What I've Learned
"In Martial Law, there’s no dialogue. Either shut up or you go to jail."-Neri Colmenares
The former congressman, activist, and human rights lawyer on his memories of torture under Martial Law.
IMAGE Jake Verzosa
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WHAT I'VE LEARNED

NERI COLMENARES
Former congressman, human rights lawyer

If you're in a position of power or wealth, never abuse and never be arrogant.

The second lesson my father told me: "Kung tama ka naman, tindigan mo. Pero kung mali ka, dapat aminin mo." That’s why I could be very brave in speaking out against something which I think is right, but I have no problem in admitting if I make a mistake.

In a Martial Law situation, there’s no dialogue. Either shut up or you go to jail.

Initially, I didn’t mind Martial Law. I was in grade 6 when it was declared. Pansin ko lang, walang pasok! Ganda ng Martial Law! (laughs)

My antagonism to Martial Law started from personal teenager interests. Sabi ko, this is not a life I want to live! Uuwi ka ng alas onse, may gusto ka pang ligawan, hindi mo na maligawan. Ang sama-sama ng buhay pero 'pag basahin mo ang dyaryo, parang ang ganda-ganda ng buhay.

The Student Catholic Action taught us that people have rights. I began to be critical of the human rights record of the Marcos Administration.

Sometimes it's not even the intelligence information they want to get from you. It's just the fact that they have the power over your life, or your death.

There was a crackdown on the Church. The military arrested a lot of people from the Church. Naalala ko pa 'yon, social workers ng Share and Care, postulate for poor settlers, Student Catholic Action, urban poor...Siguro mga 13, 14 kami.

Ang ginawa nila, pinalabas nila itong si Don to meet me. So nagkita kami ni Don near the cathedral. Sabi ko, "O, Don, kamusta?" Sabi niya, "Neri, hinuli ako eh." "Bakit naman?" Eh siyempre, the usual charges, you know, you're a rebel...Sabi niya, "Pinalabas lang ako para hulihin ka rin." Sabi ko, "Ha?" "Oo, paglabas mo rito, huhulihin ka rin." Sabi niya, "Wag kang mag-panic ha."

Pagtawid ko sa kalsada, kita ko na 'yong traditional na military dati—'yong malaking tiyan, may flash bang, naka-sunglass, naghihintay sa akin. But look at this, when they arrested me, sabi nila, "O, Neri, may itatanong lang kami sa 'yo. Wag kang pumalag ha." Hindi na 'ko pumalag. They hailed a taxi and then they put me there and then dinala ako sa headquarters.

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They’re going to [make you] disappear—walang warrant of arrest, kikidnapin ka lang—but they’re hailing a public utility vehicle. That’s how impunity was during Martial Law. Hindi sila takot na may taxi driver, it doesn’t matter if the taxi driver witnesses that. Walang problema ‘yon. So dinala ako sa headquarters. Mabuti naman dinala ako sa headquarters, I was thinking, kung dalhin nila 'ko somewhere else baka mamamatay ako eh, safehouse or torture chamber...At least kung headquarters, inisip ko, public official 'yan.

The first thing the military does to you when they torture you is to destroy your self-confidence and humiliate you. Wala munang physical. To make you think na, "Kami ang in power dito. You are a nobody."

There was this lieutenant, I remember, may riding crop pa siya. Sabi niya, "Hindi totoo yong confession mo. Kainin mo yan." Pinakain sa ’kin 'yong sinulatan ko. Buti na lang at the time, uso 'yong onion skin. Matagal ko rin nakain 'yon ah, siguro mga 45 minutes, kasi iisa-isahin mo rin, mahirap eh kahit onion skin. Pagkatapos noong kain, bibigyan ka ulit. Siyempre, nag-isip ka na ngayon, "Anong isusulat ko dito na hindi ko kakainin?" Kaya lang, wala ka naman ginawang masama eh. You tell the truth.

