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|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
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Filipino Women Living with War
By M. Evelina Galang
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2017 M. Evelina Galang
All rights reserved.
Welcome to Lolas' House
Navotas, Metro Manila
June 18, 1999
THE FIFTEEN-PASSENGER van climbs up the mountain passage, rising above Metro Manila. Below, mismatched rooftops, jagged and rusty, roll across the city. Houses scatter like toys spilling everywhere. Smog sits like a bad hat, odd shaped and heavy atop the skyscraping towers. The city has gone on strike and basurero have left garbage on the roadsides to rot. We can smell it even after we've raised the windows and cranked the air conditioner. The older girls are wide-eyed, heads pressed against the windows, necks stretching to see the makeshift plywood shanties, where doors are old bedsheets and laundry is hung to dry like fences between neighbors. Now and then a curtain slips open and a handful of schoolchildren march out in plaid skirts and sailor tops, in long pants and short-sleeved buttoned-down shirts and backpacks too big for their bodies. The children go to school in shifts.
Inside the van our driver cranks Manila pop radio, a clutter of singsong jingles, cloying announcers, and loud radio banter. Nobody sounds real. Everyone is happy. The whole van pulses a bad disco beat, grinding its way uphill. We drive past a naked child bathing in a rubber tire, his grandmother squatted to the road and soaping him down, his mouth wide open and howling. The two teens with us, Eliza and Lizzie, have headphones on and are singing to each other in the way-back seat. In the middle row, Ana Fe and Tara sit at opposite windows while Neleh, poised in between, bops up and down to the radio as always, as if she has lived here all her life. As we pass the naked child and his lola, Ana Fe jabs Neleh; pointing to the kid in the squalor of garbage, she says, "Slap me upside the head if I ever complain again."
FORTY-EIGHT HOURS earlier, we six Filipino American girls, with enough luggage for a dozen people, landed on the tarmac at Manila International, drove through the sleeping streets of the metropolis, through the back alleys of Malate. We pulled up to the gates of Nursia, a dormitory for the Institute of Women's Studies at St. Scholastica's College. We had been on the road for more than twenty-four hours and we were slaphappy, glad to be "back home." When we rang Nursia's bell, a security guard with a long gun opened the gate. His jaw square and locked, his eyes unblinking. Everyone was asleep. No one to be found at the front desk. Just a sign on a giant whiteboard that read, "Six guests from America arrive tomorrow."
Now we are traveling to the Navotas meeting of Liga ng Mga Lolang Pilipina, a.k.a. lila Pilipina, the league of Filipina grandmothers, and I can feel the anticipation of two years of research rising up in me, a hum in the back of my throat growing louder and louder and I know we're close. Until this moment, all I had found were a smattering of facts from one text (George Hicks's The Comfort Women), a handful of reports from the MacArthur Memorial archives, and one slim book about Korean "comfort women" from the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues. I wanted to meet a survivor. I wanted to see her face and to know her stories. Just before our trip had been finalized in 1997, I received Lola Maria Rosa Henson's autobiography, Comfort Woman, Slave of Destiny. She was the first Filipina "comfort woman" to come forward publicly. I thought I would meet her, but she died of a heart attack in August 1997. But now, the faces. Now, the women. We're almost there. And I wonder, "what are they going be like?"
The van rolls to a stop in front of a house on a dirt road. People stream out onto the porch. Children and elders and little brown women.
"This is it," Tara says as she shuts her eight-week itinerary and shoves it into her backpack.
"Here we go," I say.
Welcome to Lolas' House
FILIPINA "COMFORT WOMEN" were among the women and girls systematically abducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II and forced into military rape camps all over Asia. Women were similarly taken in China, Korea, Dutch Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Early research by scholars Margaret Stetz and Bonnie Oh suggests there were anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women abducted. But in a study published in 2013, Peipei Qui's included new estimates for Chinese "comfort women" that doubled the total estimate to 400,000. In the Philippines, the Japanese army coerced more than 1,000 Filipinas into sex slave camps. Of those women, 174 have come forward. I have had the honor of meeting 40 of them through lila Pilipina and have interviewed 16 extensively for this book.
The existence of World War II–era "comfort women" in the Philippines was first brought to attention in December 1991, when a delegation from the Filipino chapter of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council (AWHRC) attended a regional conference in Seoul on the trafficking of women in Asia. Around the same time, in Korea three women gained wide attention when they went public with their stories. At the conference, the Korean delegation announced that between 70,000 and 200,000 Korean women were coerced into sex slavery. Shortly thereafter, The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that a Japanese medical document dated March 19, 1942, mentioned 19 Filipina "comfort women" from Iloilo, and gave a partial listing of 13 names. The report also included a sketch of a "comfort station" near the city plaza.
