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May 16, 2016

Butch Dalisay, Ricky Lee, and other writers remember prison life in Martial Law era

Words by Lourdes Gordolan Photos by Neal Oshima

Four of the country’s most eminent writers—Pete Lacaba, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Jose Dalisay, and Ricky Lee—were political activists when the hammer of Martial Law fell in 1972. They were captured, beaten, and tortured, barely escaping with their lives. Forty-four years after, they are ready to lift the veil over this dark chapter of their lives

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Butch Dalisay was one of four writers imprisoned during the Marcos regime. He would eventually fictionalize his personal experiences in the novel Killing Time in a Warm Place.

Long before eight uniformed agents knocked on the door of his parents’ house on midnight of January 2nd, 1973, Butch Dalisay knew he was a wanted man.

During the black, cold hours of night, he remembers peering out of his window and seeing an owner-type jeep parked across his building, a handful of plain-clothed government agents lingering inside, watching. In an effort to shake them off, Butch spent several months jumping from one “underground house” to another across Manila, sleeping on friends’ couches and living in the mixed company of other wanted “subversives.” The ploy worked for a while, he remembers, until he made an unwitting mistake: “I decided to spend Christmas at home with my family.”

Butch was awoken at midnight by the sound of his father’s calm voice. “Son,” he began, “there are people here for you.” Butch immediately knew what his father meant. The lights were on. He heard rustling sounds and heavy footsteps in the next room. Suddenly wide awake and adrenaline pumping, Butch turned around quickly and found himself at the other end of a rifle, its barrel pointed steadily at his head. He was led to the next room, where he saw eight agents clumsily searching the cramped living room for “subversive material.” His mother stood aside, watching nervously. Agents searched in vain, until one noticed his mother staring worriedly at the mantelpiece above the television. The agent lifted the mantel and found worn copies of the CPP newspaper Ang Bayan underneath. It was damning evidence. Butch was to learn later that it was a trusted neighbor, who turned out to be a government informant, who turned him in.

Far from the depiction of arrests on television, his arrest was straightforward. The arresting officer was “a graduate of PMA,” Butch recalls, who was “decent with my parents,” respectfully informing them that Butch would be taken in. Butch was calmly escorted to a black car waiting outside, “evidence” in tow. There was no violence, no pleading, no handcuffs, no being struck with the butt of a rifle. There was also no warrant of arrest. The ASSO (Arrest Search and Seizure Order), a creation of then-Secretary of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, allowed arrests based on suspicion alone. His parents watched on as the police car pulled away from the house, leading their 18-year-old son toward the main street of  Balara.

It was a slow, quiet drive to Camp Aguinaldo, the streets at 1:00 A.M. completely void of life and movement. The strictly-imposed national curfew assured that the only skittering you heard at night came from mangy street dogs. At one point, the police car slowed and pulled over into a dark street. Agents told Butch to wait, while half of them stepped out of the car and disappeared into a patch of houses in the pitch-black distance. They emerged, more than half an hour later, leading a disheveled but familiar young man toward their car. “It turned out to be a high-school classmate
. . . [but] we thought it was better if we just shut up.” Butch did not realize that, for several days at least, his classmate had been staying a few short meters away from Butch’s parent’s house, also hiding in plain sight.

Young Revolutionaries

Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Jr. fell in love with student activism at 16 years old, while still a fiery, inquisitive senior at Philippine Science High School. Philippine Science, or Pisay, was a hotbed of activism at the time, and the legacy of “questioning and activism” left by Pisay luminaries captured his young imagination. Butch’s ideological education blossomed at UP Diliman, where he arrived as a freshman in the summer of  1970.

Butch entered a campus seething with rage against Marcos, rage that fuelled the rise of militant student activist organizations, and with them, Marxist ideological thought. The first stirrings of what would eventually become the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune were forming fast. Literary luminaries such as the up-and-coming poet and journalist Jose “Pete” Lacaba, and young fictionist Ricky Lee, were already recognized names on campus, and were deeply involved in the anti-Marcos movement. Across the road, young co-ed Jo-Ann Maglipon wrote damning editorials against Marcos as features editor of the Mary-knoll College newspaper.

