Photo by David Ryan Quimpo
“The streets are empty, no cars, no buses, nothing, no one!” announced my 15-year old brother Jun. Despite my father’s insistence on staying indoors, Jun and Nathan adventurously wandered through our street Concepcion Aguila, and the neighboring vicinity. The usual traffic, the jeepneys spewing fumes and itinerant vendors were suspiciously absent. Nathan reported that at the end of adjacent J.P. Laurel Steet, just before the Santa Mesa rotunda, a barrier of barbed wire blocked the street. Soldiers with armalites stood on guard. One was talking with the driver of a blue Toyota that was trying to enter J.P. Laurel. Another was redirecting approaching cars away. “A checkpoint!” Nathan concluded.
The uneasy calm had my father turning the dials on his radio; the airwaves were also silent. Next, he fidgeted with the portable TV he had salvaged from a friend’s garbage bin. A grey blank screen was on every channel. Dad yelled for us to check our front door for the newspaper, only to discover that there were no deliveries made that morning. The absence of city life and the silence confirmed the gnawing fear that harbored in every home in the city – martial law had been declared.
Proclamation 1081, giving Marcos dictatorial powers, had been secretly signed two days earlier on September 21. The nearly daily occurrence of violent protest actions, the wayward bombings, the stunning attack on the Liberal Party leadership at Plaza Miranda, and the rumored increasing strength of the communists fitted nicely into a litany of excuses justifying the need for martial law. But Marcos needed one more excuse – one last violent incident to prove that the danger was so eminent, it threatened the very lives of members of his Cabinet.
On September 22, at around 8:00 pm., the car of Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile was ambushed and ridden with bullets. Although a full 14 years passed before Enrile confessed that the ambush was planned by Marcos himself, it provided the “last straw” that pushed for the necessity of martial law. Though the rumors proliferated, few really believed that martial law would be imposed. It was inconceivable; dictatorship and militarization was simply not a part of the Filipino psyche, too brazen even for Marcos himself. Even so, some of the wealthy and powerful opted to leave the country with their families and fortunes in tow, fearing exactly this. And when it came to pass, the nation was caught completely unaware, and the uncertainty was personified by an eerie silence.
My family braced itself for the inevitable – a crackdown on the homes of student activists. While Dad was preoccupied searching for radio and TV broadcasts, Nathan and Ryan discussed, in whispers, the likelihood of a raid.
“Yes, we could be on the military’s list,” argued Nathan, “but it is unlikely that the military would come for us at this time. They would probably be too preoccupied going after the ‘big fish’.” Nathan was referring to the national leaders of activist organizations, and prominent opposition leaders and critics of Marcos. Indeed, the situation still allowed lesser known activists to retreat. But it was not too far-fetched that our apartment on Concepcion Aguila, could be included in a zona, the military’s term for a quarantined zone. If the military and police wanted to fully secure Malacanang, then the areas near the presidential palace could be subjected to a blitzkrieg raid, and a house-to-house search to flush out “subversives” or criminals, or to look for unlicensed firearms and seditious documents. Nathan correctly surmised that the J.P. Laurel roadblock was proof that a buffer zone had been erected around Malacanang, and that our apartment was right within the zone.
My brothers Ryan and Nathan busied themselves. Ryan unearthed the volumes of Mao Zedong’s Selected Works from places kept secret from our father. Copies of Philippine Society and Revolution, and the little red book of Mao’s quotations came tumbling out of hiding. And the activists’ “manifestos,” those thick, single-spaced, back-to-back copies of mimeographed text that my brothers spent nights reading, were anxiously gathered.
My father’s face turned deep red and the lines on his brow deepened as he watched his children in the frenzy of gathering the printed materials.
“Why do you have all that ‘subversive’ material?” he growled at his sons. “Are you inviting a raid? Are you that stupid?” he continued. “How deeply involved are you in this anyway?
Dad’s questions remained unanswered. In our household, it had become the norm to no longer discuss such things with my father. It was the only way to maintain “peace,” though the anger and disappointment battled silently, daily, with the tenets of love and respect unconditionally reserved for one’s children and one’s father. A painful stalemate was in place, neither side convinced the other, and neither had the will left to further debate. My father shook his head, paced, then helplessly fumbled with the quiet radio.
