Extrajudicial killings (EJKs) resonate very strongly with me, though I hardly speak up about it. I suppose it comes from the experience of having lived through it not just once, but twice, and losing three very close family members in very violent deaths.
Davao in the 1980s was known as the badlands. The 1980s were a terrible, horrible time for my family.
My father and his five siblings grew up in a barrio called Ilang, a 45-minute drive from Davao City. My father was the only one of his siblings who moved to Manila in the late 1950s. He was one of three brothers.
His older brother, Benjie, and his younger brother, Tony, ran the farm and were involved in politics.
My dad died ahead of his brothers—in 1981, at 49, from a massive first heart attack.
On a January evening in 1983, my Uncle Benjie, 53, and my cousin Salud, 18, were gunned down mercilessly at midnight in front of their house. After shooting them in cold blood with armalite rifles and making sure they were dead, the assailants sprayed my uncle’s house with bullets.
None of my four male cousins who were in the house were killed. By some miracle, one bullet singed one cousin’s hair, missing his ear by perhaps a millimeter. As for another cousin who decided not to sleep at his regular bedtime, his pillow was left with three bullet holes!
The deaths of their father and sister left my cousins traumatized, and they lived with nightmares and in great fear for years. After these deaths, they were never quite the same again.
Axe to grind
The killers were later identified to be rogue members of the military. The mastermind had an axe to grind against my uncle. He had killed my uncle’s campaign leader, and when my uncle sought to help the widow seek justice, he earned the ire of this rogue military man.
He and his cohorts plotted the murder. It happened that my cousin, Salud, my uncle’s only daughter, was with him that evening. My uncle had just picked her up from a party.
I cannot begin to tell you the anguish, sorrow and despair that our family went through after these murders. I can still recall how my cousin, Henry, Salud’s older brother, who was living with us in Manila at that time, howled like an animal in pain.
His tears and cries could be heard all the way up to our bedrooms that morning. When I close my eyes to remember, I can still hear his cries very clearly.
The year that followed was most difficult for all of us. We lived from day to day in anxiety and fear. We felt helpless because the people responsible were in power and there was no one to trust. We were still reeling from our own father’s death. We found solace in prayer and faith.
The following year, 1984, it was my only surviving uncle who died by the gun. Tony, my father’s youngest brother, was in a passenger jeepney on his way to the farm when the person across from him pulled out a gun and shot him pointblank. He then dragged him out of the jeep and shot him more times on the pavement.
The killers were the same ones who had killed my uncle and cousin.
There are no words to explain the even greater sadness and fear our family felt. For years, we could not speak of these twin tragedies. We were too afraid to discuss it or ask questions of our elders.
The only elders left at that time were my father’s three sisters, who tried as best they could to seek justice, but to no avail.
In another era, our own grandfather, my dad’s father, was also a victim of EJK; he was beheaded by a Filipino-Japanese kempeitai in December 1942. The kempeitai had gone from house to house, much like in today’s tokhang, to look for guerilla leaders, and my grandfather was identified as one of them.
They were forced to surrender their weapons. So one late afternoon, my grandfather, his brother and two male cousins went to the pier, waving white flags, to surrender their arms. They had walked into a trap. All four were blindfolded and shot and thrown into the sea.
They saved my grandfather for last. They shot him, beheaded him and threw him into the water. His body washed up on the shores of Ilang two weeks later.
How does a family survive such a tragedy?
When I think of the violence nowadays, my mind travels back to the 1980s when our family became the victim of EJKs, not once, not twice, but thrice. We lost three loved ones, their murders never resolved.
Since then, we have changed presidents six times. There have been seasons of peace, and seasons of war and hate and fear. Our family opted to keep to ourselves, to find solace and comfort and strength in one another.
Today, when we look back and talk about our family’s history, there is still pain, but also there is courage and strength in knowing that we survived that chapter of our lives. Some scars remain, but we choose to look at them as reminders of a past that we constantly pray must never be repeated.
No one, after all, ever really wins in a war, no matter what the cause is or what form it takes. Today, it is quiet in Davao, and there is peace in the area where mayhem once reigned.
I sometimes ask myself if this is simply life’s cycle. World War II in the 1940s took away the lives of my grandfather, his brother and cousins; 40 years later, in the ’80s, a different kind of war and oppression cast its dark shadow upon the next generation.
Now, three decades later, we find ourselves up again against a different kind of war.
Having survived wars and personal tragedies, I know that we will make it through. Of this, I am certain.
But in the meantime, we must pray like we have never done. For peace, for healing to come upon our country and the world. For God, after all, is bigger than any war or leader; and in prayer, our lifeline to Him, lies our hope and our peace.