The years leading to Martial Law were “wild and wooly and free,” remembers Jo-Ann Maglipon, referring to the intellectual and political fervor that swept the national student body. The streets pulsated to the drumbeat of student demonstrations, marches, rallies. Evenings were spent attending Educational Discussions, or “EDs,” where a “discussion leader” would guide them through sections of Mao’s Little Red Book, or its Philippine counterpart, Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution.

But it was not all red banners and blind rage. Ricky Lee recalls that there was a real sense of community within the student movement, one that eventually won him over. “I was in UP and I desperately wanted to be a University Scholar,” he explains, “and wala talaga akong pera so talagang buhos aral ako. I was in the library all the time.” Ricky took on odd jobs to earn pocket money: “from salesman, to a waiter, to tutor, to student assistant.” Eventually Pete Lacaba contacted Ricky and asked if he would be interested in doing a little proofreading. Ricky agreed.

The proofreading job would eventually lead to his next job, copy editor of Asia Free Press magazine, and to his increased exposure to student activism. He recalls joining his first student demonstration. “Enjoy ako mag-attend ng demo kasi you feel like you’re one. . . . Wala akong totoong pamilya e. I was alone in Manila, surviving. So eto ngayon ang mga kasamahan, maski hindi mo kilala, kasama siya. Kapatid siya. Kapamilya. You care for each other. So every time sasama ako sa rally o sa demo, I felt at home . . . I felt I belonged. Masarap ang pakiramdam.” The die was cast. Ricky Lee, the timid young Palanca Awardee, became Ricky Lee, revolutionary.

This sense of community is also what appealed to Jo-Ann. “I was middle class going to a school that was upper class,” she says. “I always knew there was a discrepancy between what I lived like on a day-to-day basis and what they lived like. Those little things told me that I was a little different.” Jo-Ann recalls that this discrepancy is what made her aware of, and sensitive to, inequality early on. Things changed when she became a freshman at Maryknoll College, and joined the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. “It just blew my mind that there were all these young people, all my age, who liked discussing [things], who thought that talking about country was delectable, who were magnanimous with each other. [There was an understanding] that we had a common cause.“

Pete’s journey into student activism happened more gradually. The Asia Free Press Magazine assigned him to cover the First Quarter Storm in January 1970. By then in his mid-20s and no longer a student, he developed close friendships with student activists in the course of his reporting. Pete, who was a protégé of Nick Joaquin and already well known as a poet, went on to become a respected figure within the Left, organizing the first labor union among Free Press employees and leading their demands for better pay and working hours.

There was an urgency to find “truth” in a world where all media seemed clouded by government propaganda. As a writer, one’s role in the student movement became clear: one must write of the real conditions around them, and critique the violent political order that grew more and more secretive and absolutist by the day. At the time, Marxism seemed the ideal antidote for a society crippled by extreme poverty and widespread suffering, and socialism a romantic alternative to Marcos’s questionable New Society.

Marcos declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972, citing the necessity to retain order in the face of their perceived Communist Insurgency. What would become the fabled Iron Fist of Marcos had come down at last. By the end of Marcos’s televised announcement, Pete, Ricky, Jo-Ann, and Butch, as well as thousands of other citizens, were considered enemies of the state. Their crime: public criticism of the Marcos government, referred to as “subversion.” Their punishment was to be: imprisonment, torture, possibly death.

Now fugitives, the four writers went Underground.

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Ricky Lee credits his years with the organized Left for inspiring the gender-sensitive undertones of Moral, social commentary in Dragnet, and the examination of the OCW situation in The Flor Contemplation Story.

