By: Roberto S. Verzola
(Editor’s Note: Below is an abridged version of the author’s story, “Lest We Forget,” which first appeared in a recent best-selling book on martial law, “Not On Our Watch.” After his martial law ordeal, Roberto S. Verzola went on to finish electrical engineering at UP, pioneered in the local computer industry and helped launch the green movement in the country. He currently promotes an ecologically benign method of farming and teaches math at UP.)
I graduated from Philippine Science High School in 1969 and entered the University of the Philippines (UP) the same year as a scholar of the National Science Development Board (now the Department of Science and Technology).
As a UP freshman on the Diliman campus, I was relatively unperturbed by the student activism that had begun to draw other members of my batch. Pampered as an honor student and government scholar, my future seemed secure.
The consecutive national elections of 1969, 1970 and 1971 were unique in Philippine political history. This string of highly political election years kept the nation in ferment, heightened the political awareness of the public, especially youth like us, and gradually brought the cauldron to a boil.
Things were coming to a head. As the specter of military rule started to become real, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) launched an ambitious effort to recruit from among radicalized activists. I was one of them.
On Aug. 21, 1971, the Liberal Party (LP) rally at Plaza Miranda was bombed, killing several people and almost decimating the LP leadership. Immediately, [President Ferdinand E.] Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The suspension basically allowed the military to detain anyone indefinitely. What seemed a theoretical possibility was now becoming real. Marcos was, indeed, hell-bent on extending his rule, regardless of constitutional prohibitions.
After the writ suspension, the movement, to me, became the Movement, and eventually the Revolution. My distaste for government corruption, my desire to do good for the poor, and my early commitment to stand by my country rather than adopt a new more prosperous one—values I had picked up at the family dinner table which led me to activism in the first place—were giving way to class consciousness, revolutionary fervor and communist ideology.
Life in the underground
The declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, swept my niggling questions under the rug. As we entered this dark period of recent Philippine history, my life in the underground began. I turned 20 in November 1972.
I was part of a group that consisted mostly of journalists and writers. I was assigned to a team that worked on an underground newspaper in Filipino, which we called Taliba ng Bayan. For almost two years, I was part of the group that published Taliba ng Bayan.
On Oct. 4, 1974, I was in a meeting with members of the [CPP] Manila-Rizal Committee in a UG house in Valenzuela, Bulacan, when armed men broke into the door and I found myself face to face with a gun.
I felt myself freeze and blanch before the muzzles pointed at my face. Shouts of “Down! Down!” brought me to my senses and I lay face down on the floor, as the raiding team settled down to identify the captives. I was one month short of my 22nd birthday.
Of all the body blows, I found it hardest to deal with those to the solar plexus. Exhale all the air in your lungs. Then force more air out—twice, three times—until you can squeeze nothing more out of your lungs. Hold your breath as long as you can. Now try to breathe in. If you somehow cannot, that’s how it feels to get well-placed blows to the solar plexus.
It leaves you gasping for breath, for air that won’t come because of the cramp on your diaphragm. The physical pain of fists hitting skin, muscles and bones recedes to the background, until it’s just you and the air that won’t come. (I wonder if Sisa’s Basilio in Rizal’s Noli felt the same, hung upside down and dunked into a well?)
At one point, when I felt I was about give in (the bone of contention was my uncle’s home address), I told myself to last a little longer. A few seconds more, a few minutes more. No, not yet. Then they would pause for the questions. And we’d go one more round.
Subconsciously, I felt that giving away my uncle’s address would be giving away nothing at all. It would, on the other hand, inform my relatives and subsequently my parents that I was in military hands.
But then I didn’t want to impose on my uncle and my aunt the terror of getting raided in their home. My frustrated interrogators probably did not realize it, but they were testing not my loyalty to the Movement, but my filial love for Auntie Orang, a cousin of my father, and her husband Uncle Domeng, who gave me sanctuary in the earliest days of martial law when I had nowhere to go.
After my Isafp [Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines] ordeal, I was “borrowed” by another intelligence unit for further interrogation. Lieutenant Garcia of the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) took me to Camp Panopio along Edsa near the PC [Philippine Constabulary] headquarters.
I told them the same story. They didn’t believe me. So they brought in the machine. Two lengths of wire extended from it, both ending with bare wire, the insulation stripped. One end was tied around the handle of a spoon.
The machine is a field generator, with a wheel with a handle. It probably generates 40-60 volts and, if turned really fast, may give as high as ninety volts or even more.
