By Eduardo C Tadem
It was a comfortless humid night in July 1974 in Zamboanga City when agents of the National Intelligence Security Agency (Nisa) arrested me.
I was then a philosophy undergraduate student and an activist at the University of the Philippines Diliman. I was visiting my mother’s hometown to attend the funeral of my maternal grandmother, Isabel Cortes Climaco.
I was arrested in the midst of a crowded wake attended by relatives, local officials and other notable city residents who comprised the city’s elite class. They included two uncles, former city mayor Cesar C Climaco and Court of Appeals Justice Rafael “Paely” C Climaco, Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s classmate at the UP College of Law with whom he shared bar-topnother honours.
Uncle Cesar, a prominent martial law critic known for his sarcastic wit, demanded and got a Nisa agent to sign a receipt which read: “Received one warm body of Eduardo Climaco Tadem.” He also took me aside and, supposedly to make me feel better, said: “Eduardo, I envy you. I’ve been trying to get Marcos to arrest me all these years but to no avail.”
Uncle Paely got me to shave my full beard and requested a cousin to cut my shoulder-length hair to make me look “presentable” to my captors. He also handed me a copy of James Michener’s 900-page historical novel Hawaii to keep me company while under detention.
The Nisa agents gave in to my family’s request to allow me to attend my grandmother’s funeral that was to take place in two days before being flown back to Manila. As they also agreed not to take me in custody in the meantime, the agents got some cousins and uncles to sign a document assuring that I would not escape.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a regular pledge or periodic auto-donation to Aliran
- Become an Aliran member
To ensure that I would be brought straight to a detention centre, a lawyer cousin, Julio “Rini” Climaco, (a fraternity brother of Marcos) accompanied me on the plane all the way to Camp Crame in Quezon City, headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary.
I was detained at the 5th Constabulary Security Unit (5th CSU) in Camp Crame in what was once an ammunitions depot. Befitting its original purpose, the ‘cells’ had no windows or bars – only heavy iron doors which had to be kept open lest we all suffocate to death. But when an infraction of the rules took place, the doors would be closed for hours, making breathing difficult. Of course, the entrance to the building was securely locked and guarded.
The first two nights, however, I was confined to an office room and slept on a table in an office. At night I took down the window drapes to use as a blanket to protect me from the freezing cold of an air-conditioner running full blast.
I learnt that my house had been raided just before dawn on the day before my arrest and various reading material confiscated, including books I borrowed from the UP library.
Nisa and CSU officers interrogated me intensely for hours a day.
Despite advice from a Zamboanga lawyer to just deny everything, I had decided on a game plan: to admit anything that was public knowledge or which I knew they already had information on and deny matters that I felt they had no access to. One indicator that my captors knew little about my political involvement was when a Nisa colonel dressed in a dapper all-white suit asked when I had visited the Soviet Union, which I have never done.
I was shown a publication that supposedly implicated me, but I said it was an anti-communist tract. At that point, I half-expected to hear the often-told joke about an intelligence officer retorting: “It doesn’t matter what kind of a communist; it’s still a communist.”
A glassy-eyed CSU agent lightly hit my knees with a pair of handcuffs and threatened to “pulverize my chest”.
The 5th CSU chief remarked how good-looking I was, and this had a chilling effect on me.
One time, I was sure I was going to be “summarily executed” when I was taken out for a long drive while being berated for “non-cooperation.”
I was held incommunicado and disallowed visits by family and friends.
These near-brushes with death reminded me of my father’s morbid words when I refused to migrate with the family to the US in early 1972. Referring to my activism, he would tell others: “This Eduardo wants to be shot at Luneta just like Rizal.”
My strategy of feigning cooperation seemed to have worked. Although I was abused verbally and psychologically, at no time was I physically harmed.
Many other 5th CSU detainees, however, recounted to me how they were heavily tortured, brutally beaten and injected with sodium pentothal, a ‘truth serum’. This raised dire thoughts of when it would be my turn to undergo such atrocities.
Later, a CSU officer told me I was not tortured or taken to a ‘safe house’ because I was arrested in the company of prominent and well-known relatives and city officials. In other words, if I hadn’t gone home at that time for my grandmother’s funeral, I would have been taken instead to one of the military’s notorious ‘safe houses’ where arrested persons were physically abused in unspeakable terms, and some even killed.
One other detainee escaped torture because his father was also a Marcos classmate and top business tycoon. But he was handcuffed to his bed the whole day and had to shout at the top of his lungs to the guards if he needed to go to the toilet.
