[FIRST PERSON] Experiencing the horror of Martial Law

Sept. 21, 2020. This is a day I will never forget. Forty-eight years ago, President Marcos signed Presidential Decree 1081, imposing Martial Law all over the Philippines. I was 18 years old. A year later on the first anniversary of Martial Law, I was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for 7 months. I wish to add my voice to those who denounce the efforts of Duterte and his minions in congress to extol Marcos as a hero and promote a revisionist view of the ruthless and corrupt dictator whom he idolizes, emulates, and tries to surpass. Below is an account of the horror I experienced:

At 4 in the morning of September 21, 1973 – the first anniversary of Martial Law – I and 3 other seminarians quietly slipped out of the seminary. I wore my jogging pants and my Scout Ranger jacket. We carried some of the leaflets that we mimeographed the previous nights. These leaflets contained a denunciation of Martial Law and a call for people to resist the dictatorial regime. We planned to saturate the city with these leaflets. Other students belonging to various cells were also doing the same thing in different parts of the city.

We went on our separate ways. As I was walking alone in the dark and deserted streets of downtown Cebu dropping leaflets on doorsteps and in mailboxes, I suddenly felt hands grabbing me from behind. A man held me by the neck, another by the arms. The third man aimed his .45 caliber pistol at me and said, "Don't move, you are under arrest!"

He frisked me and grabbed the leaflets I tucked inside my jacket. A car suddenly pulled in beside us and I was shoved inside. I was sandwiched between the two men while the third sat in front. My whole body froze and my heart raced as the car sped along Jones Avenue and entered Camp Sergio Osmeña. I had a sinking feeling – as if I was falling into a void as I said to myself, "Oh God, please help me, I have been caught."

They brought me up to the office of the Constabulary Security Unit on the third floor and dumped me inside the small, dark, windowless room they called the "dragon room." This was the room where they conducted tactical interrogations.

What happened next seemed surreal. It was an experience of pain, shame, and humiliation that I tried to forget and did not want talk about. While I was inside the “dragon room,” I felt so helpless. I cried out to God but he seemed so distant and absent. I felt abandoned. Under the glare of a light bulb over my head, the intelligence agents continued to take turns in interrogating me and hitting my solar plexus, ears, chest, and kidneys every time I refused to answer their questions. I was gasping for air every time they hit me. The pain became so unbearable that I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I lost sense of time since it was dark inside the room. I didn't know whether it was night or day. I was hungry and thirsty. Instead of giving me water, somebody forced me to drink Tanduay rum. I became groggy and they continued to ask me who my comrades were and where they could be found. They thought that too much alcohol would loosen my tongue. Instead, I wailed like a little child. 

After a while, another intelligence agent was assigned to interrogate me. He treated me like I was his younger brother. He spoke softly and told me that the torture would stop if I just give them the information they wanted. He also brought me food. I was wondering if I could withstand another session of torture. Yet I was also imagining the faces of my comrades. If I revealed their names they would also be picked up, tortured, and imprisoned. I told myself that I would never reveal any information that would lead to their arrest. Yet I had to tell them something that would make them believe that they had broken me and that I had finally cooperated. So, I finally said, "Please, don't hurt me anymore. I will tell you everything I know."

The head of the Constabulary Security Unit came. He was stocky and dark. He looked like a bulldog. I overheard other agents referring to him as Major. He asked me the source of the documents and the identity and location of my contacts. I told him that the structure of the underground was very sophisticated, and that I only knew one contact who provided me with the leaflets. I gave them false information and implicated another person not connected with our group.

They seemed to believe me and the torture stopped. They were glad that I was finally cooperating with them. They asked me if I was willing to work as an informer if they released me. I said yes. I was thinking that I would just hide once I got out. 

The following night or was it day, I heard the scream of another person. An agent told me that they had picked the person whom I had implicated. I was seized with remorse. When I met the Major, I told him that everything I revealed to them was a lie and that I was retracting my statement. So they released the person immediately.

