BOOK REVIEW: Your work for liberation, for justice, for freedom was not in vain!

TITLE: O Susana! Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao
AUTHOR: 34 authors, edited by Macario D. Tiu
Book design by Shaun Bonje
Artwork by Nonoy Rodriguez
Published by the Ateneo de Davao University Publication Office

How does one react to an invitation to review or comment on a book which is an anthology of articles written by some members of the “Susana family” – group of NGOs workers who spent some time together during what perhaps is the darkest days of our country’s history? Truth to tell, I didn’t know how – how to react, but I said “yes” anyway to Melot, who called me. I must have said Yes because it will be such an honor to say something about what I imagined would be stories told straight from the heart, to get into those hearts, albeit vicariously, to feel, to relate, to understand.

I received the draft of the book last Monday and managed to finish reading it on Tuesday evening. First, I browsed through it and then, I read each article and found myself being transported back in time. The authors were “residents” of a home where a kind of heart was molded and while the stories spanned many years of struggle against a dictatorial, despotic, cruel regime, they spoke of their struggles – grounded on their beliefs of freedom, of justice, of a living-out of one’s faith. It spoke of a kind of courage to continue the work of “conscientization”, no matter how difficult, in many parts of Mindanao. Written in different styles, the stories also spoke of how varied their personalities are, of how different circumstances required different responses, of experiences that are so deeply-felt and so personal. I know many of the authors – have even worked with them at one time or the other – but as I read their stories, I saw a side of them that I have not seen before or a side that, perhaps, I took for granted.

Their stories will be out there in the world as we launch the book today and hopefully, their stories will touch the hearts of all the younger generations of Filipinos, born after those dark days under martial law so that they will not join the calls to “just forget the past and move on” and bring back to power the very people who committed / abetted / perpetuated the many crimes against thousands of Filipinos, the senseless loss of lives and property – salvagings, the kidnappings, the sexual abuse of women, the state-sanctioned executions, tortures, and intimidation and many other human rights violations, the insatiated greed and the sheer impunity of it all that marked the dictatorial regime. The stories in this book must serve as a lens to see the reality of the heroes and heroines who dared to fight for the truth, for justice, for freedom. In one way, the glimpses of dehumanizing poverty in some of the stories, also speaks of the economic failures of Martial Law; failures driven by cronyism, nepotism, and institutionalized and state-sanctioned graft and corruption – all manifestations of Power so abusive that its pernicious effects resound to this very day.

Reading through the stories, I see a lot of references to God and his mercy, of God making things possible even in the darkest of times. One common thread in all their stories – as “Susanistas” they, consciously – or unconsciously, perhaps at times – became part of the social development community and the churches in Mindanao that bravely vowed to continue translating the reforms under the Second Vatican Council.

I asked Melot about how their workshops and meetings went as the work on the book progressed. I imagined how difficult it must have been for many of them who worked at the Susana building. Melot said “sa pagsugod jud, naghinilakay mi.” She didn’t have to elaborate because I felt that I understood. I lost two friends during martial law period. I know of other friends who went underground or who went abroad. God knows what could have happened to me if I had taken the road less-travelled. For I was an angry, a very angry college student and member of the Davao League of Students that was aligned with the moderate National Union of Students of the Philippines. We were raising valid concerns about how Marcos was changing the Philippine Constitution by controlling the Constitutional Convention and other abuses that were becoming evident at that time. In NUSP, we elected Edgar Jopson, Edjop, an Atenean, as president. However, after my graduation in 1970, I lost touch with my NUSP colleagues.

I eventually got married and had a 5-month old baby, Lyca, when Marcos declared Martial Law in September 1972. But before that, I had short conversations with Evelia Bontia, with whom I shared many happy moments earlier at the Insular printing press as we were editors of our respective school papers. Sometimes, shortly before the declaration of martial law, I would even pass on to Evelia a part of my salary as my contribution to her group that continued to ask the hard questions. A few times, I joined some meetings but because I was already married and with a baby then, I chose not to be more involved even as our conversations continued for a little while longer. I felt so sad when I found out that she left home and joined the movement underground. I lost touch with her until one day, I was told she died in childbirth. I became so angry again and questioned the justice of it all – I gave birth to Lyca in a hospital with an attending physician and she dies in childbirth in the hills. But I got even more angry recently when I found out the truth about her death – that she didn’t die in childbirth! I cannot elaborate on this as it is too painful!

