Martial Law

[OPINION] Ghosts and tyrants

Irene Sarmiento

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[OPINION] Ghosts and tyrants

Graphic by Raffy de Guzman

'It is perfectly believable that those who were trampled on as they lived and toiled would continue to be stepped on in death'
Tito Ditto

 My uncle died at 27, before I was born. While he was alive, it was said that in the late hours, he would walk from his bedroom to the kitchen for a snack. Like clockwork, his dogs would closely follow him, their tails wagging in anticipation of a treat. Members of the household said that even after my tito’s death, the loyal canines continued their nightly walk from one end of the house to the other, waiting by the refrigerator, then returning to their post by his door, as though still in his presence.    

As with all ghost stories, more than one version of the same account exists, making the veracity questionable. What hasn’t changed is my uncle’s legacy. Abraham Sarmiento Jr., or “Ditto,” as he was known, died as a consequence of detainment by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. He was editor of the Philippine Collegian at a pivotal era in the nation’s history. During the regime that forced the majority into silence and submission, the Collegian became a leading voice of opposition to the administration’s abuses — including the multitude of illegal and political arrests, the likes of which Ditto unfortunately joined in January of 1976. Seven months in prison deteriorated my uncle’s health, such that his cardiac function was purportedly comparable to that of an octogenarian’s when he emerged. He died of a heart attack a little over a year after his release.  

Ditto’s name, along with many others who lived and died fighting for freedom and human rights during the Marcos reign, is engraved on the Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument to the Heroes) in Quezon City. While his martyrdom endures, to me, his ghost story — with its Pavlovian dog caricatures — endears. It tells of a young man who had trouble sleeping, who liked midnight snacks, and who was beloved by his pets.  

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The Manila Film Center

In our late adolescence, my best friend Duffie and I would look for adventures in the city. We dared one another to check out the Manila Film Center, popularly known for its “curse.” Duffie had heard about students from his university who had tried to shoot a short film project there. The college kids (of course) went after dark. As soon as they got out of their car, they felt an eerie chill in the air. One of the boys tripped and started screaming that he was being dragged into the ground. His friends helped him up, and they all drove off, terrified. The group said they later found a grass stain shaped like a hand print around the boy’s ankle. 

To contextualize this apocryphal teenage hearsay, according to legend, the Manila Film Center was the site of a tragedy that even an afficionado of horror could perceive as extreme. In 1981, then First Lady Imelda Marcos had the film center built as a venue for the Manila International Film Festival, drawing inspiration from the Cannes Film Festival in France. Construction of the structure, modeled after the Greek Parthenon, was rushed and continued nonstop, employing some 4,000 laborers who worked in shifts around the clock. The lobby, which was supposed to take six weeks to complete, was done in three days. In mid-November, disaster struck at around 3 am, when part of the building collapsed and workers fell to the lower levels. 

Since there were heavy restrictions on the media, responders were only allowed nine hours after the accident. By then, many laborers had already died — some said to have been impaled by steel bars, or half-buried in the quick-drying cement. With a tight deadline in place, extracting the bodies would have been time consuming. Nevertheless, the show had to go on, and, as urban lore goes, the exposed human remains were cut off and covered with cement; construction went on as though nothing had happened. The Manila International Film Festival was spectacular, graced by the likes of George Hamilton, Jeremy Irons, and Brooke Shields.     

When Duffie and I finally visited the haunted edifice, it was undergoing rehabilitation, after being long abandoned and deemed structurally unstable. In broad daylight, we walked around the film center’s steps for a few minutes. Neither one of us felt the spectral pull from the netherworld. There were no cold fronts nor strange sounds, just the distant drone of perpetual traffic.

From the outside, it was truly a nice building — a paradigm of Brutalist style architecture. I remember not being scared, but despondent, realizing that the legend of the Manila Film Center survives as a societal symbol of how appearances matter more than human life. It is perfectly believable that those who were trampled on as they lived and toiled would continue to be stepped on in death. 

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Streets and gutters

I understand the fascination with a dynasty that continues to live off stolen wealth; watching people with nice things is quite simply easy on the eye and entertaining. Whenever I see features — interviews, documentaries, news pieces — that attempt to “humanize” the Marcoses and those who have either been responsible for, or complicit in, the erosion of justice, I think about those who have died who were dehumanized. Amnesty International reports that during Martial Law in the Philippines, 3,240 people were killed, roughly 34,000 were tortured, and 70,000 were imprisoned.  

In the sitting government’s drug war, human rights groups estimate the body count, including victims of extrajudicial killings, to be anywhere between 27,000 and 30,000. The sites where they were killed vary: slain by police in their homes without due process, shot by passing motorcyclists on the streets, found dead in alleys and alongside storm drains. The public spaces — the streets, the gutters, the narrow pavements — then become haunted, not by ghosts, but by the persistent spirit of impunity for those in power. There is no bringing back the people who have died prematurely under conditions of indignity. They become grim statistics, faded recollections, and ghosts. Their memories live on as stories about their humanity — their final moments, their unique habits, what they liked to eat and drink.  

On a bright note, even in dark times, there is hope that justice shall prevail. Upon learning she won the Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa said, “It’s a recognition of the difficulties [of being a journalist today] but also hopefully of how we are going to win the battle for truth, the battle for facts: we hold the line.” Her victory sheds a protective light not just for those seeking to tell the truth now, but for journalists of the past, like Tito Ditto, who died in the line, and whose legacies are at risk for historical revisionism in its most oppressive form. 

Still, it is important that the smug faces who have committed these murders never be forgotten. The nice things they have built may stand for decades to come, but these structures will never make up for the lives they have taken, the culture they have eroded, and the moral fabric they have torn. The Marcos regime, the Duterte administration, those responsible for state-sponsored killings, will be remembered, always, as monsters. –

Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of two illustrated children’s books, Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil. Her stories have won awards from The Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World.  She is an occupational therapist with a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience.

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