Two other detainees who also did not undergo torture were former military officers and Philippine Military Academy graduates who became anti-martial law activists. One of them was in a cell across from mine; he had a chess set and we would play matches by verbally relaying our moves across the corridor. He also had a guitar which he lent me to play my favorite song, the Cuban anthem Guantanamera.
I sang this song countless times that other detainees soon grew tired of it. [About the song]
My detention period lasted a short three weeks. I was a bit embarrassed to be freed quickly as I knew many detainees had been there for months and even more than a year. The day of my surprising release, I stood before a CSU officer and made to sign and swear to a document renouncing my membership in a student organisation at UP. Since I was never a member of the said organisation, I took the oath with a clear conscience.
I also learned that when other detainees saw I had been freed, some expressed relief at being finally spared of my endless singing of Guantanamera.
My release, as with all others, was classified as ‘temporary’ and I was placed under ‘town arrest’. I had to seek permission from military authorities each time I left Manila for the provinces. I also had to regularly report to Camp Aguinaldo and submit a written account of my daily activities. The first year, reporting was weekly, then fortnightly the following year, and monthly on the third year. Failure to report would result in a ‘re-arrest’.
The reporting at Camp Aguinaldo was ironically almost a festive occasion. I saw many friends and former classmates at UP who were also required to undergo the same process after being given ‘temporary release’ from detention. Under the not-so-watchful eyes of military personnel, we would exchange news and updates on what was going on with our lives. It was almost like a class reunion.
As for my written reports, I would always write about waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, taking a bath, going off to UP for my classes and library work, consulting with my professors, coming home, having dinner, watching TV and going to sleep. I suspect that all the reports were just like mine and since there were hundreds of us, I doubt that the authorities even bothered to read them,
The military refused to return the books they confiscated from my house although I was issued a document with each book title and signed by the head of the raiding party – a Phillipine Constabulary captain. The fact that the library books remained with the military gave me endless troubles every semester when I had to register and would be refused clearance by the UP library. Each time I had to submit a signed letter attesting that the books were not in my possession through no fault of mine and attach a copy of the document receipt for the confiscated reading materials.
After three years, I was finally granted ‘permanent release’ and freed from regularly reporting to the military. But I was still denied the right to travel abroad. The first time I applied for a passport was when I was invited to speak at an academic conference at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia) in Kuala Lumpur.
At the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was instructed to proceed to the Nisa headquarters in Quezon City for a debriefing. A Nisa operative, who gave an obviously fake name, showed me parts of my dossier that documented meetings I attended as a national council member and vice-chair of the youth affairs committee of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) which was chaired by Senator Lorenzo Tañada.
When I remarked that this was hardly a subversive, much less an underground, organisation, the agent merely gave me a wry smile. I wondered who in the MAN national council had been feeding information to the military even before martial law.
As expected, that encounter at the Nisa office did not result in approval of my passport application. Two other applications in the following years were similarly denied.
But when a consular office opened in Zamboanga City in 1981, I again used my family connections to finally secure a passport – seven years after my detention. I was, at last, free to travel abroad.
Republic Act no 10368
My martial law experience, of course, pales in comparison with that of many other victims. In 1995, 10,000 Filipinos won a class action suit in a US court against the Marcos estate for “torture, execution, and disappearances”.
Historian Alfred McCoy cites 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims, and 70,000 incarcerations. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse were rampant.
On 25 February 2013, Republic Act no 10368 (The Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act) was enacted. The law created the Human Rights Victims Claims Board which, in 2013-2014, received 75,749 compensation claims for abuses suffered under martial law.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights notes that, under RA 10368, “the Philippine government recognizes that there were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearances and other gross human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos between September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986.”
These are on top of the massive theft of an estimated $10bn of public funds by the dictator, the unrepayable and illicit debt incurred by the regime, and the bankrupting of the economy by Marcos’ technocrats that caused untold suffering among the Filipino people. The PCHR notes that “in 1997, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland determined that a majority of Marcos Assets in Swiss banks were of criminal origin”.
21 and 23 September marked the 51st year since Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Sadly, as gleaned from the results of recent electoral exercises, many Filipinos have either chosen to forget or never learnt about the horrors of one of the darkest periods in our country’s history. – CoverStory, Philippines
This piece is a revised and expanded version of an opinion piece of the same title published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 21 September 2017