A firsthand account of the day Ninoy Aquino was martyred
By Thomas Benjamin Roca
Demetrio Yabut, 56, is still cheerful despite being visibly tired. Sitting on a wooden bench in front of a corner store near his house in Tambo, Parañaque, Mang Emong, as his neighbors call him, acknowledge passersby with a wide smile.
The former overseas construction worker and his family of six had just finished cleaning their house, one of the many thousands affected by floods in much of Metro Manila brought about by torrential rains this week. He says it is the second straight year that his house had been submerged in floodwaters.
“Ganitong panahon last year, hanggang bewang yung baha sa amin. Kahapon naman, hanggang tuhod lang (This time last year, the flood at home was waist-deep. Yesterday, it was just knee-deep),” he relates with a sigh.
The sky is still grey, and a light drizzle begins to fall. Mang Emong lights a cigarette, and sticks his open palm out into the rain.
“Dumating din si Ninoy ng mga August e. Ang taas ng araw noon, hindi umuulan katulad ngayon (Ninoy arrived in August, too. The sun was up; it wasn’t raining like this),” he says.
Mang Emong was one among tens of thousands of people who gathered outside Manila International Airport (MIA) 30 years ago on August 21, 1983 to welcome exiled opposition leader Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.
Mang Emong, then 26, was a newcomer to the capital and worked two jobs – a welder for a private construction firm at day, and a tricycle driver at night – to support his family back in Vinzons, Camarines Norte, as well as the family he was starting to build with his wife Proserpina. He was also a member of the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) chapter in Paranaque.
The SDK was a national militant youth organization outlawed by the Marcos regime along with another larger militant youth group, the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). The violence and anxiety of Martial Law failed to tamp down these organizations’ numbers, and as military rule in the country was lifted in the midst of a failing economy and heightened political tension, members of the KM and SDK found themselves at the forefront of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.
Mang Emong recounts that he, along with other SDK comrades and members of other anti-Marcos groups, began tying yellow ribbons on the trees and shrubs along MIA Road and Roxas Boulevard a day before Aquino was to arrive in Manila. The yellow ribbons were an allusion to the 1973 single “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by American singing trio group Tony Orlando and Dawn, about a freed prisoner who makes his lover tie a colored ribbon around a tree near his town’s bus stop so he’ll know if he’s still welcome in her life.
“Galing trabaho, hindi na ako namasada. Mga hapon, nagkita kami ng mga kasama ko sa Redemptorist, diyan sa Baclaran, tapos buong magdamag kaming nagtali ng mga ribbon mula simbahan hanggang airport (I didn’t drive my tricycle after work. That afternoon, I met up with my comrades in Redemptorist [Church], in Baclaran, and we tied ribbons from the church up to the airport all night long),” he recalls.
The next day, August 21, crowds of Aquino supporters began to form at the parking lot of MIA as early as 6 a.m. Mang Emong says he and his companions had little sleep, and only had coffee and cigarettes for breakfast when they got back to work. They painted several dozen welcome placards for Ninoy, and distributed them among SDK members as the crowd spilled over into MIA Road.
“Masaya yung mga tao, para ngang piyesta e. May mga kasama pang banda. Lahat ng tao, naka-puti at dilaw (The people there were festive. There were even [marching] bands among the crowd. Everyone was wearing either white or yellow),” he says.
Death and anger at the airport
Mang Emong remembers security being tight in and around the airport on that day. The Metropolitan Command (METROCOM) of the Philippine Constabulary (now the Philippine National Police) had deployed more than a thousand policemen to guard the perimeter of the airport, in addition to hundreds of military personnel sent by Marcos to arrest Aquino immediately after landing.
METROCOM personnel prevented the pro-Aquino crowd from getting near the airport terminal building. As a result, he says, the crowd relied on handheld AM radio sets beaming live reports from wire journalists who were allowed inside terminal premises.
At mid-morning, Mang Emong recalls, reports circulated that Ninoy Aquino had arrived.
Aquino’s Manila landing was the cap-off to a circuitous week-long plane journey which saw him take off from Boston, Massachusetts, where he and his family had stayed in exile for more than seven years.
Aquino’s long trip home took him through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Hong Kong, before hitching a China Airlines flight from Taipei bound for Manila. With him were dozens of foreign journalists, many of whom have been following Aquino during his years in America.
“Ayun na, excited na kaming lahat. Sige yung pagsigaw ng mga tao ng ‘Ninoy, Ninoy!’ Yung mga may dala ng radio, tutok na tutok, tapos ibinabalita rin nila sa mga tao yung naririnig nila (We were all excited! People kept chanting ‘Ninoy, Ninoy!’ Those who had radios with them were listening closely to the reports, and relayed everything they heard to the people),” says Mang Emong.
Then, from the din of the crowd around him, he heard what he thought was a distant round of gunshots, and a man a few meters from him cursed loudly and shouted, “Patay na si Ninoy! Pinatay nila si Ninoy! (Ninoy is dead! They killed Ninoy!)”
“Nanahimik yung mga tao, tapos saglit lang nangibabaw yung mga radio. Nagsimula sa kaunting iyakan, nadagdagan ng mga galit na sigaw at mura. Maya-maya pa, wala na akong marinig sa sobrang ingay ng mga tao (The crowd fell silent. Only the radio sets can be heard. Then it started from a few people wailing, then the angry shouts and cursing. Within minutes, I was overwhelmed by the noise from the crowd),” he says.
Mang Emong says he hardly slept that night.
“Galit ako. Noong panahon na yun, sigurado akong si Marcos yung nag-utos noon. Gusto ko na nga mamundok noon e, sobrang galit ko sa mga nangyayari (I was angry. At the time, I was sure [President Ferdinand] Marcos was behind [Aquino’s assassination]. I even wanted to go to the mountains [and join the guerillas there], because I was so angry with what was happening),” he says with a laugh.
The Marcos regime formed a fact-finding board headed by former Court of Appeals Ma. Corazon Agrava to investigate the Aquino assassination. The Agrava fact-finding board eventually found several military personnel guilty of murdering Aquino and Rolando Galman, who was earlier thumbed by Marcos as the assassin. Marcos himself was never implicated in the assassination, and Gen. Fabian Ver – the dictator’s top military man – was not brought to court despite being virtually indicted in both of the two reports produced by the Agrava board.
Mang Emong says he never joined the New People’s Army, but instead continued joining the many protest actions that followed Aquino’s death, starting with the fallen senator’s funeral march from Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City to Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque.
“Noong ililibing na si Ninoy, tsaka umulan. ‘Ika nga namin, nakikiramay ang langit sa Pilipinas noon (When Aquino was to be buried, that’s when it started to rain. Back then, we all said the sky was mourning with the nation),” he adds.
An estimated two million people lined the funeral procession route to pay their respects to Aquino. It was an epic foreword to the three years of tumult and resistance that would follow, ultimately culminating in a week-long display of solidarity and collective power in February 1986, which saw Marcos fall from power and Ninoy’s widow Corazon replace the dictator.
Thirty years to day after Ninoy Aquino was felled by an assassin’s bullet, Mang Emong feels that the nation has squandered the anti-Marcos hero’s legacy.
“Ikaw ba, kapag alam mong ikamamatay mo yung gagawin mo, gagawin mo pa rin? Matapang si Ninoy (If you know you’re going to be killed because of what you were about to do, would you still do it? Ninoy had courage),” he says.