“Plastic…get lots of plastic bags, some string and tape,” Ryan ordered Lillian, Jun and me. Ryan remained calm, though his fingers shook as he tightly wrapped plastic, string and tape around the precious books. These, he noted, were to be quickly lowered into the toilet water tank in the event of a raid.
Then, Ryan retrieved a rear-view mirror, the last remaining relic from Dad’s old Ensign. He pulled out the screen frame from our bedroom window and with copper wire and masking tape, affixed the mirror to the side of the iron fire-escape ladder. At an angle, one could use the mirror to monitor the gate and the driveway that led to our apartment. In the past, Ryan and Jun used the strategically-placed contraption to spy on his sister’s suitors as they bade goodnight and lingered for a kiss. This time, the mirror would warn us of the presence of the police or military agents.
“Tear them from the top of the page, vertically! First into strips, then into squares,” 16-year old Ryan demonstrated as we frantically started ripping manifestos. Shredding the sheets into vertical strips would cut printed sentences into unintelligible phrases and make the document harder to piece together. Cutting these further into squares made them easier to burn. I started shredding. Instinctively I knew it was important to first destroy documents covered with illustrations drawn with thick heavy lines: a peasant with a sickle, the laborer with a hammer, a bespectacled student unfurling a banner. The shredded paper was stuffed into a large biscuit can where Nathan had started a fire. We threw pages and pages of “subversive” documents into the fire. When the paper had been reduced to ashes, Sonny poured water over the still-smoking heap. Next, he emptied our garbage bin of its contents, dumped the water-soaked ashes into the very bottom of the bin, and covered these with food scraps and household garbage. If ever the military came, they wouldn’t see the telltale ashes concealed under the garbage.
“Where’s Jan? Does anyone know where he is?” my father interrupted the frenzy. My siblings exchanged worried glances. Jan had spent most of his time with other student leaders at the KM headquarters. Unknown to us then, a military raid on the KM headquarters had taken place the night before. The students who stayed at the headquarters were already in make-shift “detention centers” inside military camps within the city boundaries. During the wee hours of dawn on September 23rd, Marcos’ soldiers had seized control of Manila’s newspapers, TV and radio stations. All prominent opposition leaders and Marcos-critics began indefinite prison terms. This was only the beginning. Through the first three years of Martial Law, a conservative estimate of 65,000 political prisoners would fill the regime’s prisons. Many more arrests and imprisonments followed as Marcos remained in power.
“He could be at Norman’s,” volunteered Ryan, hoping that Jan decided against spending the night at the KM office. My father momentarily stepped out to survey Concepcion Aguila. By then, it was mid-afternoon and a few cars and pedestrians ventured out as though testing the waters. My father expected tanks, military trucks and personnel to lace the streets. But these were conspicuously absent.
Within minutes, Dad had his car keys and announced that he was checking both on Jan and Norman. Jun decided to join Dad. Still unsure of what was going on, I tagged along, a kid only wanting to go for a ride.
It seemed Manila was on Easter week holiday. The shops and grocery stores were closed, their glass display windows still boarded up as though the business day had not begun. Even the small, dependable sari-sari stores that sold anything from bread to needles were closed. It was the only day that traffic snarls were absent from the streets leading to my brother Norman’s apartment on Albany Street, close to the shopping district of Cubao.
We found Norman and Jan in the apartment, huddled over a now familiar pile of brown-paper manifestos. Like us, they spent the day shredding and burning, packing and re-packing books. In their bathroom, basins of water held a curious cache of shredded brown paper. Soaking the sheets muddled the print making these unreadable.
Norman and Jan decided against burning all the brown paper. Norman argued that too much smoke generated by burning the manifestos would be enough to call the attention of neighbors and possibly even military agents presumed to be roaming the streets. Burn some, soak some, they urged us.
Jun and I obligingly started to shred and throw paper squares into a tin can, feeding the fire that burned the “incriminating evidence.” I watched the sheets burn, its smoke formed dark spirals which rose from the blackened tin can. Smoke – rising from the walls of cramped city quarters – seemed to be singling out the homes of activists, beckoning Marcos’ police.