I knew little of what became of Edjop after graduation in 1970. I was told that he went underground fighting against military rule and the abusive dictatorial regime. I cried, really cried when I heard the news of Edjop’s murder right here in Davao City, dying as a martyr for the cause of our country’s freedom.

I still feel so sad to this day that these 2 dear friends died so young because a dictator named Marcos forced them to take the “road less-travelled’ and make the supreme sacrifice of dying for the cause of freedom and justice.

Reading the stories in this book, brought back the sad memories. This book is not easy reading for people who have suffered or who have friends who suffered and died for the cause of freedom and justice.

I thank the writers who wrote about the other Susanistas who have gone ahead to the next life. Jet Birondo-Goddard writing about Fr. Ben Montecastro, S.J. and how “his active work for justice and in ‘speaking truth to power’ who inspired many to be advocates for the poor…a man of courage, the people’s priest.” It was a riveting reading experience – reading about the heroic work of people who would have been part of the writing of this book, but who right now are looking down from heaven on you who remembered them. Godspeed indeed to Bishop Federico Escaler, SJ, Steve Morgan, Freddie Salanga, to name some, who inspired so many other social development activists and church workers. Special thanks to the writers who told the stories of our indigenous brothers and sisters who also became victims of Marcos and his allies – all blood-hungry and land/mineral resources-coveting, rapacious people in power.

Just yesterday, I saw a meme on Facebook that says “Each tear is a poet, a healer, a teacher.” The Susanistas (oh, how I love the ring to it) shed many tears and with their articles in this book, they have become “a poet, a healer, a teacher.” For as the Susanistas wrote their story in a kind of poetry of the truth, they also were healing themselves anew and as well, all the other victims of the dictatorial regime. They are also teachers now – teaching the True History at this point in our history when there are blatant attempts, well-funded projects, to rewrite history, to revise history so the Marcos, his family and their ilk – the Marcos dictatorship are glorified, and not vilified!

This book is the collective contribution of the writers to the preservation of the True, albeit all-too-painful narratives of those darkest years in our country. I salute each one of you who contributed to this book. I salute you for the way you wrote your stories about what Cesar Ledesma said was a “Test of Faith, a Taste of Fear.” Cesar wrote “martial law did not succeed in dampening our spirits and deterring us from talking about and doing what was Truth. Fear can never be more powerful than Faith.” Reading through your stories, I can almost not sense any feeling of anger and rage, just a feeling of release and a need to contribute to the writing of the Truth.

Thanks, too, to the Ateneo de Davao University, for agreeing to publish the book. Many of the Susanistas were Atenistas, too, living to this day as “Persons for Others.” With sadness, though, we note the irony that as this book is finally published, in mock elections conducted in the high school and tertiary levels, the son of the dictator and beneficiary of the Marcos ill-gotten wealth, is the choice of the students for Vice-President.

This book and other books and articles written about those Marcos days – many years of a systematic dismantling of Philippine culture, society, and economy… an unrelenting barrage of cronyism, self-interest, and overwhelming ego that characterized those dark years. Perhaps the enormity of the abuses that was done to the Philippines and the Filipino is almost difficult to grasp for many younger generations of Filipinos. For how else can we explain the youth vote for the Marcos son today and for what seems to be an overwhelming support for whoever can present himself as a “strong leader” who would just matter-of-factly say, “there is no such thing as bloodless cleansing.”

In closing, allow me to quote the last paragraph in one of the articles written by Jacquelyn Schramm entitled “Of what Use Our Work for Liberation” – she said “May we at MSPCS who were part of the Susana Building era gather together in unison with the same spirit and belief that we can overcome the tyrannies of oppression which begins with freeing ourselves. That is how I see this collection of memories. A place to gather as one. A place to reconnect our stories, When we read each other’s stories, we will feel a YES deep within. I was there, I remember, it was not in vain.”

The historical narratives of the Marcos years and his legacy of abusive power and insatiable greed must be told over and over again. A book will still be there when many of us who know the painful truth of the true narratives shall have moved on to the next life. This book written by you, the Susanistas will be your contribution to the Remembering! Your work for liberation, for justice, for freedom was not In Vain!

Let this book be your contribution to a country that deserves Never Again to go through what you and thousands of others have been through during the darkest days in our nation’s history. May God bless you all! May God bless our country!

(Patricia M. Sarenas, chair of the Mindanao Coalition of Development NGO Networks or Mincode, read this piece at the launching of “O Susana!” on February 19 at the Ateneo de Davao University.)