Give us back historic bells of Balangiga, Obama asked

ICONIC BELLS MISSING. A view of a historic Balangiga Church as a US Navy Sea Hawk helicopter flies over in the Haiyan-devastated town of Balangiga, Eastern Samar on Nov 18, 2013. File photo by Francis Malasig/EPA

ICONIC BELLS MISSING. A view of a historic Balangiga Church as a US Navy Sea Hawk helicopter flies over in the Haiyan-devastated town of Balangiga, Eastern Samar on Nov 18, 2013.

File photo by Francis Malasig/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – Visiting Manila for the first time, US President Barack Obama vowed to help the Philippines “recover and rebuild” after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), but dodged a decades-long problem raised by typhoon survivors themselves.

Obama said nothing on Monday, April 28, about the bells of Balangiga Church in Eastern Samar, which Americans took as spoils of war.

Signaling a historic siege, the bells led to the US military's so-called worst single defeat in the Philippines. In what is known as the Balangiga Massacre, locals outsmarted and killed 48 out of 74 US troops in 1901.

Now, Filipinos want the iconic bells back in Balangiga, especially after Yolanda. Recently, up to 2,500 Filipinos signed an online petition requesting the return of the bells from Obama.

Gary Ramirez, the main petitioner, wrote on the advocacy platform change.org: “As we rebuild the heart of our town, the Balangiga Church, there is one thing missing that will help make this spirit whole. The bells of Balangiga Church.”

'Voice of unity, spirit'

“These bells, lost in a dark and stormy time of our history before the United States and the Philippines embraced their brotherhood, had always been the voice of our unity and spirit. Their ringing had always rallied us as a people, calling us to work together as one,” Ramirez said in his petition posted in late 2013, the latest petition tally of which is dated April 14.

He added, “At no other time in our history have we needed the bells of Balangiga more than now.”

BALANGIGA RUINS. The remains of Balangiga Central Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Balangiga Mayor Viscuso de Lira

BALANGIGA RUINS. The remains of Balangiga Central Elementary School.

Photo courtesy of Balangiga Mayor Viscuso de Lira

Of the 6,300 killed by Yolanda, at least 14 came from Balangiga. In its update as of April 3, the government identified most of them as senior citizens, with a 95-year-old man as the oldest.

Not only Yolanda survivors have clamored for the bells.

Using Rappler's hashtag #DearObama, Twitter user Arnold Cesar Romero @notty_romero wrote, “#DearObama, please give us back the Balangiga bells.”

Ramos request denied

In 1994, then Philippine president Fidel V Ramos himself requested Bill Clinton, then the US president, to return the Balangiga bells “in the spirit of fair play,” according to a paper presented by James Helzer and published on Newsbreak in 2002.

Ramos' request, however, “fell on deaf ears” even as Clinton again received this plea in 1996, Helzer said.

Two of the 3 Balangiga bells remain on display at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Philippine Information Agency said. The third bell, the smallest, is in Korea.

In a letter to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2012, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead opposed returning the Balangiga bells. He said, as quoted by Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay, that he is against “any efforts to deconstruct our war memorials that honor our fallen soldiers.”

Binay, on the other hand, said the US should consider “that the bells are a memorial as well to the many innocent civilians” murdered in Balangiga, when the Americans struck back. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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