No lives wasted

Susan F. Quimpo
One October morning in 1977, Ronald Jan, a graduate of the Philippine Science High School and a UP Geology major, had asked me to leave him some dinner that evening. That was the last time I saw him.


I was 12 when I started visiting detainees in various prisons. I spent my weekends packing cooked rice in foil and powdered milk into empty tins, and helping my father deliver these rations to my siblings in 3 cramped “rehabilitation centers,” a euphemism for prisons.

All the while I heard Ferdinand Marcos on TV, adamantly repeating to the foreign press corps, “We have no political prisoners!”  

Six of my 9 siblings were high school and college student activists in the 1970s. 

As a child, I witnessed the heated exchanges at the dinner table. My parents could not understand why their children would want to organize and join street demonstrations, and risk losing scholarships. My father argued, what was remotely wrong with acquiring a good college education to ensure for oneself a comfortable future?

My siblings reasoned that the dictates of the times were different. That the protest marches were indicative of a national movement demanding significant change.

The hopelessness of the common man’s poverty, the corruption in government, the powerhold by the oligarchy, and the age-old conflict over land ownership — these problems had now come to a head. And though to some the debates were little more than youthful rhetoric, my siblings spent evenings poring over Marx, Lenin, and Mao in search of answers. For them, to ponder on self, family and material comfort amidst pressing times was an indulgence they couldn’t afford.

When martial law forced the open opposition movement underground, and military repression ensued, my siblings joined the revolution. The government-controlled media were quick to christen the young activists with new names: subversives, communist insurgents, guerrillas, rebels, terrorists. Yet my personal lexicon remained unchanged; in my mind, they were simply family.

For the next decade-and-a-half, I too, inadvertently, “lived” the revolution. By 1972, the military raids began, at first, to ensure that homes were stripped of civilian-owned firearms. But as years passed, our home was singled out, and this time the military raiding teams were bent on making arrests. My siblings left home; it became the norm not to inquire or know where they were. “Should a raiding team arrest or torture you for our whereabouts, then you can’t give information you don’t have,” they reasoned.  

Now and then I would hear from them. An activist would call and ask to meet me in an obscure coffee shop. There, he or she would retrieve a tightly-folded letter hidden in the spine of a book or the hem of a skirt. I learned to speak, write and read the coded messages. The letters always ended with these same lines:  “Send food, clothes and whatever money you can spare to help sustain us. Take caution.”

In time, the underground couriers brought no letters at all but just news that uniformly began with the phrase:  “We have heard that your brother/sister….”  And that was how families were informed that their kin had been arrested, or tortured, or raped, or killed.

Yesterday I visited the Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a little, quiet memorial and museum for the martial law dead tucked behind the monstrosity of yet another mall along Edsa. As on previous visits, I ran my fingers on the wall, tracing the names of my brothers, Ishmael (Jun) Quimpo Jr, and Ronald Jan Quimpo. 

Jun joined the New People’s Army after his freshman year at UP Diliman. In 1981, he was gunned down in Nueva Ecija. One October morning in 1977, Ronald Jan, a graduate of the Philippine Science High School and a UP Geology major, had asked me to leave him some dinner that evening. That was the last time I saw him. He joined the ranks of the desaparacidos, the missing activists. To this day our family has no clue as to what happened to him.

Again, I stared at the names on the Wall, mentally checking off the familiar names and remembering the little I knew of their stories. Behind each name on that wall was a family, splintered like mine, in the name of the revolution. 

How many mothers, like mine, sat nervously by the TV or radio while the reporters read through the names of students shot dead at a protest rally? How many fathers, like mine, made the rounds of prisons, clutching the picture of a son or daughter, asking if anyone had seen their child? Did the red flag with the golden hammer and sickle draped on Jun’s coffin say enough about his life? 

So many names, so many martyred young people. And now decades after an inconclusive revolution, we ask, was it all worth it?

My sister Lillian who survived arrest, torture, and detention under martial law, laments the “wasted lives” in the name of revolution. I beg to disagree. 

Despite the failed revolution and its price in fragmented lives, here now stands at the Bantayog, a wall with the names of young heroes and martyrs who represented the best of that revolution. These young activists and revolutionaries had no wealth, no political influence, no aspirations for public office. And because they had nothing else, they gave only what was most precious – their lives. –

(Susan F Quimpo is the editor and co-author of the recently released book, “Subversive Lives – A family memoir of the Marcos years,” Anvil Publishing Inc. The book will be launched on April 20 at 5 pm at Faber Hall, Ateneo de Manila University. It’s now available in National Bookstore and Popular Bookstore.)

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