At the time, suntok, sampal...At the time, I was so young, I thought I was dreaming. Sabi ko, "This couldn't really be true. Ano bang ginawa kong masama? Did I steal? Did I kill? I was 18 years old. So shocking yan for an 18-year-old kid 'di ba?

Ang isang ginawa nila doon sa akin, may sofa, nakaupo ka pero meron silang kuryente, parang cattle prod, na bubugbugin ka nila dito. 'Di, parang nakukuryente ka 'di ba? Ang tendency mo, tatayo, kasi gusto mong tumakas. Doon sa harap mo, may naghihintay na susuntok talaga sa'yo...

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There comes a time when you reach a threshold siguro, where, na-numb ka na eh, masakit pero that's it. Wala nang isasakit pa, 'di ba? Pero ang mental torture, grabe talaga, that's something you will never forget. Ako nga, di ko na maalala 'yung mga suntok-suntok. 'Yong mental torture, 'yon 'yong grabe, it was really well done.

Isang mental torture pa na naalala ko, isang gabi, kinuha rin ako. Lasing 'tong intelligence officer, malaking mama. "Are you lucky?" sabi niya sa akin. "You think you’re lucky?" Umi-ingles. Tahimik lang ako siyempre. Meron siyang malaking revolver. Kinuha niya lahat ng bala, Russian roulette. "Tignan nga natin if you’re lucky," sabi niya.

It’s a badge of honor to be arrested for asserting your rights and for defending the rights of others.

Pag sa loob pala ng bunganga mo ang baril, parang ang lakas ng pakiramdam ko akala ko pumutok. I could feel my brain splattered on the wall. Grabe 'to ah. Drain na drain talaga ako dun, 'yon talaga you'll never forget that.

Ang masama pa, inulit niya pa. Sabi niya "He's very lucky, o sige sige, tignan nga natin kung pwede pa." Inulit niya. Noong second na putok talagang, wala na eh, di na ako...Dalawang beses akong namatay sa isang gabi. He never asked me a question. He was just torturing for torture's sake.

Rape, sabi nila, is not about sex—it's about power. 'Yan ang torture. Sometimes it's not even the intelligence information they want to get from you. It's just the fact that they have the power over your life, or your death. And that gives them the feeling of being a god.

I think the main thing that really made me survive was the fact that I knew that what I was doing was right. I was not ashamed that I was in prison. In fact, I was proud. It’s a badge of honor to be arrested for asserting your rights and for defending the rights of others.

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Most of us were church workers, so nobody blamed God for that. In fact, I've seen many of my kasama sa loob na na-strengthen pa nga ang faith nila. Everybody blamed Marcos and the US. The torture manual of the US, I saw years later, very similar doon sa torture method. Nobody blamed God. We believed it was Marcos and the US.

After my first arrest, I didn't want to go back to activism. Na-trauma ako eh, sabi ko, I don’t want to suffer that again. Pero sinusundan-sundan ako ng military. At that time, every time I walked, tumitingin ako sa side mirror ng mga kotse. 'Pag naglalakad ako, parating may mga sumusunod...When I go to sleep, 'yong bintana ko sinasara ko kasi baka may magtapon ng granada. For a 19-year-old, I was really weird.

When Ninoy died, I was in prison in the North, in [a PC camp] in the Ilocos Region. '83 'yon diba? So August 'yon. Sabi namin, "Naku, baka hindi tayo ma-release nito!" Tapos narinig namin na later on, lumalaki 'yong mga rallies. Ah eto na, this is it, eto na 'yon.