My interrogators tied the end of one wire around my right index finger and inserted the spoon into my pants, on my right waist, until it rested where the leg meets the lower abdomen, near the crotch. My body would complete the circuit.
When I was young, I used to watch my uncles and older cousins as they slaughtered a pig. As soon as the pig realized something bad was going to happen, it would shriek for dear life.
Shriek of terror
It was a grating shriek of helplessness, desperation, and terror, one that rang in your mind long after the pig was dead.
It was that kind of scream that issued from my throat every time my torturers spun the wheel around. It was totally involuntary, the automatic response of a body invaded by an alien current of a thousand spikes snaking through one’s cells and nerves. I could stifle it no more than I could stop my hand from jerking away when shocked briefly by live house wiring.
Across the aisle were two civilian Metrocom employees. They were women, apparently on overtime. They went on with their work, as if they heard or saw nothing. Business as usual.
No sign of surprise or concern. Metrocom apparently used the electric shock treatment often enough to make its civilian employees inured to screams.
Soft drink bottle
After less than a week at the Ipil detention center, I was called to the office, told to pack my things, and taken to another intelligence unit, the dreaded 5th CSU [Constabulary Security Unit], for further interrogation.
Until then, I had no idea that a soft drink bottle could be used for torture. I was made to squat inside a room with the air conditioner fully turned on, and the session began.
What I got were not the hard body blows that I had endured in Isafp, but sharp taps on my limbs with a soft drink bottle.
These taps were unlike the jarring shock of a chest blow or the asphyxiating cramp of an upper cut to the solar plexus. They brought instead a gradually growing numbness that became an ache that grew sharper as muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone began to get sore and the nerves on the skin became even more sensitive to pain.
The taps weren’t done in a hurry. In fact, they came at a deliberate pace. Starting with the left upper arm, gradually going down to the elbow and the forearm. And then the right upper arm.
Then the legs, one at a time. The knees, and the shins, finally. Have you ever bumped your knee or shin into a hard object? Remember, that was a single bump.
When they finally gave up on me, I was so sore I could hardly move. Reddish blotches had started to erupt all over my limbs, which soon turned bluish-violet and then almost black. Parts of my arms and legs had literally turned black and blue from the beating.
Dark blotches would remain visible almost two months later. When the blotches became unnoticeable, I was allowed to have visitors.
Plaza Miranda bombing
It was in the 5th CSU where I first heard it told and confirmed that the Party chairman had secretly ordered the Plaza Miranda bombing.
This information was not forcibly extracted but freely volunteered to us by conscience-stricken Party leaders in prison who were in the midst of their own soul-searching, perhaps suffering from pangs of guilt that the confessions helped ease.
Kumander Dante (Bernabe Buscayno, then commander in chief of the New People’s Army), supposedly shed tears when he learned about the Party’s role. I did too.
The Plaza Miranda revelations were a watershed for me. So, the Party had been telling us lies. And I had echoed the lies too, recalling the pieces on the Plaza Miranda bombing I had written in the Philippine Collegian, Taliba ng Bayan, and elsewhere. I was wracked with questions and doubts.
I didn’t realize then how much worse it could get. But, in fact, it did. Purges had happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin, in China under Mao, in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and possibly elsewhere too, when communists were already in power.
In the late 1980s, before they had even won power, those who professed belief in national democracy and wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat in the Philippines prefaced their mission with an internal purge. This purge left nearly a thousand or so of their own members and followers dead—after a horrible ordeal of interrogation, torture, and eventually, execution in the hands of their own comrades.
Although I would not immediately renounce my commitment to the national democratic movement, fundamental questions would flood back and I would replay in my mind all the internal debates many times.
It would take not months but years of self-cleansing, guided by nothing but my own conscience, before I could again face the world with confidence in my own system of beliefs.
For our generation, the horrors of martial law were common knowledge, especially because the postdictatorship President, Cory Aquino, was herself the wife of one of its victims.
But when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, following Marcos’ footsteps, was on the verge of imposing full military rule to cover up her own brand of corruption, yet not enough crowds formed to kick her out, I realized that subsequent generations never really knew what it meant to live under a dictatorship.
They have no memories of dictatorship. Unlike me, they don’t have marks on their bodies, bad dreams at night, or friends who died in the prime of youth to remind them.
When we of this generation go, our memories should not leave the world with us. No, we must never forget.