Jose Maria Sison

Conversations with Joma Sison and Julie de Lima: ‘Mangoes and Escape Plans’

Michael Beltran
Conversations with Joma Sison and Julie de Lima: ‘Mangoes and Escape Plans’

EXILE. One morning in Joma and Julie's apartment in the Netherlands. Julie, Joma's lifelong editor and work partner, would affectionately remark that 'he even tests his jokes on me!'

MICHAEL BELTRAN

'Freedom is the recognition of necessity. My best talent was never participating in (armed) skirmishes with the enemy. I just do the best I can with what I can,' Joma Sison says.

This is an excerpt from an ongoing book project, “The Singing Detainee and the Librarian with One Book” by Michael Beltran, edited by Larissa Mae Suarez. Beltran is a freelance journalist. The interview with Jose Maria “Joma” Sison and Julie de Lima took place in 2019. Sison died on December 16 at about 8:40 pm, Philippine time. Rappler is publishing this excerpt with the permission of the author.

An inviting warmth keeps me company this morning. I can’t tell how long it’s been beside me. The sunlight filters through the window of my sleeping quarters. I’m sweating more than I have in weeks. I kick off my blankets to savor the heat. I’m dreaming of the sun.

When I wake up, I’m clutching my knees. My entire body shivers beneath a thick cotton comforter. Fetal position. The clock says 7:00 am. The light won’t arrive for another two hours. My subconscious has been mocking me. What I mistook for warmth was actually the cold searing my flesh. Sometimes the sun doesn’t emerge until 10:30 in the morning, then begins sinking just after three in the afternoon. I miss it. Almost two weeks since my arrival, and my homesickness has arrived. 

After lunch, I head over to Joma and Julie’s residence. I’d already visited a few times by bus but Julie recommended a 40-minute route by foot to Kanaleneiland, and I welcomed the chance to be outside at high noon when the dogged frosty weather was away. Aside from the Pinoys, the only slivers of warmth I gather are from the sky, on those rare instances when it isn’t a downbeat gray.

The red brick and cream-colored houses begin blurring together in my vision. A few medium-rise buildings with wide glass windows crack the dreariness of brick. Pigeons and crows fly low, almost swiping my head, blithely unafraid of humans.

Kanaleneiland district, Joma and Julie’s neighborhood, is much like other parts of Utrecht but more compact and pressed together. Wide, four-story housing edifices with dozens of apartment units, uniform in brick or plain white panels, line the streets. The sidewalks grow narrower with scraggly and unkempt bushes. Laundry hangs outside apartment windows.

The shift in the demographics is also striking. No more pale Dutch giants strolling and biking across Utrecht’s capacious outdoors. Here, I find migrants whose skin tones come in a broad range of black, brown, and yellow: Turks, Moroccans, Indonesians, and a sprinkling of Filipinos. The locals say this is the city’s “immigrant ghetto.” The more diplomatic Dutch Caucasian will describe the area as “diverse.” Residents on the sidewalk wear headscarves, turbans. A couple of street vendors peddle designer knock-off clothes and bags out of the trunk of their cars.

NEIGHBORHOOD. Joma Sison and Julie de Lima tour the author in their neighborhood in Kanaleneiland. They tell of hearing gunfights and muggings that disturb them in the night. Julie, who used to be fond of photography, stopped because her camera was stolen while she was taking pictures around Kanaleneiland. Photo by Kim Garcia

I’m told Kanaleneiland has one of the highest poverty and crime rates in the country. Some pizza places won’t even deliver to this area, afraid of muggings. I pass by the only affordable restaurant I’ve seen in Utrecht, at the garage shack of a Turkish cook.

“Yalandino!” yells my newfound friend, the jolly shawarma-selling Turk around the corner, as if to tap into some connection with the Pinoys known to be residing in the area. “Jalandoni,” I correct him. But no, I add, I’m not here to meet with any of the Jalandonis – another well-known revolutionary couple in exile.

Their notoriety may not carry the same weight in the neighborhood as it does among compatriots, but the Turkish locals I’ve spoken to know of Filipino refugees living nearby. Joma and Julie’s home was listed on the in-flight magazine over here as a tourist spot. They aren’t hard to find.

I’m almost alone in the streets for the duration of my walk. You can travel kilometers on these here and not chance upon a single soul. Any pedestrian is polite but avoidant, carrying the gloom of the gray overcast. Any movement is obvious on a vacant Utrecht afternoon. I’m sure a lot of people love it here, but the stillness of it all is dampening my enthusiasm. Manila, by contrast is chaos crossed with amphetamines, and the sudden slowdown of life is odd to me.

