Evella Bontia was born in Compostela Valley, the eldest of 5 siblings. She was a bright student. She graduated class valedictorian in elementary school, and salutatorian in high school. She qualified as an American Field Scholar and spent a year in Connecticut, USA, before graduating from high school. She was editor-in-chief of the high school paper Daluyong. She was an avid reader, borrowing books from her school library because the family could not afford to buy them.
The family being poor, the only hope for the bright Evella to get a college degree was for scholarships. So she took examinations and qualified for scholarships in five schools, including with the prestigious University of the Philippines in Diliman. She chose Ateneo de Davao, which was closer to home. She was very active in Ateneo. She became editor-in-chief of the school paper, the Atenews, when she was only in her junior year. She also became the university’s first female student council president.
As a student leader, she began writing articles critical of government. She also became active in organizing students to protest government policies. She joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) and participated in protest rallies. She became one of SDK’s regional officers for Southern Mindanao.
When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, soldiers raided the Bontia house and ransacked it, searching for “subversive” documents everywhere, including in ceiling wells. Evella went hiding in friends’ houses. But one of her brothers, Ildefonso Jr, himself an activist, was arrested by martial law authorities. Evella once sent her brother in prison a siopao (dumpling), coursed through a group of visiting nuns and priests. Inside was a note, which her brother, reciting from memory, said:
“I am sorry for what happened to you. They might keep you in prison for a long time because you have a sister fighting for a principle, for the good of the many, for Filipinos and country. Bear this burden with strength, take care of yourself, our parents, and our siblings. I will never surrender even if they paid me millions of pesos.”
Like most activists who were caught by surprise by the declaration of martial law, Evella at first was unsure about what action to take under a martial law situation. She eventually joined a group of activists who left the city for the countryside of Mindanao, organizing resistance groups against martial law.
In interviews with Evella’s friends, they said of this period that activists like Evella would ask trusted friends to lead them to other friends or relatives who might want to shelter them. Often they would stay with farmers’ families, and if opportunity arose, they would discuss the political situation, and seek support for the resistance against the Marcos dictatorship.
This organizing work found fertile ground in the neglected but increasingly militarized Mindanao countryside. Nevertheless it was a constantly dangerous undertaking, and activists who did these were fuelled mostly by their vision of a better society, their youthful commitment, and sheer courage. If they grew faint of heart, they would stiffen themselves up by telling themselves, “Dare to struggle and dare to win!” But they rarely thought about the risks.
Evella, who spoke the local language, was better able to mix well with the people in the communities, and was thus an effective organizer, living with ordinary people, understanding their real conditions and sentiments, and explaining the nature of the Marcos dictatorship.
A brilliant writer who was fluent in both English and Cebuano, Evella led the task of producing educational materials and to translate English materials into Cebuano so these could be understood by workers and peasants. These educational materials were a very important component in the overall task of organizing the people to resist martial law. Those who worked with her said she was patient and industrious, bearing the rigors without complaint, and the dangers, with courage.
Her family would occasionally get bits of news about her and her whereabouts. They heard she sold street food (barbecue) at night in Cagayan de Oro to earn money for her expenses. They learned she spent time in the other smaller cities in Mindanao, including Ozamis, Zamboanga, and Butuan. Later they learned she had married a fellow activist, Efren Bulay. They also learned she had given birth but the baby died in hospital. Evella later mailed her family a picture of the baby’s grassy burial place, with the name Pamela on top of the grave.
Circumstances of death
In 1974, the family heard she and her husband were killed somewhere in Lanao. With no proof or further details, they refused to believe the bitter news. But letters from Evella stopped coming. Then one morning in 1976 or 1977, the family opened the door of their house and on the steps was a small box. When they opened it, it contained several shirts and a sweater, all belonging to Evella. The box had no other markings and contained no letters.
Evella’s brother would later discover that Evella and her husband were in fact executed on the order of their leaders. Evella had been openly and sharply critical of certain senior leaders with whom she worked. She said they lacked political astuteness, among other failures. She also accused one leader of using the group’s precious funds for his own benefit. The leaders reacted violently to the criticisms, in turn accusing Evella of seeking to advance herself and of fomenting division among the ranks. These leaders then ruled her and her husband a serious threat to unity, and meted them the death penalty.
Those who had known her well and worked with her in those dark and difficult days say that while Evella had been vocal about her criticisms, the charges against her had little basis, and the punishment given was harsh as well as wrong.
“Evella is a true hero of the Filipino people. Her death is as weighty as the death of any hero who fought the martial law regime. She deserves to be remembered and honored,” says award-winning writer and Ateneo de Davao Literature and research professor Macario D.Tiu, a colleague.
Evella’s body has not been recovered by her family.