April is the cruelest month, especially way back in 1973, the 4th of the month to be precise, when Liliosa Hilao was murdered in the makeshift detention quarters of the (Philippine) Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU). In the wake of Presidential Proclamation 1081, which imposed martial rule on the Philippines, CANU had abruptly given dope dealers, dope pushers and narcotics traffickers a unilateral truce, electing instead to go after activists, “leftists,” dissenters and a vast array of people who did not want Mr. Marcos to change the Constitution so he, his clan and cronies could rule forever.
Liliosa was 23 years old, a scholar at the City University of Manila and editor of Hasik, the school’s student newspaper. Later testimonies revealed she had been tortured, gang-raped, injected with truth serum. Then, because she wouldn’t be cowed and vowed to go after her brutalizers, they poured muriatic acid down her throat and killed her. Hers was the first death in the urban detention centers of the Marcos regime.
When her family tried to obtain justice, the military used all manner of harassment and threats, including raids, beatings and detention, to discourage her parents, her brothers and her sisters.
I never met her but she remains vivid to my mind. She was killed the night before my release and whenever April comes, I hear the whisper of a co-detainee, talking about her murder. “She was killed there,” my co-detainee said, in a hushed voice, pointing to the building across the street from where we were being held inside Camp Crame. My eyes slid away from the building, kept sliding away from it, as my mind repeatedly said, “it didn’t happen here; it happened in another city, in another province, in another island, in another country far, far away.”
Liliosa’s murder came at the end of a week of severe diarrhea and gastroenteritis in our own detention quarters. For two weeks in March, water had disappeared from our quarters (such a nice neutral word); eventually, despite our efforts, the place began to stink and we were ripe as well. One morning, the military parked a fire truck outside, stuck a hose through a window and poured water into a gasoline drum in the bathroom. Our relief was short-lived; the water was contaminated, probably deliberately to punish the women for complaining.
Water and Liliosa would be linked in my mind forever, a presage of murderous things to come, perverting Aquarius’s symbolism so much that to this day, I barely drink water. In the mid-1970s, when so many women (and men, though hardly anyone talks about this) were being sexually assaulted in military detention camps, I voiced my worries to a friend. His reply: “if you were picked up again, rape would be the least of your worries.” I understood. Liliosa was the tidewater mark. After her, everyone and anyone “picked up” was tortured, some murdered, because the military establishment got away with the first. This was how we learned the word “impunity” – from Liliosa’s fate and her family’s experience.
And now there’s PP 1017 by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, so low a number among presidential proclamations. Marcos at least waited until he got to 1081, being a superstitious nitwit who embedded in the number the year he would “lift” martial -- but not his -- rule, 1981. Does this mean Gloria will step down in 2017? As Charlie Brown would say, aaargh!
But then again, there is this so-called people’s initiative (who are these people?) to change the current Constitution. Then there are all these women and men charged with rebellion, five of them congress people who’ve had to accept congressional protective custody to avoid being arrested without warrants. And US troops are debasing Filipinas again, protected by government itself. Then there are the 556 assassinated activists, leaders and critics, the body count inching upwards to the 14 killed per day in the last years of Marcos’s rule.
Time seems to have looped upon itself, things devolving, the descent into darkness accompanied by the gloating chortles of fundamentalists, military men, warlords and landlords, corporate men and a host of women glorying in their own abjectness. Time has loop and is eating itself up.
I hear myself responding over and over again, to questions trite and significant, that I don’t have time; there is no time; no time at all, because the cloud in the crystal ball has cleared and forever is visible and there is no time left.
Another generation will drop out of school; take to the hills and risk life and liberty to make democracy more than just a word. Physicists, engineers, poets, young peasants, the tribal braves, workers, women, men and even children will forgo the amiable pleasures of an ordinary life to do something which shouldn’t be extraordinary but is – assert people’s rights and freedoms.
Another generation will leave their parents’ homes and take to the hills and risk life and liberty to make democracy more than just a word. Abandoning all that is familiar, they will learn the unfamiliar heart of poverty among 70% of the population and by so doing, become themselves ordinary, usual and familiar, transformed, as the village folks used to say, into nice people around.
Sometime in the future, a woman grown old in this never-ending enterprise to create a true nation will look at the sky with horror-stricken eyes and think: “a third of my generation was killed young; a third went to prison, went to the hills or both, and a third is scattered the world over in exile.”
And remember again, the words of a woman who joined the Tupamaros of Uruguay at the age of 15, spent two years in prison where the military destroyed her right arm, and the rest of her life in exile in Sweden: “there are things I regret having done, but never being there, at the moment of historic juncture, when everyone was engaged in a magnificent undertaking.”
It is said that the poet, Pablo Neruda died of a broken heart when the Allende government was destroyed by a CIA-supported military coup and replaced with a military dictatorship. But one remembers a childhood fairytale, where an honorable man looped iron bands around his heart, to stop its shattering at injustice, thus enabling himself to act.
Go and do likewise. There is no time anymore.