Eddie Villalon’s account of the 1985 Escalante Massacre

eddie 1.2 edited(This account was narrated by Eddie Villalon with wife Alma Villalon to Bantayog researchers Carrie Panaligan-Manglinong and Cathy Abrazado on August 2, 2013. This was transcribed by a staff from a video file, edited and translated by May Rodriguez.)

Negros activists were then responding to a national demand for the ouster of President Marcos. For September 21, 1985, the move was for a nationally-coordinated Welgang Bayan.

In Negros, the action was to be held in two cities, Metro Bacolod and Kabankalan in the south. But we from Northern Negros decided to organize our own welga. After all, people from the north usually filled up the rallies in Metro Bacolod, why not hold one in Escalante itself, we said?

So we organized our own welgang bayan in the 2nd district, from Cadiz to San Carlos, with Escalante as the center of the activities. Besides the oust-Marcos call, we also planned to raise many more issues such as the demand for fair wages and employment benefits, wage increases, reducing the prices of commodities, stopping militarization. We also raised anti-imperialist slogans, and issues coming from the different sectors, such as agrarian and land reform issues and so on. We raised human rights issues, such as the rampant killings going on in Mindanao — Fr. Tullio Favali had just been killed by the Maneros – and widespread political detention.

I was a teacher at Mt. Carmel College and I was part of the welga’s organizing team. I supervised the general program of activities and organized the cultural activities. Juvy Jaravelo was part of my team.

I never expected violence to erupt as would often happen in Metro Manila in the mid-1980s. We had not experienced it even in Bacolod where the army was visible all the time. In fact, I remember seeing a Metro Bacolod protest rally where the activists were all flying red flags as if we were in a revolution, and nothing had happened.

It was to be a three-day welgang bayan. It would start Sept. 19th and peak on the 21st, the 13th anniversary of the declaration of martial law. We put up two barricade points at the town center, where people would mass up in preparation for a total general strike.

Rallyists started arriving as early as the afternoon of the 18th. People from Cadiz, Sagay and Old Escalante would mass up in front of the town hall, along the highway (where the present shrine stands). Those from San Carlos, the farmworkers from Calatrava and Toboso, and farmers from Escalante would mass up in front of the town market. People from the town center of Escalante also joined. We were able to mobilize doctors, teachers particularly those from Mt. Carmel, and even students. Church people, priests, nuns, seminarians and lay, were also active.

In Negros, workers, farmers, the middle forces, members of the religious, lawyers, they all showed support. Some joined the marches. Others who could not would place food along the way, so that rallyists may have something to eat. People supported the rallies because they have had enough of Marcos by then. Talagang sobra na.

On day 1, the 19th of September, we erected a light barricade at both points. Vehicles could pass through quite freely. The people in the barricades were engaged in sharing of stories and in discussion of issues. The proceedings were quite peaceful.

We heard that rallyists had also put up picket points in Cadiz, in Kabankalan and in Bacolod. But Escalante had the biggest crowd.

In the afternoon of that first day, firetrucks started arriving, coming from all the neighboring places: Toboso, Calatrava, Sagay, Cadiz. We also noticed a growing number of paramilitary soldiers (CHDF) coming in, forces of Marañon and Gustilo.

A truck full of CHDF would pass by the protesters and we would tell our forces not to be afraid, and to denounce the militarization of our home areas.

On day two, September 20th, morning saw so many soldiers arriving in full uniform. News also got to us that Bayan chair Rolando Ponsica, who is now our present Board Member of the First District of Negros Occidental, was taken in for house arrest at that time.

At the same time, our protest forces had also grown very large. At Barricade 1 in front of the town hall, people filled up the road from the corner up to the Libra Mart, or about 100 meters. An even bigger group was massed up in Barricade 2 in the market. The professionals and student groups were all there. The panel of negotiators we had put up was there, although we did not actually think we would be violently dispersed.

At both barricade points, programs were going on.

By 9:00am, we announced a total barricade. We wanted to paralyze all transportation and get the transport drivers to join the strike. No more vehicles were plying the roads. Bacolod also had declared a total barricade.

By 10am, we heard rumors that certain policemen had told store owners to close their shops because “this would be dispersed.” Some relatives went to the barricades to tell protestors to go home because “you would be dispersed.”

We refused to believe the rumor. We said we were on the right. And besides, that was not the first political rally held in Escalante and we had never been subjected to dispersal.

But we thought we would prepare anyway. To counter teargas, we had lots of calamansi bought, then sliced, and the juice pressed and collected in pails, and handkerchiefs wetted with the juice. We also prepared ourselves for water cannons from the firetrucks. But that was the worst we thought it would get.

I had absolutely no inkling of the coming danger. The program at both sites went on, people were singing, making speeches, chanting of slogans, and so on.

I was coming from Barricade 1 where I had overseen the program and was moving to Barricade 2 when I passed the town hall and saw many soldiers in full battle gear. Those were not policemen with truncheons, but soldiers with armalites! And more firetrucks full of CHDF were arriving.