I felt I was being sucked deeper and deeper into a black hole in which there was no escape. When I went to the comfort room, accompanied by a guard, I saw an open window and all I thought was to jump out of it. We were on the third floor but I didn't care. All I wanted was to end it all. But I didn't have a chance to do it since the guard was just beside me. 

I was sent back to the dragon room for further interrogation. They were mad at me for lying to them. The torture continued. I was like a punching bag and a soccer ball. But I refused to tell them anything. After so many days of torture, my body and mind became numb. I couldn't feel anymore. Even when one of the interrogators put the barrel of his .45 caliber pistol in my mouth and cocked it, I didn't care anymore if he pulled the trigger. My interrogators out of exasperation told me that they would be using electric shock to force out information from me. They showed me a machine with electrodes that they would attach to different parts of my body. I was suddenly filled with terror. I finally told them, "OK, I give up, I can't stand it anymore. I will tell you everything." They believed that I had finally reached my breaking point.

I gave them the names of the seminarians who helped me produce and distribute the leaflets. This story was as close to the truth as to be credible. Strangely enough, the interrogators seemed to believe me. In order to check out my story, they invited for questioning the 3 seminarians. Since all they knew was about the production and distribution of the leaflets, they were sent home immediately. 

So, finally the torture and tactical interrogation was over. I survived. I protected the identity of my comrades and friends. I was turned over to the Regional Command for the Administration of Detainees for formal investigation. I spent almost a week in a small cell inside the Provost Marshall's office. It was like a cage. This was the holding cell for those undergoing formal investigation. After our last session, the investigator told me I would be sent to the detention center and undergo "rehabilitation." 

On October 3, 1973, I and two other prisoners were put on a military truck and taken to Lahug Detention Center. We were handcuffed and accompanied by armed guards. It was the first time I saw the sky since I was arrested.

It was a gloomy afternoon, the sun was hidden by the dark clouds, and rain poured as we reached the detention camp. I had a sinking feeling as I found myself inside the prison camp, which was enclosed by high walls and barbed wires. The guards first took us to the administration building where our pictures and fingerprints were taken. The officer on duty added our names to the list of prisoners on a blackboard. Then we were brought to a one-story building that looked like a pre-fabricated school house without any windows or ceiling. The air and light could only enter through a small opening near the roof.

After we were brought inside, the guards closed the steel door behind us and I saw these burly men with tattoos all over their bodies look down at us. One of them started asking, "Who are you and what are your cases?" I was the first one to answer, "I am Amado Picardal and I am a political detainee." A dark young man with a shaved head approached me and said, "Come with me. Nobody's going to harm you. You are exempted from this initiation. They respect political prisoners here. I am Hugo and I am also a political detainee." The two other new prisoners with me had criminal offenses. They were just teenagers. They were immediately subjected to the initiation rite for new prisoners. It was called “the baptism.” The two young prisoners were brought to the toilet and their faces were dunked into the toilet bowl filled with urine and excrement. Then the other prisoner took turns in punching them. Later that night several sex-starved prisoners sodomized them. And I thought all these could have happened to me too.

I found it difficult to sleep on my first night. There was a lot of bantering among prisoners who were drinking and playing cards. Others were arguing and I thought a fight could erupt at any moment. I was perspiring and every time I breathed, the smell of sweat, urine, and excrement filled my nostrils. Thankfully, I was tired and I dozed off. At around 4 in the morning I woke up. I tried to convince myself that I was back in my bed in the seminary and all that had happened was just a bad dream. But the stench reminded me that I was still in prison. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and went back to sleep. 

It was frightening to be placed in the same cell with thieves, murderers, rapists, and carnappers, etc. I was lucky there was one other political prisoner – Hugo. He had earned the respect of the other prisoners and took me under his wings. We were able to befriend the toughest criminal whom everyone addressed as the "Mayor." He was regarded as the big boss, so nobody dared to harm or molest us. In return I acted as his secretary. He would ask me to write letters to his mother and to his various girlfriends outside. Mayor was a mama's boy. In the early hours of the morning I would hear him crying and calling out to his mother. 