On the Run

“When you say you go underground that means that you disappear from the face of society as they know you,” Jo-Ann explains. “You change your name, you change your address, you’re a non-person.” You live the life of the hunted, and life itself becomes a work of fiction. Pete, for example, cut his hair short, carried a briefcase, and accented his outfits with a tie. His appearance was unrecognizable from the ponytailed, casually dressed Pete that friends knew. Going underground meant leaving families and staying with fellow comrades in underground, or “UG,” houses across the country, never staying in one house for too long. They lived under constant threat of being exposed by government informers, who could be anyone: tricycle drivers, ice cream vendors, former friends, or trusted neighbors.

As fugitives, their anti-Marcos activity intensified. Newspapers no longer existed immediately after Martial Law, and those that eventually emerged were heavily censored. Pete became the editor of Taliba Ng Bayan, an underground publication that reported Marcos anomalies. Information was sourced from fellow comrades, and from sympathetic reporters working in the censored mainstream media. “Things they couldn’t publish,” says Pete, “we did.” Jo-Ann and Ricky also contributed to Taliba ng Bayan, and at one point, Jo-Ann and Pete shared a UG house with a few other comrades in a leafy Novaliches subdivision. The unassuming house doubled as a makeshift newsroom. Presswork had to be done surreptitiously. Creating Taliba ng Bayan “could cost you your life,” Jo-Ann remembers. “We would have to have cushions underneath the small typewriters because we were typing away the whole day and the whole night, the neighbors might start to think [and get suspicious].”

Essential communication from one activist to another—containing anything from Party strategy to personal musings—took the form of handwritten messages on squares of cigarette foil. Messages were supposed to be destroyed after reading. Leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), now considered to be the state’s top enemies, made decisions on strategy and disseminated commands through the ranks of “political officers,” or “POs.” The young writers were organized into small groups, or “cells,” each handled by a designated PO. Everything was on a “need to know” basis. In the face of brutal interrogation, they were taught to “hold out for at least 24 hours,” Jo-Ann says, so fellow comrades would have enough time to get away. They lived with the knowledge that capture and torture, or worse, were inevitable.

Capture

The police car in which Butch Dalisay and the other man were being held prisoner pulled up to Camp Aguinaldo, and they were led to an office ominously marked “ISAFP” for processing. A police agent took down his details, eyeing him indifferently.

The details of the first night in prison are a blur, but within the next month the interrogations began, and the reality of his imprisonment sunk in. “I was lucky to get out of prison with no more than a few whacks, and a few body blows.” Butch notes, shaking his head. “Nothing like being fed with acid or having your nails pulled out, which some of my friends had to go through.”

Butch became an inmate of the Ipil Rehabilitation Center at Fort Bonifacio, back then an isolated military camp in a sprawling, grassy Taguig field. Ipil, in hindsight, was a “nice, big, sunny place.” There were about 40 inmates, all of them political prisoners, sharing a large hall lined with bunk beds, much like a barracks. Not confined in cells, they were allowed to roam the heavily guarded compound. Ipil “was a showcase area for Marcos to show to Amnesty International,” explains Jo-Ann. Friendships formed easily; several inmates already knew each other from their involvement with the Left. All shared the uncertain label of “political prisoner.”

Martial Law was then only four months old, and Butch’s capture was one of a series of arrests that were happening across the country.

It was 1974 when they got to Ricky Lee. “I was very sickly then,” he confesses. At that time a frail man in his early 20s, his body bore the toll of years spent on the run, transferring from one UG house to another across Manila. Waves of arrests had been sweeping the country. Exhausted and dispirited, Ricky developed a fever, and desperately needed a brief respite. Sleep-deprived, his nights were spent lying sideways, coughing violently. He convinced higher-ranking comrades to let him stay on his own, not with fellow comrades as expected. Ricky found a small, poorly-lit studio apartment in Santa Mesa, and filled it with familiar comforts: music cassettes and books. But this long-desired solitude would not last long.

A pounding on the door on a chilly morning in January of that year ended it almost immediately. “Ricky! Ricky!” an unrecognizable voice called from behind. “Ah, patay na,” Ricky thought, realizing that his time had come. “Wala naman tumatawag sa akin na ‘Ricky,’” he remembers. He had long adopted a new name and identity as “‘Rico,’” he recalls, grinning at the memory of his invented persona.

