I covered the aftermath of the Sept 20, 1985 Escalante massacre in Negros Occidental. One of those events cited in local and world history to showcase the brutality of the Marcos dictatorship, the massacre happened at the height of a general strike on the eve of the 13th anniversary of Martial Law, just months before the tyrant fell.

As thousands of protesters in front of the town hall chanted, “Bugas, Indi Bala” (rice, not bullets), state forces let loose a hail of bullets. They killed 20 people, wounded scores of other protesters.

Journalists covering the strike center in Bacolod rushed 93 km north, there to witness the last bodies still laid out at the plaza, where a tower sheltered the constabulary and paramilitary troops who had mowed down unarmed protesters with machine guns and rifles.

In the hospitals, the wounded moaned and wept. Some of those hurt were unconscious; some were delirious, calling out for mercy, shrieking out calls to stop the shooting.

At the constabulary headquarters on a hill, the many dead were dumped on the ground, their flesh already growing back and bloated even with the lime sprinkled to ward of stench and decay.

HOT AS COAL

The alleged mastermind of the massacre, the late North Negros Gov. Armando Gustillo, was never punished. Three lowly cops were convicted and pardoned in 2003. Of the facts of the massacre, there was little dispute, even in court.

The protesters had been told to disperse. They refused.

Officers trained water cannons on them. In the heat of the day, the blast of high-pressured liquid was met by jeers and laughter. Tear gas followed water. A young college student picked up a canister and threw it back. Within seconds, bullets whizzed towards the protesters.

The assailants shot to kill, Virgirita Calinog recalled when I interviewed her in 2016. Then only 18 years old, she escaped death when another student covered her with his body. Her saviour died.

Some died on the spot, some in the cane fields where they scampered to evade chasing troops. Slippers, bags, shirts all over. And blood. Plenty of blood.

“I saw the guns. The sun was hot, but the heat from the guns, I could feel and see, like these were coal. I saw friends fall. There was terror. There was rage. I wanted to fight back. All I could do was weep for the fallen.”

More than two decades after the massacre, Bernardino “Toto” Patigas still wept as he recalled the outrage in the shadow of a monument put up for the victims.

“Some of the people who survived ran and ran for safety, some as far as eight kilometers,’ said the former secretary-general of Bayan Escalante and a councilor of the city when we last talked in 2016,

REMEMBRANCE DEFILED

Patigas almost never missed the annual commemoration.

Whatever administration held the city also respected allowed survivors and kin of victims to commemorate the event.

The Carmelite order that runs the Mt Carmel School, where many of the protesters studied or had graduated from, and the church that survivors took shelter in, has always joined in the commemoration.

Things have changed.

The government has forcibly taken over this year’s commemoration with a “peace summit” that has morphed into a theater of surrender with 2,400 supposed rebel returnees.

There is an effort to present the Escalante massacre as a tragedy that should ultimately be blamed on activist groups that aroused people’s ire against the Marcoses.

It’s a necessary fiction because the same strategy is used to deflect anger against extrajudicial killings under Duterte, scandals that link his friends and aid to drug smuggling activities and massive corruption.

The priests, who first met government overtures with the presumption of goodwill, have been caught flat-footed. The main celebrant, we hear as of this writing, has begged off from the mass.

There is also someone important missing from the commemoration. They killed the 72-year old Patigas on April 22 this year during the midterm campaign season. They shot him in the head, a clear execution.

Mayor Melecio Yap Jr. has refused a permit to groups that traditionally organize the commemoration. Police and soldiers also arrested advance teams of Teatro Obrero, which performs at every annual commemoration.

The military presented them as New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas; as if armed rebels really go around in a jeep with a huge bullhorn, calling attention with blaring invitations to the anniversary rites for EsCam, as locals call it.

SOMBER REMINDER

San Carlos Bishop Gregorio Alminaza, whose diocese covers Escalante, called those who died on Sept. 20, 1985 as martyrs.

“The martyrs of Escalante inspired many more to be courageous in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship,” Alminaza said in a statement.

Responding to the government’s call to “look forward,” the bishop stressed:

“We may have gotten rid of the Marcos rule but respect for human rights has yet to be realized.”

“Patigas’ leadership among the poor continued after the massacre, only to be assassinated 33 years later by suspected death squads,” he pointed out.

Patigas’ friends say 2018 showed a clear change in these written warnings.

Once you were just called Red. After the Duterte regime rolled out Oplan Sauron and the SEMPO (Synchronized Enchanced Managing of Police Operations) in the Visayas last December, leaflets and posters started calling for blood.

At least three massacres have occurred in northern Negros since the last quarter of 2018. Close to 60 individuals have been killed by motorcycle-riding teams.

“We must continue our pursuit of justice for victims of past massacres and more recent massacres due to agrarian disputes,” Alminaza said.

The Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police (PNP) insist that the more than a dozen farmers killed in jointly coordinated raids in 2018 and this year were all “nanlaban,” a stock phrase used in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Drug war. Witnesses and the families of the slain dispute this claim and have filed charges.

This year’s commemoration of the Escalante massacre happens just a month after some of the bloodiest days of attacks against perceived activists in Negros island. It happens amid almost weekly round-ups of rural residents in their barangays, with invitations to surrender or else.

Under Duterte, forward is a return to the dark.

Published in news.abs-cbn.com September 20,2019
Featured photo: Negros folk, cultural activists reenact the 1985 Escalante massacre / Altermidya.net