AWHRC and another nongovernmental organization, BAYAN–Women's Desk, called on Cory Aquino, then Philippine president, to investigate. Aquino's Presidential Commission on Human Rights charged Ricardo Jose, a professor at the University of the Philippines, to research and report on the issue. Jose submitted a report on June 26, 1992, concluding that no large-scale efforts at conscription took place.
Not satisfied with the Jose report, on July 13, 1992, AWHRC and BAYAN–Women's Desk, along with fourteen women's organizations including GABRIELA National Women's Coalition, created the Task Force on Filipino "Comfort Women." Eventually, the task force would be renamed Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina, a.k.a. lila Pilipina. Its mission was to research and coordinate legal matters, public information, and education for the various groups' efforts. A call went out to former Filipina "comfort women" to step forward. They set up hotlines and issued daily calls to action on the radio.
On September 18, 1992, Maria Rosa Henson, then sixty-five, became the first Filipina "comfort woman" to tell her story publicly. In her 1996 autobiography, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, Lola Rosa says that one day, while hanging laundry, she heard a woman on the radio talking about girls who had been taken by the Japanese Imperial Army. Until then, she had kept her past a secret from everyone except her mother. When Lola Rosa heard Liddy Alejandro of BAYAN–Women's Desk talk about the "comfort women", she had a visceral reaction, shaking and crying. She didn't respond to the call at first. In fact, she tried to forget it, but when she heard the announcement a second time, weeks later, she broke into tears again, and when her daughter heard her crying, she ran to her.
During my interviews with the women of lila Pilipina, they would share their testimonies of abduction, but they would also talk about the moment Lola Rosa came forward. Her story led many of the women to tell their stories — 173 followed her example.
By April 2, 1993, eighteen Filipinas along with task force coordinators Nelia Sancho and Indai Sajor filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court of Japan. Twenty-eight women joined the lawsuit in September of that year. Their demands were simple. They wanted
(1) a formal apology,
(2) compensation for their suffering, and
(3) documentation in official histories.
JAPANESE COURTS DENIED the lawsuit, though several appeals were made. The women have yet to receive anything — no formal apology from the government, no compensation, and no definitive place in history.
Most of the Filipinas who survived sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army went on to live full lives. Some married and bore many children. Others became vendors in the market or washerwomen or maids, wives of mayors, or classroom teachers. Still, there were the ones who would go mad and never recover. By the time the women began their campaign for justice, they had grown so old that the people called them "lolas," the Tagalog word for "grannies."
I FIRST MET the women while I was researching a screenplay called Dalaga, the Tagalog word for that in-between moment when a girl is no longer a girl and yet not quite a woman. The movie was going to explore the relationship between a Filipina American dalaga and her lola — a grandmother who also happened to be a surviving "comfort woman". I wanted to know what the lola could teach the dalaga about being a woman. So during summer 1998, I traveled with five Filipina American dalagas to meet the women of lila Pilipina.
We met the survivors at Lolas' House, the offices of lila Pilipina, a bungalow set in the middle of Metro Manila's Quezon City. Here, organizers held general assemblies year round. In addition to their campaign for justice, the lolas planned upcoming activities and other strategic events, and, most important, bonded with one another and their supporters. Organizers from lila Pilipina also would travel to the women's communities, Antipolo, Navotas, and Manila (the "Mix-Mix" group), to meet with smaller gatherings of women.
For eight weeks, my charges and I met every day with the lolas, acting, drawing, writing letters, and protesting in front of the Japanese and American embassies, raising our fists at the gates of Malacañang Palace. During these activities the lolas of lila Pilipina came to know the dalagas — twenty-somethings Tara Agtarap, Ana Fe Muñoz, and Neleh Barcarse, and teenagers Lizzie Juaniza and Eliza Habón. As our friendships grew, the stories poured out like water from a dam. Horrific testimonies of habitual rape and torture.
At the end of those eight weeks, the women at Lolas' House surrounded me. Most of them came to the middle of my chest. They stood on their toes to sniff my face. They refused to say goodbye. Instead, they asked, "When are you coming back?" "When are you going to write our stories?" They didn't want a screenplay — not a movie, not even a book of fiction. They wanted to document their stories and they asked me to do it.
I RETURNED ON a Fulbright from 2001 to 2002.
I knocked on the thick green gate and listened. A videoke machine thumped through the concrete walls and I heard the lolas' voices humming like bees just underneath the music. The gate creaked open and I left the broken streets of Matimpiin, the rubble at the curb, and the overgrown green weeds, and I stepped onto the patio at Lolas' House. Their faces turned to the door. I smiled. Yelled, "Kamusta, Lola?" Rechilda "Ritchie" Extremadura, the executive director of lila Pilipina, looked away from the TV screen for a moment, microphone in hand. "Ito na," she told the lolas, announcing my arrival. Then she continued singing. The lolas had been waiting since early morning and they were randomly scattered across the patio. When they realized it was me stepping through the gate, they let out sighs and called my name. Some of them scolded me for making them wait. They wanted to know if I had eaten. As I walked through the patio, they rose to greet me, each one holding onto a part of me. Their voices grew louder than the videoke and they swarmed about me, pulling at my fingers, holding my hands, or rubbing my back. Several sets of thin arms wrapped around my waist. I felt the light kisses on my shoulders and arms. I felt the bony fingers pinching at my skin. I kissed each one of them, looking them in the eye, and each one held my face in her small hands for just a second before letting go and stepping away.
