Source: Humans of Pinas
I entered journalism in 1984. Our home island, Negros, the country’s sugar bowl, was also known as a “social volcano.”
I was 21, a reporter for a local daily, stringer for a wire agency, correspondent for a Catholic church-backed news service and a national daily.I was also part of Cobra-ANS (Correspondents Broadcasters and Reporters Association News Service). Most of our members worked in the just re-opened mainstream media.
Many colleagues had grown rusty from with their martial law hiatus. We helped them by going into places the fearful would not visit, sharing the nitty-gritty of people’s lives.Marcos had lifted martial law but repression of went on.
At the COBRA-ANS office, a road-front apartment, we regularly received hate packages. It was usually a box with a black ribbon and a scrawled threat; two contained bullets. Our senior member, Edgar Cadagat, put up a canopy of heavy fishing net material at the office entrance.In early 1985 we crashed an island military command briefing for local officials.
As we walked in, a big screen displayed “Enemies of the State”, with “Cobra-ANS” just below. Rolling slowly upwards were our names.The hacienda system defined Negros. A few clans owned most of the land.
A sugar quota system that guaranteed markets had pampered them for decades. On the other side of the divide were farm workers or sakada, practically serfs, their lives controlled by masters and overseers.
After the US quota ended in 1974, Ferdinand Marcos appointed cronies to head a state-owned marketing and trading monopoly. They robbed sugar planters, drowning them in debt. That led to the collapse of our monocrop economy.On our lush plains, man – not nature – ushered in famine. Workers’ families fled the haciendas to scrabble for work in the city. There was little to be had.
I covered the last days of Joel Abong, the child who appeared on newspapers as emblem of Negros’ economic disaster. Doctors couldn’t save him. He was not alone. Children arrived in hospitals so emaciated they looked like refugees from sub-Saharan Africa.
Swollen bellies, stick limbs, eyes that either drooped or stared blankly. Some were too weak to talk; many could not walk.By September 1985, the protest movement in Negros had grown big enough to organize long marches north and south of the capital, Bacolod, amid a general strike calling for better wages, safety nets for sugar workers, agrarian reform, and an end to human rights abuses.
I covered the immediate aftermath of the Escalante Massacre, where police and paramilitary troops gunned down protesters, killing 20 and wounding 30 others.Journalists who had raced from Bacolod froze as the machine gun on the murderers’ roost atop the municipal hall swang towards us.
Some bodies had been brought to the building’s entrance, dumped atop each other.We went straight to the town hospital. From outside, we heard screams and cries. Cops blocked entry. A friend took us in through a back door. We tried to keep out of the way of doctors and nurses but some of the wounded called out.
We managed to talk to the least injured. We then went to the schools, churches and homes that sheltered those who had fled as the guns blazed.The next day, at the provincial constabulary compound atop a small hill, I struggled to keep face blank while interviewing stone-faced officials and grieving relatives who squatted on the ground beside the slain.
Despite the lime thrown on the bodies, the stench of decomposition filled the air. I visited Escalante in 2016 for the 31st anniversary commemoration rites. The bank in front of the municipal hall still had huge pockmarks left on its wall by the machine gun bullets that tore into a sea of unarmed folk.
I had interviewed Bernardino “Toto” Patigas the day after the massacre. Thirty one years later, the memory still left him in tears. Two and a half years after my last visit, in April 2019, gunmen gunned down Toto in broad daylight. On Negros, killers stalk the land once more.