Life in prison was dull. The guards would wake us up before 6 every morning and open the doors of our cells and order us to proceed to the courtyard where we would be exposed to the morning sun as they did the roll call. After a breakfast of black coffee and two pieces of bread, we would go back to our bunks and do nothing. We spent most of our time waiting for our next meal and dreaming of the delicious food that we would eat once we were released. Others had their bodies tattooed. A crude design of a clenched fist with a number 1081 was tattooed on my left arm. We would also gather in small groups sharing our stories. Some even shared the tricks of their trade (how to pick a pocket or how to rob a house). Others shared with us how they killed their victims. 

Many of the prisoners seemed to be pious. Many wore the rosary around their neck. Every evening after supper the prisoners would come together and pray the rosary. Later, they would gather and drink rum. By midnight many would be drunk and there would be a brawl among various gang members. Whenever a fight broke out, I would immediately scamper to a safe haven near the bunk of Mayor and Hugo.

I was very fortunate that Fr. Jesena , the seminary director, visited me 3 times a week and followed up on my case. He regularly wrote my mother and father to give them updates about me and my case. 

On October 28, 1973, I was transferred to the political detention center in Camp Lapulapu. I got a very warm reception from the political prisoners. That evening after supper, they held a program to welcome me. There were a lot of singing – mostly revolutionary songs. Others recited their favorite poems. There was also a comedy skit, depicting life in prison and the foibles of the guards. I was also asked to introduce myself. We ended by singing lustily our national anthem: "Bayan Ko." I really felt at home among them. 

I never expected that I would end up as a prisoner in Camp Lapulapu. The last time I was in the army camp was when I was being trained in unconventional warfare and riot control as an ROTC Scout Ranger. At least, the prison condition was much better than the one in my former detention camp in Lahug. I was among political prisoners instead of criminals. There were 80 political prisoners – 65 men and 15 women. The barracks of the men and women were separated by a barbed wire fence but we had a common dining hall. I was glad that Fr. Rudy Abao and Bro. Ben Alforque were transferred to our detention barracks. They became my constant companions. 

The prison conditions were not that harsh. We were treated well most of the time. However, there were times when the guards would pick up some of our fellow prisoners in the middle of the night and when they came back they would be groaning or crying after a night of torture.

The last incident happened a week before Christmas. Many of us felt that the practice should stop. So, we all decided to hold a hunger strike. On the first day of the hunger strike, the guards brought fried chicken and pork adobo. Our mouths watered as we gazed at the food on the table. We were never served such delicious meals before. But we refused to take them. Instead we banged our mess kits and had a noise barrage which reverberated all over the camp the whole day. By evening time, I felt very hungry. This was the first time that I missed breakfast, lunch, and supper. I drank a lot of water and went to bed early.

On the second day, the guards called out the names of 8 political prisoners. Among these were Mario Bolasco, Menandro Villanueva, Fr. Rudy Abao, Bro. Ben Alforque, and myself. We were told to pack up our bags and get on the military truck. We were brought to Camp Sergio Osmeña and placed inside a small cell. The prison authorities suspected us of being the leaders of the hunger strike and wanted to isolate us. Nevertheless, we decided to continue our hunger strike in solidarity with our fellow political prisoners who were left behind.

On Christmas Eve, as we heard the sound of firecrackers outside and imagined our families and friends enjoying their Christmas dinner, we continued our hunger strike. Although I felt a bit weak , I didn't feel the hunger pangs anymore. We greeted one another a Merry Christmas.

On December 27, a week after the start of the hunger strike, the prison authorities gave in to our demands. However, those of us in the isolation cell were told that we would be not be sent back to Camp Lapulapu. We would be transferred to Fort Bonifacio in Manila. We were told to get ready because we were to be transferred to Fort Bonifacio in Manila after Christmas. They said that they had already requested for an Air Force plane that would airlift us to Manila. Fortunately, they changed their mind and only 3 were transferred to Fort Bonifacio (Fr. Abao, Menandro Villanueva, and Mario Bolasco). The rest of us were sent back to Camp Lapulapu. Fr. Jesena told me that he requested Cardinal Rosales to convince General Amor not to send me to Manila. 