Joma and Julie live beside the shimmering Rhine canal, a lengthy stretch of water curving southeast from Amsterdam into Utrecht and central Holland. Long barges carrying neatly stacked cargo on their decks are seen sailing along.

I climb the building’s stairs. I reckon this must be a small but recurring obstacle for the couple, who are both in their eighties. I enter a thin corridor littered with books. When Julie greets me, I raise a concern about them having to hike two flights of stairs. She responds with a grin and a correction: “Two and a half.”

I can’t repress my curiosity. I find the actual living conditions smokescreened by the Philippine government’s accusations of Joma and Julie’s hypocrisy and extravagance. In 2018, then-presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo[1] commented that the pair were “living in comfort and luxury while his comrades die for a lost cause.” This isn’t the lavish suite that comes to mind when one hears such claims. Joma and Julie reside in one of the poorest neighborhoods, stranded, in what happens to be one of the richest countries on earth. 

Unlike most Dutch households, their heater is off for the month of November, to save on electricity bills. Like the couple, I keep wearing my jacket, sweater, and gloves for the duration of my stay. The house smells like the remnants of simmering tea. Julie leads us past the kitchen, where pots and pans are clumped together with unwashed coffee mugs in the sink. Joma used to smoke beside a small alcove by the kitchen cabinet, but he has been nicotine-free since a spell in the hospital in the mid-2000s. 

We sit on the couch in their living room. More bookshelves than actual wall is visible in the 75-square-meter apartment. Their personal library includes a variety of communist literature from various parts of the globe; biographies of different world leaders (with a deliberate focus on Philippine presidents); tomes on old and new economic theories; writings by anti-left authors slandering the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP); and a few CD cases containing Frank Sinatra, Rey Valera, and a collection of Kundiman classics. About half of their living room is taken up by a work station. Two computers are stationed back to back – three monitors for Julie and two for Joma. This set-up is ideal for multi-tasking according to them. In front of the sofa is a battered old television set with protruding plastic sheets and wires. They’ve also stashed a collection of teas, sugars, and coffee packets in a cardboard box under the coffee table.

Almost everything occupying their waking hours is here in the cluttered living room. Julie apologizes for the mess. By Dutch standards, this apartment and the community are distinctly lower-class. To me, however, they’ve made it all nice and cozy, neither a palace nor a shack in the slums.

I forgot to bring mangoes – that often-mentioned craving, the subject of one of Joma’s most well-known poems[2], his eternal yearning. When I broach the topic of homesickness, it’s the first thing he mentions: mourning the fact that he’ll never again stand before an abundance of mangoes. “I wrote a poem about it!” an eager Joma informs me, before reclining back into his chair.

After a moment of thought, he backpedals a bit, assuring me there’s a proper time and place for cravings. They are fleeting, though, and should never be given too much attention. There are no mango stands in Utrecht, after all. Joma says he is “at home in the world being a proletarian internationalist.” That immediate reflex, to dwell on principle over sentiment, helps him regain composure. It’s as though he went outside into the cold and came back to fetch his jacket.

Joma and Julie have been stuck in the Netherlands since the Philippine government under then-president Corazon Aquino canceled Joma’s passport in September 1988 while the pair were abroad attending speaking engagements. A new charge of subversion was made against him[3]. When the couple received word of this, they stayed for a few months in the home of NDFP [National Democratic Front-Philippines] cadres Luis Jalandoni and Coni Ledesma, fellow grandparents of the Philippine revolution. 

They didn’t take the news lightly. They weighed their options, considered the slim chance of returning to the Philippines in their desperation, only if they could successfully evade the state’s ire and punishment. “I had to try,” mutters Joma, remembering. “I had to try to come back home.” The rebel-filled countryside could provide some much-needed cover for the pair. Except just reaching Philippine soil had its own set of challenges.

They considered a plan to get past the borders of Europe and slip back into the Philippines in secrecy. It involved the help of Irish comrades who volunteered to commandeer a boat for them in Hong Kong to take them back to home. Many Irish missionaries had spent time in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship and had friendly relations with the resistance movement.

They were supposed to take a plane to Hong Kong and, from there, reach the Philippines discreetly by sea. The airplane trip itself, however, posed too many complications. The pair were under constant surveillance and slipping out of Dutch borders was sure to alarm the authorities. By their estimates, any route through international waters had also been compromised. So they put off their plans and instead sought political asylum.