Wheezing, Ricky dragged himself towards the door and turned the handle slowly. Three uniformed agents cradling Armalite rifles stood before him. Ricky stepped back as they pushed their way inside, boots trampling the blankets and books scattered on the floor.

“[I] was in the moment,” Ricky recalls, looking away. He explains, “Ang fear naman nasa thinking. But the moment that you’re doing it, you don’t feel anything. You become brave.” He had lived in anticipation of this moment for years.

An unnamed agent shoved Ricky down onto the only chair available and slapped him. The other two agents joined in, digging punches into Ricky’s arms and torso. Ricky bent forward into a fit of coughing, spewing blood. Disoriented and struggling to breathe, he felt the cold point of a rifle poke his right temple and slither down his cheek, stopping near his ear. He struggled to sit up, only to receive a few more stray blows.

Pausing, one agent scanned the room. “I can’t believe you live in this hole,” he mocked. A flurry of questions followed. “Asan ang baril? Asan ang mimeo machine? Asan ang dollars?” “Dollars?” Ricky remembers thinking, incredulously. The questions continued. But by then, the room had begun to spin, and Ricky found himself shaking and barely able to breathe.

Ricky found himself in the back of a car, being led away from the familiar streets of Santa Mesa. After an unmemorable ride through Manila, the police car pulled up into the imposing Camp Aguinaldo complex.

Ricky was led to a small gray prison cell, where he collected his thoughts and his will. The next 10 days were a dizzying carnival of interrogations. With the exception of punches and slaps, “Hindi naman kami na physically torture e,” he recalls. “Pinipilit kami lagi to give names [using] psywar, mental torture.”

A few mornings later, Jo-Ann Maglipon cheerfully walked along a narrow sidewalk toward her UG house in Santa Mesa, Manila. In January of 1974 she was 23 years old, and had come from a secret meeting with officemates. She had been hoping to recruit them into the anti-Marcos movement, and they seemed receptive. Inspired, she decided to take a short detour and visit a friend, Ricky Lee, whom she heard was in very poor health. Jo-Ann thought a visit might lift his spirits. It was only 8:00 A.M., she rationalized, and she would be back at her UG house before anyone started to worry.

She approached Ricky’s small studio apartment and knocked on the door. A balding, unfamiliar man wearing a tucked-in checkered polo pulled the door open and stood at the doorway, looking at her sternly. Her heart sank.

“I knew this was the moment,” she remembers, “And my life flashed before me.”

“Pasok ka,” the arresting officer commanded. Knowing it was too late to run, Jo-Ann walked inside and sat on a chair in the middle of the cluttered room. She eyed a second government agent, also in plainclothes, standing in one corner. The door shut ominously behind her. She scanned the room and spotted Ricky’s belongings still strewn on the floor, giving signs that Ricky had been taken just a day or two ago.

Withholding fear, Jo-Ann planned out her strategy as she sat before them. “I just felt that what I stood for, what I believed in, made me superior to this person I was with. But I didn’t entertain thoughts of hostility because I believed it would show. For some reason I thought that was the best way.”

One of the agents stepped outside to call their commanding officer for further instructions.

Jo-Ann, who was in a light sundress and slippers, found herself alone with the balding agent, who pressed her for names of comrades. She refused.

He slid the barrel of his pistol along her temple. “E, anong gagawa mo, e kung ni-ra-rape kita?

Keeping her composure, Jo-Ann retorted, “E di para na rin kayong mga tao na sinasabi mong masama.

The second agent returned, whispered something to the balding agent, who then turned to Jo-Ann. “Come with us.”

She was led to a pale-colored Volkswagen Beetle parked outside. As the Beetle cruised through Santa Mesa, “I just kept hoping no one would see me,” Jo-Ann recounts, “so I kept my face down. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me and wave, and risk getting arrested too.”

