Up close and personal with the horrors of Martial Law – and our people’s triumph


Joel Abong, photo by Kim Komenich (May 4, 1985)

My Facebook profile says, for education, “studied activism at the University of the Philippines.”

I went into UP thinking of following in the footsteps of our mother, Dr. Lourdes Espina. I took one look at the syllabus and asked, “can I switch to journalism.”

Writing was also half of our legacy. Dad, Rolly Espina, was a journalist, one of the “deans” of the Negros media.

But going into UP, I also knew – at 16 years of age – that activism was also in my blood.

Graciano Lopez Jaena was the brother of our grandmother’s father. In the Espina side, great grand uncles had been exiled by the Americans, and grand-aunts and grandfathers had worked for the resistance against the Japanese invaders of World War 11.

I gave up the first dream and immersed myself in the last two goals. I haven’t looked back.

After staying in the capital from 1980 to early 1985, I came home to Bacolod.

It was Dad who encouraged me, “write to serve our people.”

The college dropout became just that.

I was 21, a reporter for a local daily, stringer for a wire agency, and correspondent for a Catholic church-backed news service and a national daily.

I was also part of Cobra-ANS (Correspondents Broadcasters and Reporters Association News Service). Most of our members worked in the just re-opened mainstream media. Many colleagues had grown rusty from their martial law hiatus. We helped them by going into places the fearful would not visit, sharing the nitty-gritty of people’s lives.

Marcos had lifted martial law but repression went on.

At the COBRA-ANS office, a road-front apartment, we regularly received hate packages. It was usually a box with a black ribbon and a scrawled threat; two contained bullets.

Our senior member, Edgar Cadagat, put up a canopy of heavy fishing net material at the office entrance.

In early 1985, I remember that we crashed an island military command briefing for local officials. As we walked in, a big screen displayed “Enemies of the State”, with “Cobra-ANS” just below. Rolling slowly upwards were our names.

I came home at the height of the protest movement against Marcos.

It was also the peak of the sugar industry crisis.

There was no separating the two.

The corruption of the Marcos dictatorship fueled the sugar crisis, stealing billions of development funds.

Ferdinand Marcos appointed cronies to head a state-owned marketing and trading monopoly. They robbed sugar planters, drowning them in debt. That led to the collapse of our monocrop economy.

When giants sneeze, ordinary mortals catch pneumonia.

Negros Occidental was (and remains) a monocrop economy. When the sugar industry went into a tailspin, tens of thousands of sugar workers lost their jobs.

On our lush plains, man – not nature – ushered in famine. Workers’ families fled the haciendas to scrabble for work in the city. There was little to be had.

I covered the last days of Joel Abong, the child who appeared on newspapers as emblem of Negros’ economic disaster. “Batang Negros.”

Doctors couldn’t save him. And he was not alone. I’m sharing here, with permission, a photo of a girl as emaciated as Joel, taken by John Silva.

Children arrived in hospitals so emaciated they looked like refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. Swollen bellies, stick limbs, eyes that drooped or stared blankly. Some were too weak to talk; many could not walk.

Nanay, then head of the pediatrics department of the provincial (now regional) hospital often came home in tears. She was furious about the children dying. She also felt helpless because too many kids came into the hospital too ravaged by malnutrition – there was no saving them.

I covered Joel helping a team from the American media firm CBS.

They paid well.

I remember crying – in misplaced shame or survivor’s guilt – as the little casket was laid in the ground of the public cemetery. I pulled out the dollars and stuffed it in the hands of one of his parents.

By September 1985, the protest movement in Negros had grown big enough to organize long marches north and south of the capital, Bacolod, amid a general strike calling for better wages, safety nets for sugar workers, agrarian reform, and an end to human rights abuses.

I covered the immediate aftermath of the Escalante Massacre, where police and paramilitary troops gunned down protesters, killing 20 and wounding 30 others.

Journalists who had raced from Bacolod froze as the machine gun on the murderers’ roost atop the municipal hall swang towards us.

Some bodies had been brought to the building’s entrance, dumped atop each other.

We went straight to the town hospital.

From outside, we heard screams and cries. Cops blocked entry. A friend took us in through a back door.

The wounded moaned and wept. Some of those hurt were unconscious; some were delirious, calling out for mercy, shrieking out calls to stop the shooting.

We tried to keep out of the way of doctors and nurses but some of the wounded called out. We managed to talk to the least injured. We then went to the schools, churches and homes that sheltered those who had fled as the guns blazed.

The next day, at the provincial constabulary compound atop a small hill, I struggled to keep my face blank while interviewing stone-faced officials and grieving relatives who squatted on the ground beside the slain.

Despite the lime thrown on the bodies, the stench of decomposition filled the air. Bodies were turning black.

Escalante was on my mind on the second day of People Power.

In Bacolod City, thousands thronged the plaza in front the San Sebastian Cathedral.

I was a very young reporter then, 21 years old.

The Bacolod police chief, Col. Geolingo, detested me from my write-ups.

I tried to keep an eye on him, veering towards a different direction.

I must have blinked. Because the next time I turned a corner of the crowd in front of the Cathedral, where a jeep was parked, a hand snatched at the collar of my shirt.

I looked up. It was Geolingo.

I was with two big Italian reporters then. They had the presence of mind to pull me off the police chief and shove me into the crowd.

The workers on the frontlines who saw that teased me the whole day, all the way back to the Sacred Heart Seminary where the late Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich allowed them to stay for the duration of that last, marathon protest against Marcos.

The following day, I covered some protesters who went to the provincial constabulary office to dialogue with the provincial commander.

He was more friendly towards the rallysts – his wife worked closely with Church people in southern Negros.

I remember him saying he was fine, they could rally all they want, but it was Geolingo they should convince.

One lawyer said, in all innocence, “yes, sir, we’ll take care of that.”

The meeting was winding down when a few minutes after, the commander’s aide rushed through the door.

“Na-ambush si Col Geolingo!” he announced.

I saw the lawyer’s face grow white. He stammered to explain that the ambush had nothing to do with his “taking care” of the problem comment. The provincial commander smiled grimly and said, “I know” but asked everyone to leave.

The New People’s Army claimed the ambush. But some years back, Geolingo’s son appeared on my Facebook page to say that they suspected other groups, “political” although he never said who and no investigation unearthed any other suspect.

Geolingo had imposed a curfew.

The reason for the delegation to the provincial constabulary command was because the protesters had plans to defy the curfew.

But that night, the people finally triumphed.

The Marcoses fled.

Filipinos roared on EDSA.

They roared as they stormed Malacanang.

And they roared in Bacolod, and hugged each other, and wept and laughed and prayed.

I ended that long night – after an impromptu caravan and program – slumped on the ground, looking at the sky and wondering if Joel and the martyrs of Escalante could see our joy.*

(Inday Espina-Varona is head of regions of Rappler)

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