When I got to Barricade 2, I told the people that dispersal was imminent. We prepared the members of the negotiating panel in the persons of Mr. Roger Arnaiz, Mr. Loreto Bering, Mr. Daniel Gempesala, Mr. Carlos Allones, Mr. Bernardino Patigas, the late Adolfo Maguate, and some sectoral representatives.   It was around noon. I remember we could not take any lunch because we were girding ourselves for the dispersal.

Later we would learn that at that very moment, the Bayan chair, Mr. Rolando Ponsica, had been brought to the town hall and ordered to stand on the balcony and order the rallyists to disperse. Mr. Ponsica reacted to this order, saying he did not control the people, and if he ordered them to disperse, they would simply ignore him because they had their own will and initiative and he was simply chairman of an organization.

More truckloads of soldiers came. We would fight our fears by clapping our hands and shouting slogans (“Makibaka! Huwag matakot!,” “Militarisasyon labanan!”). I think the soldiers came from the 334th,  Sagay, Bato, Toboso. We called the rallyists to link arms (kapit-bisig). Our only means of defense by way of weapons were the torches we had used the previous night.

We wanted to beef up Barricade 1, where the farmers and farmworkers were all concentrated. We sent more marshalls to strengthen the forces. A group of males from Toboso workers also volunteered. The teachers, who were all in Barricade 2, also offered to cross to the other barricade.

As this was happening, firetrucks arrived. One was already at the Pilipino Bakery facing the negotiating panel. We had not known that water cannons had been fired at Barricade 1 in the plaza. The dispersal had started. I was told that at the start, the protesters in Barricade 1 were still able to make jokes: “let’s take a bath; shampoo your hair; we hadn’t been able to bathe this morning.” After several blasts, the firetrucks ran out of water.

Juvelyn Jaravelo was in the leftside at the center of the crowd facing the public plaza and leading the chanting. The CHDF had taken up positions in the plaza and started hurling tear gas canisters to the protesters. Juvelyn picked up one canister and threw it back from where it came. That was the point when the CHDF started firing, and Juvelyn was the first to be hit. Suddenly, even the machine gun was spewing fire on the rallyists.

We heard the gunshots at Barricade 2, but we thought that they were merely warning shots. The crowd shouted “Panakot lang yan! Makibaka ! Huwag matakot!” Then the trucks started spewing water out to disperse our barricade. I was in front. The water was painful. Some were hit in the eyes and were temporarily blinded. We all crouched to protect ourselves, still all the while shouting: “Bigas, bigas, hindi tear gas!” “Bigas, bigas, hindi bala!”

I kept thinking of the protesters in the other barricade. Then people came running from there. Some had bloody faces, others were holding on to wounded (nawakwak) stomachs. They came to join arms with us! That was when we heard it: “Minamasaker kami!”

Still, we faced the water cannons. Everything was happening very fast. Ratatattat! Papapapak! People started running in all directions. Some hid in the houses. Some fled to the nearby sugarcane fields. Some of us kept our arms still firmly linked, facing the water cannons. An order went around to disperse. This confused some because we had earlier given out orders NOT to disperse.

We had lost our forces behind us. When I looked back, all who were left were the teachers’ groups and the student groups, members of the League of Filipino Students.

When the water cannons stopped, those who managed to stay behind sat wet and dispirited at the side of the marketplace. We urged the members of our negotiating panel to leave and seek safety. I thought that was it. Suddenly four armored cars and more firetrucks arrived and encircled us, together with fully-armed soldiers. They shouted for us to surrender.

We were barely 50 in number by then, at the very most, 100, mostly teachers and students from Mt. Carmel.  We were both scared and angry. Our relatives were nearby, some also very angry. Someone shouted: “Get out of there! You are going to die there!” But we also saw our own relatives pick up stones, prepared to throw them to policemen, some of whom were also our own relatives! One of my co-teachers had a boyfriend who was a policeman and he was there, but on the other side. My uncle was a policeman, and he was there. We had relatives in the police force and we had relatives in the crowd, holding rocks to throw, shouting: “Those are innocent people! Don’t kill them!”

Several policemen had their firearms pointed to the CHDF/CAFGU! The CAFGUs in turn had their firearms pointed at us. The policemen themselves looked stunned. I think if someone started firing then, the police and the CHDF would have shot at each other.

An old teacher, the mother of an LFS member, got her rosary beads out, and with her son, waved a piece of white cloth saying, “We surrender!” We said: “Don’t surrender!” Someone shouted to her: Come here! I was still holding the megaphone and I called her to come back! I held on to her, telling her not to go to the soldiers. They ran towards the firetruck anyway, waving the white cloth and rosary beads.

The soldiers started counting. One! We embraced each other. We said our goodbyes: goodbye, friend! goodbye, comrade! The teachers, some new recruits, were crying. The LFS leaders stood and boldly faced the soldiers, ready to die.

Then a PC commander saw one of his nephews with us! He shouted to his men: “Ceasefire!”

Still the counting went on: Two! The CO shouted again: “Ceasefire!”

We kept saying our goodbyes, shaking our comrades’ hands: “Paalam, kaibigan!”

