Ground zero: Remembering truths of a past forgone

By Krysten Mariann Boado

In the crowd of protesters burning a large image of former President Ferdinand Marcos declaring Martial Law, SELDA Vice Chairperson Bonifacio Ilagan remains unbowed.

The end of the indignation protest staged Tuesday by Martial Law victims and members of the University of the Philippines (UP) community ought to have tired the 65-year-old writer and activist, yet weariness is absent as he starts to tell his tale: “May ililibing sila. Ako walang ililibing at maraming pamilya ang walang ililibing.”

Nov. 8 had been a rough day for him, with the Supreme Court (SC) granting the president responsible for his sister’s abduction a hero’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (LNMB).

He had been waiting for the high court’s verdict in Manila himself, hoping the justices would hold on to the “spirit and intent of the law,” hoping the decision would not soil the memory of his sister, Rizalina, who had been missing since 1977.

Rizalina was a student activist from UP Los Baños (UPLB) who was abducted with nine other UPLB students and professors. They were later dubbed as the Southern Tagalog 10, and known as the single biggest case of political abduction during the Martial Law.

But in the end, nine out of 14 justices sided with the powerful political family who, together with their loyalists, were the personification of joy and triumph—all too familiar V (for victory) hand signs waving ecstatically in the air accompanied by shouts of “Marcos pa rin!” and voices telling Martial Law victims to forgive and forget.

Yet Bonifacio is not broken, and he is nowhere near forgetting.

Instead, he continues fighting: “Pagka ako tumalikod dito [sa pagtutol ng Marcos burial at sa historical revisionism], tinalikuran ko na yung alaala ng aking kapatid, tinalikuran ko yung idealism ng aking kabataan at kung ako’y nakaisip na tumalikod, dapat noon pa.”

Tracing history

Much like his sister, Bonifacio was also actively involved in the student movement during the 1970s.

He was a leader of youth group Kabataang Makabayan (KM), an organization that contributed to the rapid expansion of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army during Martial Law. Aside from this, KM also stood at the forefront of iconic youth movements such as the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune.

Bonifacio recruited his sister into joining KM, encouraging her to take part in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. She willingly became a member at 15.

Briefly, he admits this has made him feel a tinge of guilt in her demise.

“I was the one who told her about activism. I was the one who encouraged her,” Bonifacio says.

“Yung mga namatay na kaibigan ko pwede ko pang isantabi, pero kapatid ko to and yung pagiging magkapatid namin, ‘di lang blood, Magkasama rin kami [sa pakikibaka].”

Both Bonifacio and Rizalina have been victims of human rights violations (HRV) during Martial Law.

The siblings are part of the 70,000 arrested individuals and 34,000 victims of torture tallied by human rights watchdog Amnesty International. Rizalina’s abduction, on the other hand, is but one of the thousand recorded cases of enforced disappearances in the one of the country’s darkest periods in history.

Bonifacio was detained in 1974, and though it had been more than 40 years since his imprisonment, he can still recount the unspeakable horrors he endured while in captivity.

For him, the soft drink bottle is no common object. It was a tool that ripened his skin with swelling, which later on led to pissing blood and unbearable pain.

The flat iron was no ordinary household appliance. It scorched and branded his flesh for ideologies he fought for and believed in.

San Juanico Bridge was not a monumental connection between Samar and Leyte. It was a torture method that entailed severe beating should he fall from lying between two beds.

Likewise, the wounds of his sister’s abduction remain fresh, even if there is an absence of a body to concretize them.

Bonifacio knows she was was repeatedly raped for several months by members of military unit Ground Team 205 through a former detainee of the team that was able to escape.

The state security forces team had a notorious streak of leaving no captives alive, and without a body to tell the rest of her story of suffering, Bonifacio can only imagine what she experienced at the hands of the military men.

Despite these thoughts, the doors of their family’s household were always open and waiting for Rizalina’s return, expecting her to surface like Bonifacio and other political prisoners during the Martial Law period.

Every June 19, Rizalina’s birthday, Bonifacio lights a candle, and he and his family remembers their disappeared kin with a simple salu-salo. Likewise, no Christmas has passed where the Ilagans would not prepare noche buena in hopes that one Christmas night, Rizalina would surprise them through gracing their tight-knit celebration.

39 years has passed, Bonifacio’s parents have long died waiting for Rizalina’s return, yet she never came back.

When asked if he still waits for her, Bonifacio has accepted Rizalina is gone, his answer ringing with a finality: “Wala nang dahilan para maniwala ako na buhay pa siya.”  