Jo-Ann was taken to Camp Aguinaldo where she spent eight days undergoing a series of interrogations, incommunicado with the outside world. “It was a mental game, [but] I was in my element,” she says. “I [held] back the names of those who were still alive, [and gave names of those I knew] were dead among the comrades. I figured, if I gave names, I would look cooperative.“

She held her own against the barrage of questioning until she was asked if she knew Ricky Lee. “No,” she answered coyly. She didn’t realize that Ricky was detained in the same compound, and that he had admitted to knowing Jo-Ann during an interrogation just a few days earlier. Within minutes, a bewildered Ricky was led into her interrogation room and made to sit in a chair directly opposite.

“Tell me again,” the interrogating officer said, impatiently. “Do you know each other?”

They stared at each other mutely. “Ha ha!” Jo-Ann laughs at the memory of them trying to talk their way out of the situation. “We got into this Woody Allen-esque spiel about [what it means to] know somebody. Ricky said, ‘You know, writers meet writers in press conferences . . . ’ It’s a good thing the guy did not slap us around.”

Reunited, Ricky and Jo-Ann’s friendship continued in prison.

Among them, it was Pete Lacaba who would soon experience the Philippine Constabulary’s unregulated brutality.

Pete was a little older than the rest, already a respected figure within the Left, and a well-regarded poet. He was 28 years old on the morning of April 25, 1974. “Buksan n’yo’ng pinto! Awtoridad ito!” an angry voice boomed. He jumped on his feet and looked out the window. A gentle pink hue stained the early sky, and the trees chattered with birdsong. Surrounding the house were a troop of armed men, crouching behind two or three owner-jeeps, rifles cocked. Pete exchanged a last glance with two comrades sharing this underground house, and crept toward the door. After a brief hesitation, he opened it.

A government agent pushed his way inside, jabbing his rifle onto Pete’s torso. The remaining agents, all heavily armed, poured in; chaos ensued. Agents grabbed Pete’s arms and pushed him, face down, onto the floor. He grimaced as an officer stepped on him, and the butt of countless rifles pounded his neck, head, and back. He felt sharp and continuous jabs of pain near his ribs as agents proceeded to kick him.

Disoriented and bleeding, Pete was dragged to the bathroom, where a muscular, towering agent, perhaps taking the term “Underground movement” too literally, asked Pete if there was a tunnel underneath.

“I couldn’t help giving a short laugh,” Pete recalls, “given the absurdity of the question.”

Angered by Pete’s perceived insolence, the agent punched him in chest, sending Pete flying toward the bathroom’s tiled wall. He crumpled to the floor.

Unlike Butch, Ricky, and Jo-Ann, who spent their incarceration at Fort Bonifacio, Pete was brought to Camp Crame, where they relied primarily on one form of torture: physical. After a quick and routine processing of papers, the beating continued for another eight hours. He was placed in a small, makeshift cell he shared with 30 other prisoners. Over the next two weeks, he was summoned at random, sent to an adjoining room to be interrogated, and tortured. He was kept incommunicado from his parents, his wife, and his very young son.

Pete’s harrowing experience of torture would later be recounted in an Amnesty International Mission Report, dated 1975:

“Mr. Lacaba was forced into a squatting posture then was beaten on the shins with a rattan instrument . . . [He] was subjected to the higa sa hangin . . . treatment, also known as the ‘San Juanico Bridge.’ In this form of torture, the victim is made to lie down with his head resting on the edge of one cot, his feet on the edge of another cot, his arms straight and stiff at his sides and his body ‘hanging like a bridge . . . ’ All interrogators, as well as others, continued to strike . . . with punches and kicks.”

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During her interrogation, journalist Jo-Ann Maglipon was asked if she knew fellow writer Ricky Lee. Maglipon quickly denied any connection, unaware that Lee was being detained in the same compound.