After Christmas, life in the political detention camp went back to normal. The guards were more friendly. The practice of picking up and torturing prisoners stopped. We spent more time playing basketball, chess, and ping-pong. We also spent a lot of time discussing various topics: politics, philosophy, science, and religion. 

On April 15, 1974, I was brought to the office of General Luis Amor, the III PC Zone commander. Mama and my youngest sister, Cely, were there. My uncle (Mama's brother-in-law), retired Colonel Jose Nadorra, had earlier written General Amor asking him to release me under his custody. My uncle was General Amor's former commanding officer from way back. So finally, General Amor acceded to my uncle's request. After giving us a long lecture, the General signed my release paper. He told me that I was just a temporarily released detainee and that I have been placed under city arrest, which meant that I could not leave the city of Cebu without permission from the military authorities. I was required to report once a week to the provost marshal's office for accounting purposes. I was also asked to sign a document declaring that I was treated well during my imprisonment and that I was never tortured. I was hesitant to sign it but I had no choice. I didn't think they would release me if I refused to do so. So, I was brought back to the detention center and I hurriedly packed my things. I gave away some of my clothes to my fellow detainees and said goodbye to them.

My prison ordeal ended after 7 months. I survived. Yet somehow, I was a different person. I had been hardened by the torture, the isolation, the prison violence, the boredom, the hunger strike, etc. In order to survive I learned to dull my senses and my feelings. I was no longer sure of my faith. I became paranoid – I was suspicious of strangers around me, thinking I was still under surveillance. I was afraid to meet my old friends and comrades. I began to experience recurring nightmares. So, I was free at last. But I was released to a bigger prison – Philippine society under dictatorial rule. 

Years later, I wrote this poem which reflects my experience and that of countless political prisoners like me:

Psalm 1081

From this dark and lonely cell
I cry out to you
Lord, hear my groaning.

I don't know where I am.
I don't know whether it's night or day.
I don't know what will happen next.

My throat is sore, I cannot scream anymore.
My fingers are swollen, I cannot clench my fist.
My ribs seems to be broken, I cannot stand erect.

I hate the sight of water
I can no longer bear a single drop.
I loathe those cigarettes
that penetrate my skin.
I dread the sound of footsteps
and the opening of the door.
I prefer this darkness
than face the glaring light.
I can just imagine
what they are going to do next.

They say only I can end my suffering
if I cooperate with them
and sign the confession they manufactured
and bear false witness against myself
and those who oppose this diabolical regime.

How much longer, O Lord, can I hold on?
How much longer can I maintain my sanity?
How long will they keep me in this limbo?

Will I ever see again the sun?
Will I ever see again the faces
of those I love and serve?
Or will they make me disappear forever?

Lord, deliver us from these kidnappers and murderers
who try to maintain peace and order.
Deliver us from these mercenaries
whose obsession is to defend national security
the security of this bloodthirsty
and power hungry dictator,
the security of his cronies and their
big business interests,
the security of his alien lords
and their bases and investments.

O Lord, my God,
I know that you are neither blind nor deaf.
your mercy and compassion endure forever.
You have always been a subversive God:
you scatter the proud, you depose the mighty,
you empty the rich, you lift up the lowly,
you free the oppressed, you fill the hungry.

I cry out now to you:
subvert this evil kingdom and empire!
Let your spirit fill the hearts
of those who are struggling to build your kingdom
of justice, peace, and freedom.

From this dark and lonely cell
I cry out to you, Lord hear my prayer.
Into your hands, O Lord I commend my broken body
and my wavering spirit. 

– Rappler.com

Father Amado Picardal is the executive co-secretary of the Commission for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General in Rome.