Toronto and elsewhere will continue, its advocates and supporters believe, so long as there are tireless volunteers and supporters, many working in selfless humility — from the 14-year old boy distributing flyers at the Barbara Frum Library; the filmmaker who produced a movie about the lives of “comfort women” in the Philippines, Korea, and China; the young woman who delivered a powerful speech before the United Nations seeking justice for all comfort women; the church minister who invoked upon his congregation to spread the word about the courageous fight of the “comfort women”; the generous families who prepared and donated food for the after-service lunch/gathering for Lola Fidencia at the church hall; and to the celebrated Japanese Canadian poet, playwright and author who solemnly spoke before a hushed university audience, describing the struggle of the “comfort women” as a slow-moving train that nevertheless will chug along until justice is achieved.
The same hope keeps Lola Fidencia going. She told this writer that when she goes back home to her family – she has eight children, 30 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren – she will tell them stories about her Canadian visit, and show them printed coverage photos given to her by my editor, that she had personally requested for an important reason: “Gusto ko may maipakita din ako sa kanila na marami kaming suporta” (I want to be able to let them also see that we have many supporters), she explained, and that she and all comfort women are not alone in their fight for justice.