Prison

Life in prison was a humid and sickening mix of fear, paranoia, and ennui, punctuated with random and unexpected acts of violence. And the guards were watching, always watching. Ricky and Jo-Ann were detained in the men’s and women’s compound of Ipil Rehabilitation Center at Fort Bonifacio—“Now a Home Depot and S & R,” quips Ricky—the same compound where Butch had been detained a year earlier, before he was moved to the Yakal Rehabilitation Center. Pete remained in Camp Crame for two years, his makeshift prison cell located in a dank, poorly-lit warehouse lacking basic necessities, including a latrine.

Inmates found respite in art and writing. Creative exchange was rife, providing a hopeful, bright glimmer inside the dehumanizing world of prison. Butch picked up the useful skill of printmaking, for example, from fellow inmate Orly Castillo, a printmaker from Ermita. Pete continued writing, penning several poems, and what would eventually become the theme song of film Sister Stella L (1984). Ricky produced his own version of Jesus Christ Superstar, changing the words to become a musical pun about prison life.

News from the outside world filtered in through new inmates and Sunday visitors. But overall, visits did not happen too often, as they were “so emotionally charged,” says Jo-Ann.

Prison carried its own type of currency. Instead of cash, tradable valuables included cigarettes, food, books, favors. In Killing Time in a Warm Place, Butch’s fictional recollection of his incarceration, the main character Bulaong trades in a few favors and convinces the Prison Commander to release him for the day to watch The Godfather, which he anticipated greatly after consuming Mario Puzo’s eponymous novel series. “That part was true,” Butch chuckles.

And the sense of community and organization characterizing the Underground movement continued. Ricky and Jo-Ann shake their heads at the grim memory of prison food, which inmates called “sinebak na sirena” in reference to the disfigured fish found at the bottom of a vat of gloop. They formed “chow groups” that re-cooked prison meals with added ingredients brought in by Sunday visitors. Cooking was done with the few pots and pans allowed to them in the compound’s makeshift kitchen. Choice cuts were given to sick and pregnant inmates.

Surprisingly there were a few pregnancies, as well as couples who fell in love while incarcerated. “Mga ligaw bakod,” Ricky smiles. Although the women’s and men’s compound were separated by a wall, the prison carried “social hours,” where inmates would be allowed to mingle for a brief period.

“Social hours are something we fought for, as well as a sports day,” Jo-Ann says, referring to the hunger strike she and inmates instigated. “[It wasn’t] good for the record of the government to have detainees falling apart because of [a] hunger strike,” she adds. Buckling under political pressure, the rigid prison hierarchy gave in to their demands eventually.

Organization was so tight among prisoners that they even orchestrated an elaborate escape plan, all under the noses of unsuspecting guards. “We studied them for months. We learned their rhythm already because we did reconnaissance at night, observing in the darkness what these guys would do, when they would transfer to give each other coffee, when they did not, how they would react if there was a cat, et cetera. . . ”

Direct communication among prisoners was impossible, so instructions and plans were passed discretely through cigarette foils. On an overcast night, six inmates, three women and three men, crawled several hundred meters through the prison canal system to freedom. Comrades from the Underground met them on the other side in getaway cars. Jo-Ann went to bed that night worried how it would go. The bunk above her belonged to one of the escapees; it was empty. When her name was called on the loudspeaker the next morning for interrogation, she knew they had made it.

Meanwhile, lacking treatment and rest, Ricky’s bronchial infection worsened, until his left lung eventually collapsed. He was taken to a nearby military hospital by hesitant prison guards, still not convinced that his ailment was real. He was offered minimal treatment, if at all. Jo-Ann and other inmates feigned various ailments—toothaches, sore limbs—so they could be sent to the military hospital to see him. Friends from the outside grew increasingly concerned. At one point, Doreen Fernandez visited the hospital bringing as a visitor lung specialist Dr. Jamora, who tended to him discreetly. Ricky slowly began to recover.

The dehumanizing treatment continued in Camp Crame, where Pete suffered through disparate acts of violence from prison guards for nearly two years. Whereas in the beginning the mental and physical torture may have been done under the guise of “interrogation,” eventually, as the 1975 Amnesty International Report describes, the brutal treatment was done for “no particular intent, except to inflict pain.”

