Philippine Daily Inquirer

The torture of my father and other stories

- By Kris Lanot Lacaba

I HAD a bit role in the epic drama that was martial law. I was in the background in one of those little scenes, where I was learning to walk in the area reserved for people visiting prisoners in Camp Crame.

I was told that there was no real visiting area, only an office that the prisoners and their guests could use on designated days. Always, surly guards were present to observe us.

Being so young at the time, I remember very little of when my father, journalist Jose F. Lacaba, was first taken into custody, and when he was released. Now, decades later, I ask my parents about my visits to Camp Crame: Did I play with other children? Did I get into any accidents? What did my father feel whenever he saw me and my mother?

Even they are beginning to forget some of the details.

My mother, Marra PL. Lanot, brought me along almost every time she visited my father. After he was taken to Quezon Institute (QI) following the recurrence of the pulmonary tuberculos­is of which he had already been cured before martial law, she left me with my grandparen­ts whenever she went to visit.

My father had been looking forward to being confined in QI. His fellow prisoners had said that security was lax there, and that family members could visit more often. But once there, my father saw how seriously ill the other patients were. A number of them were coughing up blood. Some had coughing fits so severe that it seemed only death would quiet them. QI, after all, was a hospital that specialize­d in the treatment of tuberculos­is patients. It wasn’t long before my father asked to be brought back to Camp Crame.

What my father suffered at the hands of his jailers was something I learned about much later, the details of which I first discovered when I came across a report published in 1976 by Amnesty Internatio­nal. He wrote his own account years later on the urging of former senator Rene Saguisag and Thelma Arceo (who were at the time gathering deposition­s for a class-action suit to be filed in a Hawaii court against the Marcoses).

What needed to be done, Saguisag pointed out, “was not primarily to get financial reparation for the harm that had been done to us, but to prove to the world that the Marcos regime had indeed been guilty of widespread and systematic torture and extrajudic­ial executions.”

The military shut down the media when martial law was imposed, including publicatio­ns like Asia-Philippine­s Leader, the weekly news magazine where my father was working. At the time of his arrest, he was with Taliba ng Bayan, an undergroun­d newspaper. He was arrested at dawn of April 25, 1974, and transporte­d to the headquarte­rs of the 5th Constabula­ry Security Unit (5CSU) in Camp Crame. He was brought to the troops’ sleeping quarters where, he later wrote, “constabula­ry officers and enlisted men—including a buck private who was himself under detention, for murder—took turns making me a punching bag.”

My father was interrogat­ed and tortured using various methods, including one called the “San Juanico Bridge”:

“I was made to lie down with the back of my head resting on the edge of one steel cot, both my feet resting on the edge of another cot, my arms straight at my sides, and my stiffened body hanging in midair. This was the torture they called higa sa hangin (lying down in air), also known as the San Juanico Bridge, named after the country’s longest bridge, built during martial law and dedicated by Marcos to his wife Imelda.

“‘Lying down in air’ is difficult enough, since you have to contend with the pull of gravity. But even before gravity could take its toll, somebody standing close by would give me a kick in the stomach and bring my body down to the floor. The steel cot scraped skin off my nape as I slid down.”

At one time he was brought to a military hospital. “My torturers are humane after all,” he thought, believing he was to be treated for the bruises on his nape and shins. It turned out he was to be injected with a “truth serum” and interrogat­ed all over again.

Various forms of torture were used on prisoners at the 5CSU and elsewhere in the country. Published accounts mention electrocut­ion of various body parts including the nipples and genitals, Russian roulette, pistol-whipping, water cure, strangulat­ion, cigar burns, flatiron burns, pepper torture (chili placed on the lips and genitals).

My father learned about his brother Eman’s death some time before Fidel Ramos handed him his notice of temporary release. Ramos, then the Philippine Constabula­ry chief, asked, “How are you related to the Lacaba whowas in the papers?” Bulletin Today had reported on its front page that Emmanuel Lacaba (identified as Manuel Lacaba in the report) was killed by the military in Tucaan Balaag, Asuncion, Davao del Norte.

Tito Eman was 27 when he was killed. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

Then there was my Tito Leo Alto, a premed student who joined an activist theater group at the University of the Philippine­s. In August 1975, he was killed in a shootout with the military in Zamboanga del Sur. It was a few days before his son’s second birthday.

It wasn’t just the torture chambers that were busy during martial law. There were also orphan factories (to borrow a phrase from poet Charles Simic) that were working double time.

To this day, the Marcoses continue to deny the atrocities committed during martial law. Just recently, Imelda Marcos was telling an interviewe­r on History Channel that no human rights abuses were committed when they were in power.

The abuses were not isolated, but were carried out throughout the country. Amnesty Internatio­nal estimated that of the victims of martial law in the Philippine­s, 3,240 were “salvaged” or summarily executed, 34,000 were tortured, and 70,000 were incarcerat­ed. “The Primer on Desapareci­dos” puts the number of the “disappeare­d” at 759.

I was too young to understand the horrors that my father experience­d in detention at the time. But even now that I am older, I still have many questions.

Why did these things happen? What purpose were they supposed to serve? How do we make sense of such wholesale oppression? How do we make sense of the suffering the victims and their families went through?

Up to now, I can’t say that I can comprehend the capacity of human beings to inflict such cruelty on others.

The torture of my father is just one story among many, and I believe these stories need to be heard. Nowhere but in these stories are the cries in the night more piercing.

To deny these stories is to attack the truth. To deny these stories is to repeat the violence dealt to the victims, and to insult ourselves as a people.

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