(The following is a repost of a September 21, 2012 article published at GMA News Online, a sidebar to the coverage of the Himagsik at Protesta exhibit about Martial Law at the UP Library. Photo of Neri Colmenares with cousin Angel Locsin is from Noel Abuel of Abante Online.)
The man that faced the crowd at the launch of the Martial Law memorial exhibit, “Himagsik at Protesta,” last Sept. 14 was charismatic and jovial, beaming with an easy, inviting kind of confidence that befits a man of his position.
It didn’t register then that Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares, the cheery man who captivated the crowd from the moment, was the same man who underwent torture and imprisonment in the time of Martial Law, which he himself described as the “darkest, most horrible and bloodiest chapter in Philippine history.”
Colmenares began his story light-heartedly enough, quipping that he was only a baby when Martial Law was declared.
“Bakit ako magsasabi ng totoo, hindi naman ako tino-torture?” he joked as the audience—composed of activists young and old—erupted in laughter.
In fact, Colmenares was in Grade 6 and only concerned about not having anything to watch on TV when Martial Law was declared. It was only when he entered high school that he gravitated towards activism. Influenced by then-Negros Bishop Antonio Fortich, one of Ferdinand Marcos’ vocal challengers, he joined the fight for human rights.
The congressman’s story turned grave when he shared that at 18 years old, he was arrested and tortured by members of the now defunct Philippine Constabulary.
“Gusto ipadakip siguro nina Marcos si Bishop Fortich, hindi naman kaya, so lahat ng mga subordinates niya , hinuli. Isa na ako dun,” Colmenares shared at the the launch of Karapatan’s “Himagsik at Protesta” exhibit.
“The first thing I noticed…they wanted to humiliate me,” he said, explaining that when he was first caught, he was made to strip naked and beaten with a ruler.
The torture was worse at night, he said.
“To think na on the third and the fourth day, they were not even trying to extract information from me kasi lahat that they wanted to know, nakuha na nila sa iba kong kasamahan,” Colmenares added, saying that when he wrote his confession, his torturers didn’t like it, so they made him eat the paper.
Colmenares said the torture went on for days, but worse than the physical abuse was the mental torture. He said the body goes numb after a few days, but the mind remains receptive.
Colmenares recalled how one of the torturers would make the prisoners squat while he carried a .45 pistol and kicked them randomly from behind.
“Ang nangyayari pala, ‘pag ginagawa sa ‘yo yan, every time he’s in front of you, magre-relax ka, ‘pag nasa likod siya, d’un ka kabahan. In the end, gusto mo tadyakan ka para lang ma-relieve ‘yung tension,” he said.
In another instance, the guard brought him and another detainee to a room, where they made him watch as they inserted wire into the other man’s genitals and electrocuted him.
“Sabi sa ‘kin, upo ka muna Neri ikaw sunod ah...siyempre nakikita ko dumudugo, tsaka ako ‘yung sunod ‘di ba…Grabe talaga ang feeling ko d’un,” Colmenares shared.
“Pero alam mo ang torture nakakapagod din…three hours ‘yung torture, mga ala-una ng umaga, napagod sila. Sabi nila, o Neri, bukas ka na, matulog ka muna. Siyempre, ‘di ako makatulog sa gabi…siyempre, ako ‘yung sunod the next day pero ‘di nila ginawa sa akin,” he added.
Instead, they transferred him to what he called the “headquarters”.
“Grabe yung impunity nung Martial Law. Headquarters eh, tino-torture ka sa gabi, makikita ka nila sa umaga sa mga rooms, mga tao, alam nilang tino-torture ka, pero walang sinasabi,” he said.
He then shared how one of the guards engaged him in a game of Russian roulette, putting his gun into Colmenares’ mouth. At that point, the crowd had fallen dead silent, gripped by the story.
“Ang lamig ng baril pala pag nasa loob ng bunganga mo,” Colmenares said, his voice echoing across the hall.
According to him, the guard appeared to be drunk and asked him if he felt lucky. The guard then instructed Colmenares to say “Mao” while the gun was inside his mouth.
“Pagsabi kong ‘Mao,’ pinitik niya yung gatilyo. Pag nasa loob ‘yung baril ng bunganga mo, ang lakas ng tunog. Akala ko pumutok ‘yung baril eh. I could see my brain splattered there,” he said.
The guard then pulled the trigger a second time.
“‘Buenas ka talaga, Neri,’ sabi niya, you’re destined to live. Pwede ka na tumakas, umuwi ka na,” Colmenares recalled.
He knew, however, that if he left, he would have been killed. “Tinutulak niya ko palabas, ‘yung sofa na hawak-hawak ko, ‘di ko talaga binitawan. In the end, napagod din siya.”
Colmenares also shared how the guards became frustrated with one of his companions who did not crack even after four days of torture. According to him, they put him inside a drum and buried him alive.
“They could have shot them, they could have killed him, but no, they had to bury him alive for no purpose at all and for years alam mo ‘yung nanay niya, every time she sees me cries. ‘Yan ang problema sa desaparecido pala. Walang closure,” he said.
Why Colmenares survived the ordeal with his life was a matter of pure luck. According to him, the warden chose to keep him alive because his father worked in a bank and had endorsed the warden’s loan.
At that point, Colmenares had just been strangled by an officer so that his tonsils were damaged and he couldn’t breathe.
“In the end, dinaan ako sa bahay. Shocked ang mother ko to see her 18-year-old kid sa isang army truck, nakahiga. Dinala ako sa ospital, ‘yun na, the end of my torture,” he said.
After sharing his story, Colmenares enjoined the audience and especially the youth to continue the struggle against Martial Law, which he believes still exists somehow even today.
“Yung lesson dito, simple… the struggle has not ended…up to this time, 385 people languish in jail for their political beliefs… ‘yan ang isang di siguro dapat natin kalimutan,” Colmenares said.
He added, “I think the running thread today is Martial Law is still enforced in a way and that we have to continue the struggle to make sure that the darkest, most horrible and bloodiest chapter in Philippine history will never happen again.”