Pete remembers being called to the guardhouse, where the aging prison guard held up a newspaper in front of him. Its headline reported the death of Emmanuel Lacaba, an activist killed in a military encounter in Davao del Norte. He looked at Pete. “Are you related to this Lacaba?” the guard asked. Expressionless and still, Pete answered no. Emmanuel was Pete’s brother. It was the first time he heard news of his death.

Slaps and kicks were common, including one particular kick in the chest from a prison guard that sent Pete, and the chair he was sitting in, sliding across the room. During interrogations, enlisted men walking past the area felt free to slap or hit him. In a separate incident, Pete remembers one interrogator who smiled at the sight of Pete shivering in front of an air conditioning vent running on full blast. Maimed and handcuffed, Pete was eventually taken to a military hospital along V. Luna street in Quezon City. A dirty handkerchief was tied over his eyes; he felt a sharp prick near his shoulder. Within minutes, he felt sick. “My head swam,” he describes, “and my body seemed to float . . . I felt as if I had downed a half case of beer.” While intoxicated by the “truth serum,” a chemical notorious among Martial Law prisons, Pete was interrogated again. “I don’t know how long the interrogation took before I lost consciousness.”

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Jose Lacaba would receive regular beatings from the Philippine Constabulary during his imprisonment. He would also learn of the death of his brother Emmanuel from an aging prison guard.

Release

Nick Joaquin, who had just won the National Artist Award, intervened to secure Pete’s release from prison. “The story that went around is that he made it a condition that he would not accept the National Artist Award if I wasn’t released,” Pete explains. “But later, he told me that what really happened was . . . the Marcos emissary [who told him he’d won] advised, ‘Why don’t you accept the award first? At the ceremony, Marcos will be there. Talk to him.’ So on the awards night he got to talk to Marcos and Enrile, and Marcos said, ‘Okay Nick, this release will be part of your award.’” Pete pauses, and adds with a smirk, “Pero [Nick] never disputed these other stories that went around.”

“We were led to this big, gray bus,” remembers Jo-Ann, “and I thought, ‘Oh God, we’re being led to a gas chamber.’” Both Ricky and Jo-Ann were instead driven to a separate compound, “where we had to swear an oath to the Marcos Administration!” recalls Jo-Ann incredulous, before being released. They were freed as part of a “Christmas package no’ng administration,” remembers Ricky. “Namili sila ng 50 names. Luckily, lahat kami sa grupo.” In all, the two had spent an entire year in prison.

Butch’s release from prison in August 1973 was unexpected and arbitrary, anti-climactic, even. “I was in the shower one day when I was called on the PA system to go to the guard house, and there was an army captain or major there with a stack of papers in front of him. He said ‘Pack your bags because we have nothing on you. Go home.’”

Butch distributed his cherished belongings—juice and cigarettes—to friends before leaving. In all, he had spent a total of seven months as a political prisoner—including his 19th birthday.

Legacy

Leaning into a chair outside his home in Quezon City, the clip of a Parker fountain pen gleaming from the front pocket of his gray linen top, Butch lets out a sigh. It took a while to shake free from “the long arm of Martial Law,” Butch confesses. The feeling of surveillance, of informers everywhere haunted him. Innocent sounds in the dead of night would jolt him awake.

Butch admits that prison helped strengthen his commitment to the anti-Marcos underground movement at first, because “now it was personal.” And the influence of his early political education continues to be present in his work. However, the years after 1973 were the stage for dramatic and explosive changes in the country’s political life as a whole. While the country grew disillusioned with Marcos, Butch found himself growing disillusioned with the CPP as well, which was going through its own complicated transformations.

“It never goes away,” confides Ricky, referring to the trauma of prison. Ricky, who struggles with depression, reached the lowest point of his life while incarcerated. Yet he views his experience positively in hindsight.

