By Hernan S. Melencio
(philippinehistory.ph publishes this article in memory of the Samareños who died during the Balangiga Encounter in September 1901)
An old wooden house sits at a street corner like an aging man silently waiting the passing of time and helplessly watching his remaining strength slip from grip. The shutterless windows of the upper floor, the falling doors below, the dilapidated walls that are barely clinging to its sides indicate the absence of human habitation, or the complete surrender of whoever lives there to the ravages of time, much like the relatives of a poor cancer patient staring at each other in indecision, wishing for somebody to pull the plug.
It is a cold September day in 2009 and the late afternoon sun casts a long shadow through a gray sky. Judging from the painted concrete houses in the neighborhood, the street is in a middle class community. It is empty of kids and people doing errands at this particular time. You can tell by the materials used and the corner where it stands that the house, despite its present squalid condition, was once owned by a person of modest wealth. Such house in the early 1900s could have been painted in bright colors and sported windows of wood and capiz shells. You could see such old houses in various places and in various stages of degradation.
It could just be any house in any town in any province in the Philippines. But this one is not just any house. It’s the house of Valeriano Abanador of Balangiga town in Eastern Samar.
Yes, Balangiga. The “howling wilderness” and the home of the famous church bells the Americans took as war booty during the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902.
This photo was taken the same month 108 years ago in 1901 when Valeriano Abanador, the police chief of Balangiga, led a surprise attack on 74 American soldiers, killing 48 of them. Of the 26 who survived, only four came out without severe wounds. Many of the Americans were veterans of the Boxer rebellion in China and the officers were graduates of West Point. So imagine the humiliation the American occupiers felt after the defeat, which the US press described as “terrible.”
At this time, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo had already sworn his allegiance to the United States following his capture in March 1901. This act supposedly ended the war with the Americans but many Katipunan members refused to surrender and continued the revolution; among them Gen. Vicente Lukban of Samar and Leyte. However, Lukban had nothing to do with the Balangiga attack as it was an independent plot by the residents of the town pissed off by the presence of abusive Americans.
The following month after the Balangiga attack, the Americans retaliated in what would go down in history as – you guessed it – the “Balangiga Massacre.” In October 1901, a red-faced and irate US general named Jacob Smith ordered his men to turn Samar into “a howling wilderness” and kill everyone over ten years old. Of course, the rebels had already fled into the mountains, leaving only the civilians in the area.
General “Howling Jake” Smith’s order went thus: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me… The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” – Wikipedia, downloaded 20 June 2013, 1:57 pm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balangiga_massacre
Nobody knows the exact number of people killed in the massacre; an American researcher says 2,500 Filipino males were killed (not accounting for women and children) but Filipino historians put the death toll at 50,000 men, women and children. Animals, like carabaos and chickens, were not spared during the American rampage.
Of course, for the Americans, Balangiga massacre was the slaughter of their own soldiers who were having breakfast by “Balangigaons” in the morning of September 28, 1901. Filipino historians, however, call this the “Balangiga incident” as the real massacre happened after this.
The Balangiga incident was an act against the atrocities committed by the American occupiers on Filipinos, like forced labor, detention, seizure of food supply and molestation of women. The night before the incident, according to historians, a funeral procession was held by women carrying a number of small coffins. An American sentry was said to have become suspicious and opened the first coffin. Finding a dead baby and hearing the women crying “cholera,” he immediately closed the coffin, let the women go and watched them enter the church.
It turned out the “women” were men in disguise. Had the soldier inspected the rest of the coffins he would have found guns and bolos inside.
“About 500 in seven attack units would take part. They represented virtually all families of Balangiga, whose outlying villages then included the present towns of Lawaan and Giporlos, and of Quinapundan, a town served by the priest in Balangiga,” wrote Prof. Rolando O. Borrinaga. – Dumimdin, Arnaldo (2006) Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, http://philippineamericanwar.webs.com/balangigamassacre1901.htm
They made women and children leave the town after midnight before the attack for safety, according to Borrinaga. A US soldier noticed the strange activity and reported it to his superiors but he was ignored.
The church bells rang to signal the attack (which may explain the US soldiers’ desire to later take the bells as war trophies).
News of the Filipinos’ “savagery” reached the US, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to order his generals to adopt the “most stern measures to pacify Samar.” US newspaper editors called the Balangiga incident the biggest defeat suffered by the US army since the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, in 1876.
Abanador, the leader of the Balangiga attack, survived Smith’s “kill-and-burn” Samar campaign and died of old age in late 1950s.
The house in the photo must have been built shortly after General Lukban’s surrender to the Americans in 1902, paving the way for the leaders of the conflict to surface. A statue of Abanador now stands at the municipal plaza of Balangiga. The town mayor had said there were plans to renovate Abanador’s house and turn it into a museum.
It was a convenient 30-minute trip to Guinmaayohan, a far-flung barangay of Balangiga in Samar. Thanks to Mayor Viscuso De Lira whom the Waray constituents call Viscoy. The rough road that was a dusty, bumpy trail was flattened and has become passable by not only the motorcycle locally called haba-habal but by four-wheel vehicles as well this September.
One of the nurses seated in front of the mini-truck the mayor newly bought for the municipal government politely offered his front seat to me and climbed atop the roofless truck instead where seated the staff spearheading the medical mission scheduled on that warm Sunday.
We passed by a plain covered with root crops intermittently dotted with green grasses on the right side of the road near the river. Driver Mario pointed it to be the place where the Americans camped on years he does not know. Maybe he was referring to the 1900s for it was on that fateful day of 28 September 1901 that the Balangiga Encounter earlier called Balangiga Massacre before it was established to be the former by virtue of Congressman Ramirez’ proposed law – had been launched successfully.
The mayor- surprised for my gate crashing (thanks to the graciousness of his tourism officer Fe Campanero) – calls it uprising though because he is taking the point of view of the Balangigaons. A young lady whom I talked to while strolling in the park facing the historic Balangiga church says the word massacre is violent and thus she prefers the word encounter over it.
Back to the Balangiga municipal government medical mission’s trip. The barangay officials in Guinmaayohan were helpful and even went from house to house to call its more than 1,600 citizens to avail of the medical services with the PCSO’s donated medicines in celebration of its 75th anniversary. It was a nationwide simultaneous medical and dental mission.
Parents, mostly mothers, came with their playful children in tow. Most of the residents complained of upper respiratory tract infections and skin lesions, according to the two doctors.
Barangay Kagawad Maxima Macasaet says they were lucky because free medicines were given during the mission. Segueing the topic to their way of life, the 65-year old community leader says they have always been lucky because land in Guimaayohan is fertile that everything grows on it.
“All we have to do is work,” she said optimistically while seated beside the six cavans of rice she bought in Tacloban then to be sold in her barangay. She is amazed at how the land her husband and she cultivates earns them Php 1,800 a week as it produces calabasa, okra, eggplants and other vegetables.
No wonder this barangay which was established in 1952 according to Barangay Captain Maria Escalo is not God-forsaken.
May the likes of these community leaders and followers strive and thrive. Guinmaayohan (a Waray word meaning for betterment), as the word connotes – sans poverty and diseases – will always be a better place. There is always hope for people whose calloused hands have been charting their own destiny.