Photo: David Ryan with his children, ages 4 & 5.
It was also on the eve of New Year, in 1978, that I had my closest call. This time it was in the province of Bulacan.
I was babysitting 'Kulay', my first-born son, who at that time was only two and half months old. We were staying at barrio Sto Cristo, Malolos, Bulacan.
The spacious house we rented was ideal for leading a peaceful life with a baby. It was surrounded by a small garden and a low wall. From the bedroom window, you could see the river just at the back of the house. Across it, were rice fields as far as the eye could see.
On the evening of January 2, someone frantically knocked on our door. I opened it and Ben, a comrade and tricycle driver, came in. "Nandito pa kayo (You're still here!)", he cried. I replied, "Why? What do you mean?".
"AFP soldiers were looking for you in the adjacent barrio. I thought you knew, and I had expected this house to be empty. He added, "I was bringing a passenger to this neighborhood when I noticed the lights on inside your house. I first went around, looking through the windows to see if soldiers were inside. Instead I saw you. So I mustered the courage to knock. Now pack up quickly."
My work then was with a CPP-NDF unit organizing sectoral groups in Malolos. We were trying to start groups and associations among fishermen, fishpond workers, peasants and tricycle drivers. The focus of the work was at Barrio Atlag, where I witnessed the most difficult conditions of fishpond workers.
The workers would create big heavy blocks of mud, which they transferred and used as fishpond walls. It required working the whole day with your feet and legs under mud or water with practically no protection. Seasonal and contractual, the workers would transfer from one fishpond to another, from one town to another. They did not have job security, nor rights, and were very poorly paid.
However, before we could even start to help them with their organization, the military was already after us.
We found out that a hundred troops were used by the enemy to try to capture me. A meeting in the barrio was scheduled for January 1. We canceled the meeting because some kasamas (comrades) could not come. On New Year's eve, AFP troops crawled through rice paddies to surround the barrio. At daybreak, everybody in the barrio was rounded-up, and every house was searched.
They asked the barrio folks about a "disabled person with dark-rimmed eyeglasses". [Editor's note: This is an exact description of the author, Ryan.] When the search proved fruitless, they arrested and mugged seven peasants to try to extract information; they eventually released them.
I actually saw the soldiers later the same day. Kulay needed formula milk so I rode a tricycle to the town center. I asked the driver to stop at the pharmacy fronting the municipal hall. There I saw the soldiers resting on the steps that led to the entrance of the hall. I wondered about their exceptional number.
The troops, probably too tired and sleepy, did not notice a handicapped guy with dark-rimmed glasses going down from a tricycle, walking a few steps to the pharmacy, buying milk, and leaving in another tricycle .
We packed our things as fast as we could. After lots of previous experiences in sudden house transfers, I had made it a point to be prepared. The rule was that all personal belongings, including house furniture, could rapidly be packed into and fit in one tricycle. But with the baby, it took time.
"Better not go out of the municipality for now, " said Ben. "They are surely checking the highway exits". So we stayed at another kasama's place also in Malolos. The following day, my wife Popet, looked for another place to rent, and was lucky to find a very cheap room. Ninety pesos only!
The room was on a concrete structure behind a deserted two-story building. It was dark and the place was saturated with mosquitoes. A former schoolmate and a comrade, Arnel Costa, helped us move into the room. With him was his girlfriend, Chato who just left her parents' house and had no place to stay. So she stayed with us.
On our second day in the room, I had covered baby Kulay with a mosquito net even if it was broad daylight. We couldn't get rid of the pests even with repellent spray. Then I noticed the unusual sink that the owner offered for us to use just in the room adjacent to ours. A big open window separated the two rooms, and everything was visible from our room.
"Arnel, why is that sink so large?" I asked. "They should have divided it into two with a second faucet." It was rectangular in form, about 6 by 4 feet made of granite. It must have been unused for sometime because it was faded and somewhat pinkish in color or design.
Only later in the day, as I washed the dishes, did I realized what the sink was for. I shouted to Popet, "This sink is for washing the dead! We are in a morgue!"
True enough, after asking neighbors, we learned that the building was formerly a maternity hospital, and the rooms we were using was the morgue. For the health and safety of the baby, we accelerated our preparations for our return to Manila.
Manila, it turns out, was actually safer for me than provincial cities. There were less intelligence operatives of the Marcos government in provincial cities, but the space for maneuver, the urban sprawl for hiding underground activity was also far less, compared with Manila.