Even then, Julie toyed with the idea that they’d still somehow find their way back. She vowed to keep growing her hair until she set foot on her homeland. Two years later, on her husband’s 50th birthday, she snipped her waist-long black locks with a long exhalation of resignation. Escaping back into the country was impossible. In the presence of friends and comrades she cut a faint smile, convincing everyone and herself that the matter must be put to rest. There would be better days. 

After all, they thought to themselves and with good reason, even if by some miracle they managed to elude all the obstacles preventing their return, the domestic threats were far more lethal. Even after Martial Law, the state continued to torment and murder scores of activists and revolutionaries.

In the past three decades, the NDFP has uncovered several active assassination attempts against Joma. Joma and Julie were, and remain, targets. Coming closer to the crosshairs only endangered them further along with those closest to them.

“Better to be abroad than to be in a cell or in the grave,” Joma laughs wiping his forehead. Yet there is an undeniable ache, ever present, when he talks about the suddenness of the events that stranded him and Julie in Europe.

Cory Aquino’s purported revival of Philippine democracy was upstaged by the continuation of the status quo before and even during Marcos’ reign. Human rights violations, massacres of the poor by state forces, numerous coups and continuing economic downfall overturned what was thought by many to be a drastic new age following the collapse of the dictatorship. The facade crumbled; the charade went awry. State forces assassinated public figures of the mass movement, including the celebrated labor leader Rolando Olalia in November 1986, and fiery mass leader Leandro Alejandro in September 1987. More of the same followed. In hindsight, Joma and Julie believe that had they succumbed to the powerful urge to attend the tributes for their fallen comrades, they too would have met the same fate.

By 1997 the couple attained an unprecedented watered-down form of refugee status. A reluctant state had granted Joma asylum without residence, and Julie residence without asylum. Through some manipulation of the legal system, the Dutch government also denied them a host of welfare benefits. Throughout their stay, North American and European governments have been determined to brand the pair and the entire Philippine revolution as terrorist actors in a bid to diminish their protection from extradition. Despite the close scrapes with death in the past, the constant intimidation from numerous governments, and Joma’s detention again in 2007, their conditions here are much safer compared to the certain death, and perhaps torture, awaiting them in the Philippines.

Imprisonment is a recurring theme in our conversation. When discussing his prolonged exile, Joma cannot resist bringing up memories of his incarceration during Martial Law. His years abroad and his years in jail have become intertwined in his memory, existing together as twin contemplations of his containment.

Understandably, Joma chooses the prison metaphor for living in the Netherlands. Ever since his inclusion in global terrorist lists in 2001 and despite his removal from the European lists in 2009, the Dutch government has barred him from ever leaving the country. Prior to this, they permitted Joma several trips to adjoining countries to attend speaking appointments, which carried risks of their own. Those in power, with full knowledge of Joma’s increasing age and decreasing mobility, have chosen to keep him here. Caught between an assured demise and an uncertain political status, he edges closer to his own mortality, reflecting on his confinement in Utrecht, which has now lasted for over thirty years. 

To many Filipinos, Utrecht probably seems like paradise. In my brief stay, it hasn’t been, but I understand the appeal. The security of living in safety, meeting your basic needs and building up some savings, are an excellent selling point to people who have spent their whole lives in fraught, poverty-stricken conditions. Kanaleneiland, for example, was the fanciest, cleanest, and quietest “ghetto” I’d ever seen. But Joma and Julie didn’t choose this. They are trapped here in a collection of red brick houses, bike lanes, and empty sidewalks. Utrecht is their cell even if it is also their fort, the Netherlands is their prison, and the reactionaries conspiring to worsen their predicament act as implacable wardens.

“Freedom is the recognition of necessity. My best talent was never participating in (armed) skirmishes with the enemy. I just do the best I can with what I can,” says Joma, not wanting to linger in his own longing.

In their internment, though, at least Joma and Julie have managed to craft a niche for themselves. Because things are the way they are, the capacity to participate in the revolutionary struggle is their cornerstone, the engine which keeps them going.

“We are proletarian internationalists,” Joma repeats, and Julie gently nods. But in their fugitive thoughts, there are daydreams of mangoes and long-ago getaway plans. – Rappler.com


[1] Romero, Alexis. “50 years of CPP-NPA a failed rebellion,” Philstar, December 27, 2018.

[2] Sison, Jose Ma. 1994. Sometimes, the Heart Yearns for Mangoes.

[3] “Subversion raps filed vs Sison,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 16, 1988. The subversion charges, though later dropped when the anti-subversion law was repealed in 1992, stem from supposed claims by intelligence assets of the state that Joma had resumed his post as chairman of the CPP.

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