DURING MY FULBRIGHT research, I traveled with seven lolas, taking each one to the different islands and provinces of the Philippine archipelago where they were abducted and imprisoned — to abandoned churches, city halls, farmhouses, and schools. Survivors took me to sites where their grass-roofed houses used to stand, and together we relived their experiences.
I stood quietly in each space and closed my eyes. I considered the lives that were damaged there and I saw ghosts of soldiers walking with their guns and bayonets held up. I heard the crying of girls left swollen and bleeding, only to be taken once more without a moment to clean themselves. Somehow in those moments I became one of those girls. The land, which was part of my ancestry, felt like home. The strength of the women reminded me of the strength of the women in my family.
WE SPOKE IN half-sentences. I had a habit of speaking Tagalog backward. I transposed letters and reduced the words to meaningless utterings. I left words out. I created new ones. But we understood each other anyway.
At first, the organizers of lila would translate the lolas' words, then I used a translator until I understood Tagalog better than I could speak it. When I realized the translator could not transpose the emotional content of the conversation, I let him go. I relied on the lola's voice, her facial expressions, and her body language. I took my cues from the way she reacted to me and my questions. The lolas and I began developing our own mix of Tagalog and English. At the end of a sixteen-hour day, sitting in the stalled heat of Manila traffic, my driver, Faustino Bong Cardiño, also engrossed in the lolas' stories, would unpack the day's events with me.
Since 1998, I have taped more than forty hours of interviews. I have visited at least seven sites of abduction and former "comfort stations." There are binders of transcriptions and translations of the conversations I have held with the sixteen women in this book. A tribe of translators has taken down their words and given them English meaning. I cleaned up the sentences and streamlined the stories, but in the end, I felt it was important for each lola to testify for herself. So the abduction testimonies are written in their own words.
These stories, these kwentos, are a gift that I have received, and as I pass them on, part of the story is the way they came to me. Because I am American born, because my cultural understanding of being Filipina has been handed down to me in a Midwestern, first-world upbringing, the stories arrived in bits and pieces. Sometimes the lolas, the organizers, and I experienced roadblocks of understanding. I'd ask a question and the lola would ignore it and speak her mind. Sometimes our definitions of activism took on the form of writing, poetry, and drawing, and sometimes it meant marching in the streets. Oftentimes we had to speak the stories, hear the stories, repeat them in more than one language to arrive at our destination, the page. When it was possible, the lola gave me her testimony more than once — once in 1998, once in 2001, and then again when I could find written testimony given to other reporters or the Japanese lawyers who defended them in Tokyo. In their investigation of the lolas' cases, Japanese lawyers sought witnesses to corroborate each woman's claim. When I asked for these versions of the testimonies, the organization hesitated to give them to me. We went back and forth before the pages were released. I used the various pieces of evidence as a way to verify the testimonies I received. I interviewed them on more than one occasion in order to make sure I had understood the story they were telling.
The text that follows is in English, but it is seasoned with words handed down to me by the lolas. Some cannot be translated. What I can convey is the emotional charge they carry. Tagalog words and phrases are set in context, and you can derive their meaning by the way the lola, the organizer, and I act and interact, for these are the ways I also came to understand the lolas' plight. Often words will become clear to readers later in the text.
Mostly, the experience of recording these testimonies was visceral. My Tagalog eventually straightened itself out and their English found meaning, but in the beginning we spoke with our hands. The kwentos of the lolas were written on the spines of their backs. Often, they guided my fingers to their wounds. I read them, slowly, tentatively, my touch light and respectful. Unlike broken sentences of English and Tagalog and Waray, the scars needed no translation.
I set my hand at the base of an old woman's spine, or in the hollow between her breasts, or in the meat of the calf. The tips of my fingers examined the shape of the scar, the size of a bump, its density. A cigarette burn. A bayonet wound. A crooked finger. My skin absorbed the memory and I whispered, "Yes, Lola. I know, Lola." Together we searched for her lost voice. Was it here in her chest, was it embedded in the thigh, was it stuck in the throat or weighed down in the belly? We strained to hear and we were hoping to set that calamity free, to stop it from happening again.
Excerpted from Lolas' House by M. Evelina Galang. Copyright © 2017 M. Evelina Galang. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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