My Life During Martial Law

Most of today’s young Filipinos have no inkling of the horrors of Martial Law, the draconian measure enforced by Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1970s. It is, for many teenagers and young adults, a bygone era, best forgotten and buried in the recesses of a nation’s short memory. Yet, for all the calls—some of them well-meaning—to “move on,” the atrocities of that period remain unpunished and without closure. Resurgent honors the victims of that horrid era with an exclusive account by Greg S. Castilla, who was there when the curtains fell upon an unsuspecting people.

Forty-four years ago, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos declared Martial Law in the Philippines. But the presidential proclamation was actually signed September 17 and was made public only on September 23, which happened to be a Saturday. The formal announcement was made about 22 hours after the military had already arrested political opponents and closed down all media and retail establishments. The timing was perfect because many were staying home for the weekend. It would be difficult to instantly and organizationally launch an organized opposition to the issuance of Presidential Proclamation No. 1081.

I woke up at around 6:00 that morning of September 21, 1972. I turned on my transistor radio as part of my daily ritual to listen to the morning news. To my surprise, my favorite radio station was dead silent. Something was not right. I switched from one station to another but it was all static because there were no radio signals. Later that morning, one network started playing the “Bagong Lipunan” anthem, which eventually became the theme song of Marcos’ New Society – a society marked by thousands of Filipinos detained, tortured, summarily executed, disappeared, and spied on. But it also marked the beginning of a renewed social awareness by thousands of Filipinos who would eventually oppose the dictatorship.

Truth to tell, I was hesitant to write this piece. I still think about Martial Law when I see a jeep load of military men. I can’t avoid it. I still shudder in fear when a government official floats the idea of suspending the writ of habeas corpus or declaring Martial Law.  As Rene Lizada writes in his article, “Stuck”, “We are still under Martial Law. We are stuck with Martial Law.”

But the youth have to know for their sake.

During the Martial Law years, all school forums, cultural presentations and programs were teeming with military agents and spies in civilian clothes and with cameras. They would take pictures of the students, the speakers, the program participants, and would follow some of them on their way home. “Bubuntutan ka,”as we would say. It was actually a form of intimidation and the military’s way of identifying individuals connected with any organization against Marcos.

I had a cousin who joined the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), the para-military unit of Marcos. In 1976, my cousin showed me a picture of myself attending a demonstration in front of the San Pedro Cathedral in Davao City. Apparently, the picture was taken by the military in 1974 when I was teaching in Davao. Not knowing that this CAFGU was my cousin, the military gave him my picture to look for and spy on me. Of course, my cousin did not snitch on me.

I tried to be as personal as possible in this piece because those of us who lived under Martial Law have different stories to tell. Thus, I offer no stats in this piece because one can easily find them in the Internet. 

I was in 3rd year college at Ateneo de Manila when Martial Law was declared. But my own social awareness started two years before the imposition of Martial Law.  Admittedly, the Philippines, as described in those days, was sitting on top of a social volcano. It was hard not to be involved. The government was going nowhere as workers, peasants, religious, students, professionals and other sectors of society continued to clamor for reforms. Rallies, demonstrations, discussion groups, and cultural presentations in university campuses were almost daily occurrences.  

In my own little way, I participated in the task of social awareness building. I remember writing an article in the Weekly Nation on March 16, 1970, where I challenged government leaders to do something constructive for the country. It made the front page of the Weekly Nation because I put the initial “SJ” (Society of Jesus) after my name. And Jesuits, at least some of them, are known for their intellectual diatribes. Yes, I was a young Jesuit scholastic at that time.

 Not even my American Jesuit brothers were spared. In an article that I wrote in the Guidon, the college school paper at the Ateneo de Manila, I cautioned the American Jesuits not to oppose the filipinization of the Ateneo, if they wanted to be of service to the students’ search for identity. That did not sit well with the Jesuit president of the university at that time and I was reported to Fr. Benigno Mayo, who was then the Jesuit provincial, as a communist.

Fr. Mayo, who was more open-minded than the Jesuit president of AdeM, did not reprimand me or call my attention. I took that to mean that I could continue doing what I was doing.

From 1973-1975, I was assigned to teach at the Ateneo de Davao High School in Matina. While in Davao I met Karl Gaspar, Fr. Roger Antalan, Lyn Yuvienco, Sr. Regina Pil, RGS, Bert Cacayan, Nelia Sancho, and Francis Morales. They each had a story to tell about Martial Law and it centered mainly on military abuses – something that I did not personally experience in Davao, but became awfully real for me when I returned to Manila.

In 1976, I worked in Tatalon, Quezon City, as a community organizer. Tatalon is a squatters’ area and we were organizing the squatters to fight for their land. Because of our work, though perfectly legal, we were under surveillance by the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) intelligence unit. The military assigned in Tatalon   spread rumors in the community that we were communists. This was part of their propaganda campaign. During the Martial Law years, if someone was branded a communist, you were a marked man or a marked woman. That was the military’s way of “justifying” your possible arrest or salvaging, a term for summary execution, quite the opposite of the usual meaning of “salvage” which is to save.