He says the best way to honor Rizalina’s memory is to continue the struggle for justice for those who have been victims of a despot’s iron rule–the nameless and faceless unsung heroes who opposed the rule of a tyrant and paid for it in blood–even if the tables have already been turned, and history has already begun being rewritten by those in power.

Only half the story

According to Sec. I of Republic Act (RA) 289, the legislation responsible for LNMB’s creation, the LNMB was constructed to be the burial place of former presidents, national heroes and patriots “for the inspiration and emulation of this generation and of generations still unborn.”

Despite militant groups and sectors urging him to change his mind, President Rodrigo Duterte, who had backed the dictator’s burial at the hero’s cemetery since his campaign visit to Ilocos February this year, said he will stand by his decision to support Marcos’ interment in the LNMB.

He added that he was only following RA 289, which allows LNMB to become the final resting place of ex-presidents and soldiers, completely ignoring the thousands of HRV victims under Marcos’s 21-year regime, the billions of pesos his family looted as well as the fabrication of his war records.

However, for Bonifacio, granting Marcos, a place in the heroes’ cemetery is more than just a legislation and laying a body to rest.

“We are not talking about one corpse,” he says. “We’re talking about one corpse and our entire history.”

For the multi-awarded writer, historical revisionism began when former President Fidel Ramos allowed Marcos’ remains to be flown to his hometown in Ilocos Norte in Sept. 7, 1993, four years after he died in exile in Hawaii.

His widow, Imelda Marcos, stepped out of the plane, holding back tears as thousands of their family’s supporters—a mirror image of those gathered and rejoicing at the SC—welcomed their arrival, revelling in the return of their Apo Lakay.

This, Bonifacio says, was the beginning of the Marcoses’ return to power, their devious ascent to reclaim what once was theirs: “Before we knew it, they were back.”

Twenty-three years after the older Marcos’s body had been laid to rest in their family’s provincial stronghold, members of his family continue to gun for both local and national government positions.

Only this year, the late president’s son, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, Jr., nearly won the vice presidential seat short of 263,473 votes against Vice President Leni Robredo.

In 2010, he won the highest national post for the family since their return from exile by placing 7th in the senatorial race. His sister, Imee, on the other hand, has been Ilocos Norte’s governor since the same year while their mother is now serving her final term as the province’s 2nd District representative.

Their dynasty lives on with Matthew Marcos-Manotoc, Imee’s youngest son and the first of the third generation of Marcoses to take hold of the North, bagging a local government post as a 2nd District provincial board member.

While the Marcoses themselves have claimed that the former president’s burial would be an “important step in the healing process and reconciliation” in the country’s present political arena,  Bonifacio says healing was never necessary in the first place. The Marcoses have no wounds to nurse.

After all, they have a body to mourn.

“Kanino bang sugat ang gagamutin? Nagkaroon ba ng sugat ang mga Marcos?” Bonifacio asks with the same fire in his eyes that have lit his younger days of activism.

“Nabalik na nga sa kanila ang kanilang dating kapangyarihan. Dapat na gamutin ang sugat ng mga biktima.”

Beyond sentimentality

Bonifacio says granting Marcos a place in the LNMB extends beyond closure and sentimental value. Questioning the direction of the Philippines’ values system, he explains that the act deems the deceased despot an inspiration that ought to be mirrored by this generation and the next.

Most of all the SC’s 9-5 decision, he says, negates the truth behind Martial Law and the Marcos regime and fuels the power accumulated by the Marcoses throughout years since their return.

“Hindi lang for sentimental value kaya gustong ilibing ng mga Marcos ang tatay nila sa LNMB,” Bonifacio says. “Gagamitin nila itong political capital sa kanyang [Bongbong Marcos] eleksyon…bilang presidente. That’s the long and the short of it.”

Should Bongbong be elected as the country’s chief executive, the human rights activist predicts that unlike his father, Bongbong will not declare Martial Law. Rather, he would devise a different political strategy that will reclaim their family’s lost glory.

If that happens, Bonifacio says Filipinos are back to square one.

He knows that by that time, he would be old and unable to make it to the mountains to fight like he once did, yet while Philippine history is being rewritten in favor of a villain, Bonifacio dares to tell his tale over and over again.

He dares to tell the story of disappeared sisters with unmarked graves, of bodies hastily thrown in rivers and ravines, of unheard names that opposed a dictator and have been deemed by the people worthier of a spot in the heroes’ cemetery.

Although he, along with other petitioners have yet 15 days to file a motion for reconsideration that might change the SC’s verdict, Bonifacio says the fight is not for the few to decide.

After all, history does not lie on a 9-5 decision.

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