“Even if ang dami kong dinaanan . . . mararamdaman mo ’yung totoong pagmamahal at warmth ng mga kasamahan sa pinaka adverse na situation at isa ’yan sa pinakagrabeng situation,” he explains. “So pag naramdaman mo ’yung pagmamahal nila sa isang napakadilim na sitwasyon, mas nagsi-shine siya. And ’yung shining na ’yun, mahirap ipagpalit sa iba. I mean, nasa normal na buhay ka and then may tumulong, may nagshine dito, hindi siya kasing shiny . . . nang gaya doon ’pag madilim. And many of those shining gestures, hindi ko naappreciate no’ng nangyayari siya. . . . in hindsight.”

Ricky considers his early years with the student movement to have had an equally defining effect on his person. “Ang isang malaking bagay na matututunan mo sa kilusan, ‘yung structure ng mga bagay-bagay,” he explains, “whether structure ng buhay ng Pilipino, structure ng society, structure ng history, and so on. Joining the kilusan really organized me, and organized my thinking, and as a writer, malaking tulong ’yun.”

He credits the gender-sensitive undertones of Moral (1992), social commentary in Dragnet (1973), and examination of the OCW situation in The Flor Contemplacion Story (1995), as springing from his years with the organized Left.

“So, hindi ako ganito kung hindi ako na-involve [sa kilusan]. And maybe hindi rin ako ganito kung hindi ako nakulong,” he smiles thoughtfully. We are sitting at his home across Loyola, in a room where he conducts free screenwriting workshops. It is scattered with books, DVDs, and assorted film paraphernalia. We peer over his shoulder and scan the walls covered with dozens of movie posters, realizing more than half of the movies and faces that have defined modern Philippine film are staring back at us.

Postscript

Given the hundreds of writers and artists imprisoned and tortured during that extreme point in history, why have so few gone on to write about it? Butch’s Killing Time in a Warm Place is but one story among hundreds that have yet to be written. Why is there no One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for the Philippine experience?

“I don’t know,” Pete offers calmly, then smiles. “Hindi pakikitaan,” he teases. “It can be painful to remember these things,” he adds. “It’s difficult to just sit down and write it.”

Butch pauses, looking away in reflection. “That’s one big mystery to me,” he answers. “Our periods of conflict do not generate much great literature. I think it’s the fact that we haven’t really made sense of it for ourselves. Instead of subsequent events or subsequent history clarifying those moments, [they] confuse things more.” He cites EDSA and the unprecedented changes in the political landscape that followed as an example. “And so it’s hard to write about them with a very clear eye, a very clear head, taking a very clear stance. If anything, I think what will emerge will be that we’re not sure what actually happened back then.

“Siguro it was too real,” surmises Ricky. “Kung minsan it’s so difficult to write about something that you really, really know. You’re too close. We needed time para magka-hindsight kami, para may makita kami na hindi namin nakita before. It’s not because we don’t want to write about it. Hindi pa time. Or maybe there were other things that needed to be written first?”

“It has to be done now rather than in the next 20 or so years,” notes Butch, “before all those people go and their memories go.”

“Hindi lang siya mga interesting, intriguing, weird or funny or sad tales about how it was to live during the Martial Law regime,” Ricky adds. “Kung ano man ang ibang benefits na nangyari ngayon from People Power onwards, may mga nagbuhos ng dugo, nagpundar, at nagtanim no’ng panahong ’yun.” 

Butch remembers unfolding a thin cigarette foil in the early 70s. Inside was the familiar handwriting of friend and fellow student activist Antonio Tagamolila. Words nearly leapt off the page as Antonio described how happy he was in the countryside, how he had finally found real joy. Butch felt a warm brush of happiness for his friend. Little did he know, Tony had been killed days earlier, gunned down by military soldiers on the grassy hills of Panay.

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Though hundreds of writers and artists were imprisoned throughout the Martial Law era, very few have gone on to express it in their respective arts.

Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Rogue Magazine. Production Design by Erik Manalo. Special thanks to Jeremy Guiab.

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