After I graduated from law school, a professor of mine, Alfredo Tadiar, asked me to help him in his work as chairman of the National Amnesty Commission. "May mga applications dito sa akin," he told me. "Tignan mo what you think, are they okay or not okay, kasi lawyer ka." May isa doon na lumapit sa akin. He was half-paralyzed, 'yong mukha niya bagsak, parang na-stroke. Naka-tsinelas, bedraggled. Sabi niya, "Sir, hihingi sana po ako ng tulong kasi RAM-SFP-YOU [Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa-Soldiers of the Filipino People-Young Officers' Union] ako. Ngayon natanggal po ako sa serbisyo. Eh mahirap po ang buhay, na-stroke ako. Hindi ko makuha pension ko. So sana ma-grant ako ng amnesty para naman makuha ko yong pension ko. Kasi ang hirap na ng buhay." Sabi ko, "Sige." Pamilyar, sabi ko. Pamilyar 'to ah. "O, anong pangalan mo?" Sabi niya, "George Yap." Then I remembered. He was the Russian Roulette.

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Alam mo, hindi ko maalala ang pangalan ng mga physical [torturers]. Marami sila eh, but George Yap will always be [remembered]. 'Yong sinasabi ko kaninang walang hatred, wala naman talaga. Pero 'yong isang kaibigan kong kasama ko ring nakulong, dalawa kaming nag-reserve na, "Yang George Yap, 'yan ang may personal hatred tayo. Hindi talaga 'yan papatawarin." But [it had] been what, 20 years? So sabi ko, si George pala 'to...tuloy lang. Pin-rocess ko 'yong application niya kasi ibibigay ko sa chairman eh, kay Professor Tadiar.

Sabi ko [kay George Yap], "Nakulong ako diyan dati eh." "Ha talaga, sir? Nakulong ka? Kailan?" Sabi ko, "1978? Kasama ko si..." Nagbanggit ako ng mga kasama kong nakulong, the more famous. Kasi I was 18 years old, I was not as famous as the others, 'yong iba 25 years old, sila 'yong sikat...Naalaala niya. Putlang-putla talaga siya..."Ikaw pala yon, sir?" Sabi ko, "Oo, naalala mo 'di ba?" Sabi niya, "Oo, sir." Putlang-putla talaga siya. Sabi ko, "Alam mo, 'yong application mo kay Chairman Tadiar, hindi ko na papakialaman. You will be decided by the chairman on the basis of your merits. Wala akong sasabihin sa kanya na huwag. You argue your case. You will be decided." Sabi niya, "Salamat, sir. Thank you." Umalis na siya. And I did not even intervene and say to the chairman, "Eh malay mo, baka RAM-SFP-YOU nga naman siya." So he left and he was granted amnesty.

He held sway over my life 20 years ago. Now, naka-tsinelas, tinatawag niya akong "sir," but I didn’t assert my power to hold sway over his life. So siguro 'yon naman ang lesson doon sa kanya. In fact, sa kanya bumalik. And I think grabeng penalty na rin sa kanya in the end, paralyzed siya.

IMAGE: Jake Verzosa

There’s nothing good that I can say about Martial Law.

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Marcos misinterpreted that the Divine Trinity means concentrating the three powers of government in one man.

Maybe Hitler did something right in his life. Maybe the Nazis did something good, but all of that will be dwarfed by the horrible violations of their time.

People sometimes come up to me and say, "Di ka ba nagsasawa, napapagod, nanghihina?" Sabi ko, "Physically, mapapagod ka rin eh. You can only take so much. Pero hindi talaga ako magsasawa dito."

Ang tuloy ko diyan basically rests on two basic principles na pinanghahawakan ko. The first is trust. Trust in the capacity of the Filipino people to change their destiny. That the Filipino people will know that, eternal poverty is not their fate. This corruption, violation of rights, this is not forever.

May trust ako diyan sa capacity ng mamamayan. Otherwise, kung wala kang tiwala sa mamamayan, eh di wala na, mag-abroad na lang tayong lahat.

The moment you have the trust in the people, in their capacity to reform this society, you cannot help but go on to the second and inevitable principle: Hope. The moment you trust, you begin to hope.

In the end, ang ibig ko lang sabihin, we will continue to do this because not only will we believe that we are right, but we will also believe that the people will win in the end.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines.

Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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