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 towns2016a­ The deadline for the submission of nomination­s is July 30.

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