Philippine Daily Inquirer

‘O Su­sana!: Un­told Sto­ries of Mar­tial Law in Davao’

- Rina Jimenez-David

MAR­TIAL LAW “de­niers,” who view the years be­tween 1972 and 1986 as some kind of “golden age” for the coun­try, would do well to try to get their hands on the book “O Su­sana!: Un­told Sto­ries of Mar­tial Law in Davao.”

De­spite its rather whim­si­cal ti­tle, “O Su­sana!,” edited by Macario D. Tiu, is a some­times sear­ing chron­i­cle of the years im­me­di­ately be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the era of po­lice and mil­i­tary raids, “ham­let­ting” of poor ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties es­pe­cially of lu­mad, sum­mary ar­rests and killings, and yet also of chal­leng­ing and grat­i­fy­ing grass­roots work in dif­fer­ent ar­eas of Min­danao.

The book’s ti­tle refers to the Su­sana build­ing, de­scribed as “an un­painted and tired-look­ing two-storey wooden build­ing” in Davao City. It housed on the ground floor the of­fices of Menzi, an agribusi­ness con­cern, as well as the store of Davao Farms, a “pop­u­lar source of eggs and dressed chicken,” whose prod­ucts un­for­tu­nately per­me­ated the premises with the stink of chicken feed and ma­nure.

In 1971, the build­ing al­ready looked ram­shackle, re­call the early res­i­dents. Its va­cant se­cond floor was given over to the of­fices of var­i­ous foun­da­tions and agen­cies, in­clud­ing those of the as­so­ci­a­tion of ba­nana grow­ers, and even­tu­ally of var­i­ous NGOs (be­fore the term even came into fash­ion) and Church-based or­ga­ni­za­tions. Flora Ninfa Santos Leo­ca­dio, one of the pi­o­neer oc­cu­pants of Su­sana, writes in her es­say that as more and more of­fices were es­tab­lished there, “it be­gan to draw peo­ple and vis­i­tors, per­haps be­cause it was housed in an un­pre­pos­sess­ing no-frills build­ing, with no ar­ti­fice.”

With time, though, es­pe­cially af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion of mar­tial law, Su­sana also “be­came known as the ac­tivists’ lair, never mind if some of us did not de­serve the credit.”

Al­ready com­ing un­der sus­pi­cion, Su­sana would soon be sub­ject to al­most con­stant sur­veil­lance, raided time and again, al­though its of­fices were never shot at or sub­jected to “ex­treme ha­rass­ment.”

*** BUT “O Su­sana!” is not just a chron­i­cle of life in an oth­er­wise anony­mous build­ing. It is also a retelling, told through the lens of re­mem­ber­ing, of life in the volatile dan­ger­ous place that was Min­danao in the 1970s.

Those were the years when the Moro re­bel­lion broke out, while the com­mu­nist New Peo­ple’s Army be­gan to gain ground and ad­her­ents. The denizens of Su­sana were made of dif­fer­ent stuff: mainly com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers and Church-based re­searchers who reached out to com­mu­ni­ties in iso­lated ar­eas, es­pe­cially those of in­dige­nous peo­ples.

My copy of “O Su­sana!” was sent to me by a good friend, Mary Lou Birondo-Ca­har­ian, known to one and all as “Belo.” Her story (and those of many other con­trib­u­tors to the book) is il­lus­tra­tive of the tough and re­silient char­ac­ters who fre­quented Su­sana build­ing: young, ide­al­is­tic, coura­geous and de­voted. They braved rough roads, crossed rivers and streams, and sought di­a­logue and un­der­stand­ing with the poor and im­pov­er­ished, in­clud­ing in­dige­nous tribes, Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties and marginal­ized farm­ers and fish­ers. And the irony was that their or­ga­niz­ing work was both de­rided by those in the Left and viewed with hos­til­ity by the pow­er­ful.

*** KARL Gas­par, a well-re­spected fig­ure in the religious and ac­tivist com­mu­nity and him­self a political pris­oner in 1983-1985, writes that “if one were to write the his­tory of the Filipino peo­ple who strug­gled through the dark years of mar­tial rule, the part played by the religious women in this his­tor­i­cal drama could not be ig­nored. In fact, even if most of them only played silent roles by stand­ing qui­etly at the back dur­ing ral­lies and demon­stra­tions, their very pres­ence in the pub­lic sphere across the coun­try em­pow­ered thou­sands of peo­ple. Long be­fore the pho­tos of those nuns fac­ing the mil­i­tary at Edsa hold­ing rosary beads be­came iconic im­ages of the 1986 Peo­ple Power Rev­o­lu­tion, there were al­ready fear­less nuns in Davao who had stood their ground fac­ing the mil­i­tary eye-to-eye.”

In­deed, what “O Su­sana!” makes clear is that years be­fore the political and so­cial op­po­si­tion to the Mar­coses and mar­tial law co­a­lesced af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Ni­noy Aquino, in Davao and other places in Min­danao, in­di­vid­u­als were rais­ing their voices and risk­ing their lives to ini­ti­ate change and em­power the most pow­er­less among us. Their sto­ries need to be told.

*** KNOW a woman whose life, work and ded­i­ca­tion to a cause is wor­thy of em­u­la­tion and cel­e­bra­tion? Then why not nom­i­nate her for this year’s Ten Out­stand­ing Women in the Na­tion’s Ser­vice (TOWNS) awards?

Given ev­ery two years, the TOWNS awards rec­og­nize women of ac­com­plish­ment who can serve as role mod­els to gen­er­a­tions of younger women. Awardees are rec­og­nized for their achieve­ments, char­ac­ter (or per­son­al­ity), com­mit­ment and pi­o­neer­ing zeal.

Nom­i­nees must be no more than 46 years old by Oct. 31 this year, and no younger than 21. Open to Filipino cit­i­zens, the TOWNS awards are ad­min­is­tered by a dis­tin­guished panel of judges who, by tra­di­tion, are headed by the Chief Jus­tice. In the last awards cer­e­monies, the dis­tinc­tion gained even more sig­nif­i­cance as Chief Jus­tice Maria Lour­des Sereno is her­self a TOWNS awardee.

Nom­i­na­tion forms are avail­able at the TOWNS Foun­da­tion Sec­re­tar­iat of­fice, care of Cristina dela Paz at Unit 9A, MDI Cor­po­rate Cen­ter, 39th Street cor­ner 10th Av­enue, Boni­fa­cio Global City (mo­bile num­ber 0917812483­6). You may also get in touch with Ami­han Boni­fa­cio Ramo­lete, who heads this year’s TOWNS Search Com­mit­tee, at the Dean’s Of­fice, Col­lege of Arts and Let­ters, UP Dil­i­man. Call her at 928-7508 or e-mail her at town­ The dead­line for the sub­mis­sion of nom­i­na­tions is July 30.

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