It was in Tatalon that I met several organizers mostly from University of the Philippines who were dedicated to uplift the conditions of the poor. One of them was Ishmael Jun Quimpo, a young UP student who used to sing in a bar until he became a full-time community organizer or CO.  I was in the U.S.   when I heard that he was treacherously murdered by a military agent in 1981 in Nueva Ecija while eating. According to the news account, the first bullet hit him in the hip; the second, in the nape. As he fell, five more bullets entered his body. His brother Ronald Jan Quimpo, a graduate of Philippine Science High School (PSHS) Batch 1971, disappeared sometime in 1977 and was never found. He was 23. 

Because of my work in Tatalon as a community organizer, I was considered a subversive under martial rule.  As a result, the military was after me.  In fairness, the Jesuits hid me in La Ignaciana, a Jesuit house in Pasay. I was there for one month. Jesuit friends would visit me. But I was getting bored doing nothing. One day, my superior asked me to attend a retreat in the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches. While on retreat, there was a report that several Metrocom operatives were on their way to Novaliches. I did not know if they were after me or another Jesuit. So I had no choice but to escape without telling anyone, not even my superior, not even my parents. That was the end of my Jesuit vocation.

 I think my decision was inevitable.  I didn’t want to become a faceless statistic, buried in an unknown place, a victim of military salvaging.  I know quite a good number of acquaintances and classmates who were not as lucky as me.  In fact, one of them, Manny Yap, also an Atenean, has not yet been found up to now. He graduated magna cum laude at AdeM. He disappeared in 1976 on Valentine’s Day when he was on his way to meet his mother somewhere in Quezon City.

Another acquaintance who suffered a brutal death in the hands of the military was Billy Begg. He was an ex-seminarian from the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary in Quezon City.  We used to play basketball at the Ateneo covered courts almost every afternoon when we were college students. A few years after Martial Law was declared, he quit his studies at the University of the Philippines and joined the New People’s Army (NPA), convinced that armed struggle was the only way to bring about a more humane and just social order. Sometime in March of 1975, his group encountered a band of government soldiers somewhere in Isabela. Billy was captured alive. But when his body was found, it was obvious that he was heavily tortured.

The arrest of a friend was always emotionally and mentally taxing. When three of my colleagues, Rolando Federis, 24, Flora Concepcion, 18, and Adora Faye de Vera, 16, disappeared on their way to the Bicol Region on October 1, 1976, the harsh reality of Martial Law hit me like a sharp knife scraping my spine. We knew each other and I was worried that I could have been implicated. I became more security conscious. Later, I learned that Federis and Concepcion did not betray anyone and they paid for it. They were killed by their military captors after they were heavily tortured. De Vera, who was repeatedly raped by her captors, was made a concubine by the military until she was able to escape.

I had to inform the mother of Federis what happened to her son and it was so heartbreaking. She was crying and I did not know what to say to comfort her. I just sat in silence, while imagining Federis in pain while being tortured.

Life during martial law was difficult, especially if you were involved in the anti-Marcos movement.  It was risky, too. Not even my parents knew my whereabouts because the military could always threaten them or blackmail them to reveal where I was. Agents from various military intelligence units masquerading as balut and ice cream vendors were ready to catch their prey. Thus, we never stayed long in one place. We moved from apartment to apartment quite often. We survived on sardines and tuyo (dried fish). On certain occasions, I could not resist going to our real home to feast on homemade cooking, but only after taking all the necessary security precautions. 

But despite the danger, life in the movement was also fulfilling. I derived fulfillment from organizing the workers in Metro Manila, by listening to their stories, and learning from them. The experience was cathartic. It felt good educating and organizing the people to fight the dictatorship. It was also in the movement that I met the most generous and selfless people. One of them I ended up marrying. The workers I met, for example, in various factories did not have any material possession, but they would go out of their way to share with me whatever they had, be it food or even money.

Many activists who lived through the martial law years have their own specific stories to telI. But unknown to many, Martial Law also had the effect of turning family members against each other. 

Sometime in 2012, a former Jesuit emailed me about his cousin, the late Col. Rolando Abadilla, a known Metrocom torturer. He wrote, “Do you know that Col. Rolando Abadilla was my first cousin? We grew up together. His father is my mom's dearest brother. Roly was in LST (Loyola School of Theology) for my ordination. Then our relationship had a falling out when I heard all the abuses he committed. Until now I do not talk to his wife, his kids, his brothers and sisters….Of course, he was killed in Katipunan. I did not shed a tear.”

It is the same anger that this former Jesuit felt toward his cousin that I also feel at times.  Sometimes I purposely suppress the feeling. I succeed but only for a short time.  Then it comes back. The memories of the thousands of victims of Martial Law continue to haunt me.

Martial Law was no joke. It was the darkest hour in Philippine history. This is the reason why I oppose the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayan (LNMB). Marcos can never be a hero.

Which brings me to what Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, posted in his Facebook account a few years back:  “…Sure, there are lessons to be learned from the past and it is obvious that Martial law, and all the succeeding administrations for that matter, was neither “a bed of roses nor a bed of nails,” to paraphrase Bon Jovi’s lyrics. That’s all I will say on the Presidency of my father and those that came after. I will resist indulging in the blame game and continue to look forward ....”

Bongbong’s statement presages a doomed future for us if we forget the past and not learn our lesson.

(Mr. Castilla has a doctorate in multicultural education from the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to three other books, he authored "Carlos Bulosan: Precursor of Multicultural Education.” In 2014, he co-edited, "Bikol Magis: Through Childhood Days and Youthful Years."  He says he “maintains his sanity by teaching, playing basketball, writing for community newspapers, and being with his family and grandchildren.” —editor)