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CEBU, Philippines – At 88 years old, veteran lawyer Democrito Barcenas, author of Martial Law in Cebu, can still recall the horrors of the Marcos dictatorship.
On September 23, 1972, the imposition of martial law was felt in the entire country. Around 70,000 student activists, lawyers, community leaders, and political figures were arrested and detained upon orders of then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, on behalf of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.
A jeep load of military officers came to his residence in Carcar City in the afternoon of September 23 to inform him that he was “invited” to join them at Camp Sergio Osmeña in Cebu City, adding that he was not allowed to say no to the invitation.
Barcenas, who was 33 at the time, became the 9th person to be brought in by soldiers of the Philippine Constabulary and was detained there for 90 days.
This happened while his wife, Lourdes, was pregnant with their second child, Bayani, and caring for their one-year old daughter, Ligaya.
Barcenas already knew why he would be detained way before martial law was declared. He attributed it to the years spent as a member of progressive groups like the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) since 1967.
The organization was headed by then Senator Lorenzo M. Tañada and Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines .
As a young lawyer, Barcenas assisted several student organizations by being their legal representative.
He was also identified as a political opponent to the Marcos administration, being the duly-elected vice mayor of Carcar.
“Some of those student leaders who were arrested ahead of me were happy that I was already there, thinking I was there to defend them but when they saw that I was fingerprinted, they realized I was already one of them,” Barcenas said.
From behind bars, the lawyer and his cellmates endured psychological torture.
The military officers would threaten to send them to the military tribunal for the crime of subversion or ship them to Corregidor Island where a worse fate would await them.
Barcenas was extremely worried for his pregnant wife who commuted every day with their one-year-old from their hometown to his cell for a total of 80 kilometers—back and forth—if only to see him and hear his voice for a maximum of 5 minutes.
On October 29, 1972, his wife gave birth to their second child at the Cebu Velez General Hospital. Barcenas was disturbed as he said, “it was as if she was having to deliver an illegitimate child without a father”
The next day, the young lawyer was allowed to visit his wife but had to be accompanied by four fully-armed soldiers at the hospital.
Barcenas said that he would never forget the days he spent inside his cell.
He fondly remembers the time in December 1972 when nuns sang Silent Night inside their detention cell. It was, according to him, one of the few moments of his life when he cried like a young child.
The lawyer was released on December 23, 1972, without any complaints filed against him or investigations on his involvement with progressive movements.
To fight fear
Barcenas struggled with the fear embedded to him by his captors but would later lose this same fear after the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. on August 21, 1983.
“People lost their fear, a series of demonstrations happened almost every day…I had to join,” Barcenas said.
The former detainee, full of optimism, continued to do his work as a lawyer, defending activists and community leaders in need of legal aid.
Barcenas launched his book, NEVER FORGET, A Collection of Essays on Human Dignity, Politics and Life, on February 8, 2019, at the 38 Park Avenue Showroom in IT Park, Cebu City.
The veteran lawyer also wrote Martial Law in Cebu, Stories of Life and Struggle During the Marcos Dictatorship, and launched it on September 21, 2022, at University of the Philippines in Cebu.
He dedicated the book to all the victims of injustices during Martial Law and to the future generations in hopes that they would continue the struggle for justice and democracy.
In an interview, the lawyer firmly believed that the son of the late dictator, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., did not win the May 2022 elections fair and square, citing studies led by an IT group led by former ICT chief Eliseo Rio that alleged the votes were rigged.
“Assuming that Marcos Jr. won the elections fair and square, I would like to think that this would be the most strange country on earth,” Barcenas said.
Barcenas urged young activists to organize more forums and truth-telling sessions, and mobilize all the sectors in society in reminding the people of the horrors of Martial Law.
“Never abandon this country or immigrate to foreign shores. Let us stay here and continuously struggle because every struggle for freedom and democracy is worth it,” he said.–Rappler.com