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CAPAS, Tarlac -- What I knew about the events of 70 years ago -- the fall of Bataan and the infamous Death March that followed -- had always been superficial, by way of history class.
Never mind that I come from Capas, Tarlac, where 54,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war, out of the 78,000 who had surrendered, disembarked from packed boxcars for the final trek to Camp O’Donnell, where another 30,000 would die from disease, starvation and the atrocities visited on them.
Back in high school, I did participate in a reenactment of that six-kilometer trek from Capas to O’Donnell, now a shrine to the prisoners of war who died there, complaining all the while of the heatand my exhaustion. That was how much I cared about the Death March.
Until being picked to be part of InterAksyon’s coverage for the 70th anniversary of the Death March literally thrust me right into themidst of history.
I don’t think I will ever forget going to Limay, Bataan, from where Lolo Dioscoro Valenzuela escaped after his unit was ordered disbanded before the surrender. With two Dumagat soldiers from another unit, he made it to the Limay shoreline where civilians took him onboard their boat and brought him to his native province of Bulacan.
Lolo Dioscoro was comfortable telling his tale until the weight of memory wore him down and he burst into tears in the middle of our shoot, confessing he still feels sad for the fate of his comrades who did not make it.
But there, too, was his unmistakable pride in his place in our country’s history. Until even this, too, was jolted by the realization that not all that many of his own people know, or care, for that history.
Losing sense of history
At the plaza of Barangay Lamao in Limay, we walked up to a group of teenagers playing basketball and asked them what they knew about the Fall of Bataan and the Death March. All we got were blank stares.
“Hindi ba tinuro sa inyo sa school, or kahit sa History class niyo (Didn’t they teach you about it in school or in your History class)?” The answer was either “No,” or “Nakalimutan na po namin eh (We’ve forgotten it already).”
Even as Lolo Dioscoro sat among them and told them about the past, I could feel the disappointment well up in me, that these boys knew nothing about the history that had been made in the very place where they had been born and grew up.
It was nice, though, that they did seem to pay good attention to what he was saying.
But the boys of Lamao were not unique. In all the places we visited in Bataan, Pampanga and Tarlac, most everyone we asked either knew nothing or were misinformed.
What genuine curiosity about our past that I did see during our coverage was in our kababayans returning from abroad.
On Mt. Samat, where we went to shoot some footage, Isidro Pe, who was with a group of balikbayans from the US, sat to one side listeningr aptly to Lolo Dioscoro’s account.
During a break in the shoot, he walked up and engaged the veteran in a conversation, saying he wanted to clear up the gray areas in the past that the many history books he had read had failed to fill.
And at the Capas National Shrine, which is what Camp O’Donnell is now called, I met Maria Williams, a native of Leyte who migrated to the US when she was a kid and was back with a group of students from the College of the Ozarks for a project in which they sponsored a few US World War II veterans, one of them Death March survivor Wayne Carringer, attending the 70th commemoration of the Fall of Bataan.
“I didn’t know that Death March happened and I didn’t know that almost 80,000 people suffered,” Maria said.
She was glad she joined the trip which, she said, helped her bridge the gap between the familiar and unfamiliar in Philippine History.
As we parted ways, her last words, for the Filipino youth, were: “I want to encourage them to learn about their history, how the Philippines came to be ... I think it’s really important to be awareof their history and their culture -- or our culture, I should say.”
Back to the future
As we wrapped up our work, I asked myself: “Now that I’ve heard more about the Death March how do I feel?” It’s a question I feel more pressured to answer, coming from Capas.
Before this, I had overlooked the historical landmarks in my town -- the Capas National Shrine and Capas Death March Monument, both just a few kilometers away from my home.
Now, I feel genuinely grateful for this chance to be a part of reliving the memories of the past.
Listening to the stories of those who lived through, fought and survived those times made me realize how very, very little the books I’ve read actually had taught me.
I stopped counting the “Eureka” moments early in the trip. Their pride became my pride. And I feel genuine gratitude for their bravery and sacrifice.
On a final note, I can’t help but compare and link the past to our present.
Back then, these people thought nothing of putting their lives on the line when our freedom was threatened.Today, we proclaim ourselves an independent and democratic country.
And we are supposed to be at peace.
Yet there seems to be no end to the socio-political problems we face. In fact, it seems like we are at war with ourselves.
I cannot help but ask, dear reader, “Is our country still worth fighting for?”