The Bacong Bridge Martyrs
To the Marcos regime is attributed some 900 massacres,perpetrated by military and paramilitary forces, primarily to instill fear on communities or groups raising a voice of protest against certain issues or policies, or against the regime’s growing abuses.
In 1981, six massacres were recordedby the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, three taking place against people taking collective protest actions: in Guinayangan, Quezon (2 killed on February 1), in Daet, Camarines Norte (4 killed on June 14) and in Culasi, Antique (5 killed on December 19).
This municipality lies 92 kilometers north of the provincial capital, San Jose de Buenavista. From a thin coastal strip that faces Sulu Sea, the land rises to form the foothills of the majestic Mount Madyaas. One-fourth of Culasi’s barangays live on these foothills. Kinaray-a is the language spoken. Most residents fish and farm, mostly growing palay, corn, abaca, coffee, cacao and coconuts. As in most rural areas in the country, the people are poor, eking out various livelihoods for survival.
Life in Culasi seemed slow in 1981. It still had no electricity and only a few stores. But new disturbing things were happening. A curfew prevented people from leaving their homes after dark. The people were uneasy with the increased presence of Constabulary men in the villages. No abuse had been recorded but they had heard how soldiers in other areas stole chickens, burned houses or drove people out of their homes.
Activists, mostly students who had left the universities to work against the dictatorship, were living in these villages, trying to organize residents to resist the dictatorship. Small teams from the New People’s Army (NPA)were also doing political work and taking in local recruits.
The upland barangays planned a march to town to raise several concerns with the mayor, Romulo Alpas. They wanted to ask the mayor to stop collecting taxes on goods they brought down from upland to sell in town. Every mat spread on the market grounds offering goods for sale was issued a ticket to pay. It was nearing Christmas. With life as hard as it was, any bit of earning would go a long way. Another of the residents’ demands was to ask the mayor to stop more soldiers from coming. The people wanted a worry-free holiday season.
On December 19, a Saturday, around 500 residents, men, women and even children, started the march. They came from six barangays. Some young people had made rough placards and they were taken to the front of the marchers’ columns. It was a noisy but jovial bunch of villagers that started out from Barangay Condes. A few kilometres down the road, three constabulary men stopped them and asked for their leader. “We are all leaders!” they cried, and marched on. In barangay Balabago, more soldiers came up, again asking to know and see their leader. They got the same happy, confident response. The marchers had absolutely no inkling death was waiting at the next stop.
They had reached the Bacong bridge when soldiers stopped them a third time. The soldiers had built a bamboo barricade at the center of the bridge. They told the marchers to stop or be killed. Again the soldiers asked for the leaders.
But the townhall was barely two kilometers away. The marchers meant to reach that goal. See the mayor. Some men in the front moved closer to the barricade to try to get the poles out of the way.
Shots rang out. The marchers dispersed in disarray. Some jumped off the bridge. Some hid in the rice paddies nearby. But five lay dead.
Leopoldo Anos, 48, was from barangay Flores. He was married to Basilia Estopacia with whom he had three children. He gathered abaca and made ropes he sold at the market. He did not own land but he cleared land up in the hills to plant cassava, camote, corn and abaca. His son remembers his father as a jolly person with whom he spent many happy evenings. On the day of the rally, Leopoldo had sore eyes, the son remembers. But the issues were important and he wanted to join the action. So he did.
Aquilino Castillo, also a farmer, was from Barangay Carit-an. The family had left Culasi.
Fortunato Dalisay was born on June 2, 1926, in Barangay Batonan Sur. His father was a farmer and his mother a hilot. He got only to first grade in school. He was married and had three children. As with most everyone, he fished and he farmed. When the seas were too rough to fish, he tended his farm or went up the hills to gather firewood.
Neighbors say that people looked up to Fortunato because not only was he level-headed, he was ever ready to extend help to those who needed it.
Neighbors say that Fortunato was often seen in discussion with the activists. He was one of those in his village who urged people to join the march. He was 55 years old when killed.
His daughter Cecilia, a high school student at the time, was part of the march. She got shot in the foot at the violent dispersal. She was afraid to seek medical treatmentat first. But the wound got infected and she had to be ferried in a basket to be brought to hospital, there to be confined by the soldiers. Her father was buried without her because she was not allowed out. She does not forget that before the ill-fated march started, her father told her to be careful. He gave her his hat to wear as protection against the sun.
Remigildo Dalisay was a cousin of Fortunato. He was born September 1934, also in Barangay Batonan Sur. He never went to school and could not write or even read his name. He and his wife Fermina have eight children. Fermina says they met at a baylehan (community dance social). She found Remigildo, or Dodong, hard-working and very kind. He worked often alongside his older brother Fortunato and like him, was actively urging neighbors to be part of the march to town.
Joel Ballenas Plaquino, the fifth casualty, was also from Batonan Sur. He got to sixth grade until poverty made it impossible to go on. He made a living mostly by fishing, and was married to Lolita, with whom he had five children. He had also worked as farmhand if opportunity offered. Joel, neighbors remember, also had frequent discussions with the activists, and like the Dalisay brothers, was a strong supporter of the protest march to the town. He was 34 and with very young children when slain.
The bodies of all five men were brought to the municipal hall and put on display. All had many bullet wounds from the waist down. Seven others injured were brought by their families to hospital for treatment. Some were taken in for questioning by the soldiers. Others kept their injuries to themselves to avoid the same fate.
Aftermath. “ … The demonstrators tragically proved with their own deaths and injuries their fear that the arrival of more soldiers posed a danger.” Reporting about the incident in Who magazine, writer Roberto Z. Coloma observed that the very thing the residents feared might happen, had happened.
Coloma reported that Mayor Alpas, who belonged to the Marcos party Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, blamed the activists in the mountains for the incident, as did the military authorities from the 315thcompany of the Philippine Constabulary.
But the massacre generated outrage.
The Catholic bishop of Antique, Monsignor Cornelio De Witt, issued a pastoral letter denouncing the killing of those “on their way to town to express their hunger for a better life.” Bishop De Witt said: “All of our human powers, whether political or economic or physical, must be at the service to protect and develop human life, never to kill by the sword or to manipulate by lies and threats. Man is born free and can only become himself in freedom. “
The governor, Enrique Zaldivar, called the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC), which passed a resolution urging then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile to send a team to investigate the incident, or allow the council to do so. The vice-governor, Lolita Cadiao, wrote an urgent letter to Pres. Marcos, saying the marchers should have been given the chance to express themselves.
The Promotion of Church Peoples Rights, led by Bishop Tomas Millena of the Philippine Independent Church, to which majority of Culasi’s residents belonged, called for justice and an impartial investigation.
Months later, the Panay Broad Alliance for Justice and Peace was established, with lawyers, religious, professionals and students among its members. The alliance exposed the military abuses happening all over Panay. It demanded that those guilty be brought to court and punished.
It was a sad Christmas in Culasi in 1981.The families of those slain and hurt had to scrounge for the money to pay for funeral expenses and medical costs. Many sold or pawned their farm animal or even their land. The bridge in Bacong today is new and bigger, but the blood that stained its wooden boards years ago remains a bitter memory. The sight of a uniformed person still brings anxiety attacks to some.
It was the first time that the poor folk of Culasi, many never having spent a day in school, went to hold a march and rally to try to find a way to collectively improve their lot. They found the courage to break the silence and the order imposed by the dictatorship. The details of the lives of those who died are little-known and sparse. They are no less martyrs for our democracy. Their story should be told, for the new generation to remember.