The CO ran to the center of the road, and as he was doing so, a door suddenly opened in the market and someone from behind said: “Get in here!” and we all rushed inside. We wove our way in and out of the market stalls and ended up inside the safety of the church convent. We got out of our wet clothes and left again to search for the wounded.

That was how we saw the CHDF shooting at the wounded, bang! if they saw any still alive. (The CHDF came from Cadiz, the Bato detachment.)

There were wounded everywhere, in the streets, in the ricefields, in the sugarcane fields. And when we brought the wounded to Magdalen (Hospital), conditions there were also terrible. The wounded lined the corridors.

We went to the sugar central in Danao to radio Bacolod for help and to ask for blood donations. Atty. Frank Cruz of FLAG, and the social action people from the Bacolod diocese arrived at around 4 or 5 pm. There were no reporters, so all the pictures were either personal shots or those taken by TFD.

There were bullet holes in the walls of the rural bank across the street of the town hall. If the machine gun had aimed lower, it would have hit many more people. The CAFGU were on the ground, where the monument now stands, shooting directly at the people.

We looked for the wounded through the night. The people from the Task Force Detainees were there, helping. But the boldest who went around were the youth activists, those with the LFS.

On Sept. 21, the planned third and final day of our welgang bayan, all the dead were laid side by side at the town hall grounds. That was towards the afternoon. We learned of a plan to have them brought in a truck to the 334th.  The bodies were thrown willy-nilly, like slaughtered pigs, on to army trucks. Since I was in cultural, I also remember noting the confiscated cassettes and sound systems, and other rally gear.

We stayed the entire night again at the convent. The sound of helicopters hovering would send people to panic again. Some would run inside the church, some to the classrooms, others would jump over walls to hide on the other side. Some of our own leaders crawled under church pews in absolute terror over the whir of helicopters.

Then rumors flew that the New People’s Army guerrillas were in a rage over the massacre and that they were coming to town! That led to another rush back to the safety of the church.

Members of the negotiating panel, who had also taken refuge in the convent, heard that they had been issued arrest orders. We called an emergency meeting and decided to send everyone out of the sanctuary. About ten of us known to the military borrowed dresses from the women to conceal their identities before leaving the convent. Toto Patigas was one of those who went out dressed as a woman. He had to go through a checkpoint, but he was not recognized. Some went to Cebu, or to San Carlos, or Dumaguete. A bunch of us stayed behind because we were teachers and we had to hold classes the next day. We went home in small groups, fear following us all the way.

The local press, the foreign press, the Red Cross, all came the following day and held interviews. The whole town was quiet. All the houses had closed doors. No one wanted to come out in the open except Fr. Nico who was fearless. He went to the town hall, unaware that he was in fact in an “order of battle.”

At Mt. Carmel, we had to resume classes. The students came, the teachers came, but soldiers stood at the school gates, and soldiers watched the entrance to the classrooms. It was surreal.

Businesses opened after several days.

It started as a peaceful protest.  I never imagined it would end like that. I kept asking myself, how did this happen?

Armando Gustilo was the governor of Negros Occidental at that time. He liked to use his power. He used the paramilitary to wield control. In particular, he wanted to divide Negros Occidental into two provinces, Negros del  Norte and  del Sur — and the entire North would be his. Gustilo was a KBL, a Marcos crony. He was one of the biggest sugarcane planters in Negros.

Today, we remember September 20th with an annual commemoration. During the first anniversary of the massacre, we organized all relatives of those who died as MARTYR – Mothers and Relatives Against Tyranny.  We said we wanted to give meaning to the sacrifices of those who died and to continue what they started, so that their lives would not have been wasted. That was the driving force behind the annual reenactment.

The late Adolfo Maguate was one of the massacre survivors. He was a teacher who became councilor, and later a two-term vice-mayor. He was also a Bayan member. When he was vice-mayor, he had the town council declare the date of the Escalante massacre as an annual day of mourning and prayer for the townspeople. He has championed this cause and he was for a long time supporter of the annual commemoration of the massacre.

The monument was conceptualized by the Federation of Concerned Artists of the Philippines (FCAN).  We had to raise funds for it, so we were able to build it only later. Today, the annual commemoration is always celebrated with different cultural activities spearheaded  by the Teatro Obrero  (TO). Many people still cry and become emotional when they see it. Some years back, we invited some fisherfolk in Old Escalante who were at the massacre to join the commemoration. Twenty-five years had passed, but they continued to be afraid.

We hold a vigil and a torch parade every 19th of September. People from all sectors participate. The following morning, the 20th and the day of the massacre, we hold a people’s mass. We hold a caravan. At noon, we march, and on the exact time the massacre happened, we begin the reenactment. It is an event that usually attracts many visitors.

I am usually the director, so I can guide the actors to depict what really happened. It is ironic that now I serve in city hall, and I’m able to use real firetrucks for these reenactments. For so long after the massacre, just seeing a firetruck pass by was a traumatic experience. Today I can give the direction: fire the water cannons, and know that justice is on my side.

Everytime I tell this story, I cry again.