A short story by Eddie Ilarde
Sandra Damon a veteran television reporter of an international news network based in New York looks out the window of the plane about to land at the regional airport of Legaspi. She is obviously fascinated by the view on the ground and of the famous Mayon volcano which now seems so close to the plane as it veers to the left for landing.
Sandra gets assigned mostly to cover special coverages of developing stories which attract worldwide interest. This time her assignment is to interview the most wanted communist rebel in the Philippines, an aging – they say dying – revolutionary leader known only as Ka Luis. He is an icon and a national symbol to many people, even to some sectors in the military, whose campaign to capture him for years has failed. His cunning ability to elude capture for years has confounded the authorities making him some kind of a hero to anti-government groups. The recent assassination of an American official from Washington while on a visit to the country has attracted worldwide attention especially with the resurgence of hostilities in the countryside, not only by a dwindling communist guerilla group but also from a growing Muslim Abu Sayaf fundamentalist clique in Mindanao. Ka Luis is immediately the main suspect.
By special arrangement Sandra and her cameraman are secretly flown by helicopter from the airport deeper into the province’s dense forest where she will travel by car, then by foot, to where the interview is to take place.
If not for periodic violent encounters of government troops and the ragtag New People’s Army (NPA), Sorsogon, a province in the region, which some travel writers call “the green alps of the country,” may have been considered a prime tourist attraction. Nowhere in the world can one see an active volcano in the middle of a lake situated at the summit of a mountain. The province is dotted by endless rows of tall coconut trees punctuated by thick jungle patches on rolling hills terminating into white sand beaches fronting the Pacific. In the recent past this was the favorite destination of trekkers and nature lovers. The place is now isolated and marred by a violent and senseless ideological war among the people which started since the end of World War II.
A full moon is rising over a hill nearby making the swaying coconut leaves glisten in the moonlight. Sandra, her guide and her cameraman enter a small thatch-roofed hut in a small clearing the middle of the forest. A kerosene lamp on a small bamboo table in the middle of the room flickers as they sit down. An evidently dour young man barely visible in the ill-lit room is seated beside Ka Luis. There are no armed men as would be expected around such a well-known killer; the place is strangely quiet, and only eerie nocturnal birdsong and intermittent sound of tropical crickets and cicadas interrupt the silence. In the flickering light, Sandra sees a hunched graying man with a weather-beaten face; she discerns a strong presence, and the glint of penetrating eyes like that of an angry beast. When he spoke to greet his guests, she feels awed by the cutting resonance of his voice though said in near-whisper.
Your name is Raymond Leshkah Jr. Your father was an American, a World War II veteran. What made you a communist and kill Americans?
“I’m not a communist. You must know that this ideology one day shall be irrelevant and communists shall be like you Americans who worship money. But I don’t subscribe either to a corrupt capitalist order. I’m alone in a tactical alliance with people in this country against American foreign policy. I don’t hate America; it is its war economy that I condemn – its arrogance and the culture of violence in that country. That is why I am with the Left, as you call them. But not for long.” There is a long pause before Ka Luis continues. “I don’t care to remember how many Americans I have killed – innocent people you might say – just like the thousands of innocent people in my country killed by American bombs and bullets. Age has caught up with me, perhaps the reason why hate and violence are slowly fading away from my heart. I wish I could further my statement against hypocritical, abusive and arrogant Americans, but no more. Enough. My flesh has weakened against my willing spirit. I am at the end of the road that is why I have consented to this interview. You are American I can see. 50% of my blood is American. My father chose to be a citizen of this country because he loved our people. My mother loved him, she bore two of us – my sister who is already dead and me. My father loved this country. And he fought in the war of America not because he was American, but because he believed in the friendship of this country and the U.S. who abandoned us anyway when the Japanese came. Douglas McArthur was a fraud and the people of this country at the time were easily deceived by ostentation and his grandstanding. He left ill-equipped soldiers with 30-year old arms and returned after cooling his heels in Australia for more than three years. And yet my father still believed in the old American virtues of compassion, honesty and sincerity. I resent, I despise the attitude of an arrogant country who thinks it owns the world and can impose its so-called democratic beliefs on everyone.
You say you honor your father and you don’t hate America. So are you terminating your war against Americans in your country? You’re the mysterious killer since the time of the American bases here.
This is the war after – my personal war against your country who killed our people, who killed my parents. Let me tell you everything. I was barely ten years old when the Japanese came. My father who was an old-timer in this country first came with an American company which successfully did business here in the 1930s. My father decided to settle permanently and consequently married my mother, Teresa Silva. When the war broke out, my father was a volunteer with the Philippine Scouts, a military-training contingent under American tutelage. The Japanese even at the height of the Bataan encounter lost no time and proceeded to Manila. Civilians were randomly shot and some herded like animals to mini concentration camps. While on our way to a place near the city where we can hide, I remember asking my mother when Papa was coming home. She just looked at me with tears in her eyes and did not answer. She knew then that my father was in Bataan fighting the enemy. It was early 1942 when we knew that the Filipino-American forces have surrendered.
“In the Death March my father, the strong-willed man that he was, escaped. Cold and hungry, he ran, walked, crawled, and slept on rice paddies and dirt roads until civilians helped him and guided him towards Manila. I shall never forget that day. My father suddenly appeared. Then he said we have to hide but I wondered why he decided to bring us back to the city. He said it’s better to be where people are; the crowd is the best shield especially for a white man like him.
“We lived a normal life under the Japanese occupation. My mother sold cooked food in front of the apartment where we lived. Passers-by including Japanese soldiers patrolling the area were daily customers. My sister who was barely four helped my mother. My father cannot do much being in hiding and spent most of his time in the lower first floor which served as our bomb shelter which the Japanese government ordered everyone to build. It staggers belief that the enemy should order the building of bomb shelters as if they want the people to be saved from what was being whispered everywhere – the bombing of the city by the Americans soon. I knew my father was in contact with people who were supplying intelligence information to the American forces outside the country. During the night my parents talk in whispers about possible events about to come. I was consoled with the thought that we are in no danger. In my innocence I kept telling myself that the Americans will save us.
“For a time life seemed normal in the city. My mother and my little sister Esther have built more customers including some Japanese soldiers who seemed to have accepted assimilating with the civilians in our area. Onishi San, a friendly Japanese military officer drops by my mother’s stall often to eat. He waves at me and my sister everytime he passes. When my father was apprehended and about to be brought to the garrison for interrogation and possible beheading, Onishi San intervened. I said he is not an American but a Spanish mestizo. Onishi San ordered the soldier to set him free. Then he whispered to me to leave the city as soon as possible. He intimidated that the Americans are coming and there will be fighting.
“One day, the air-raid sirens all over the city continuously blared. Then we heard bombs bursting everywhere. At first the explosions were in the distance but in a few minutes came nearer until very loud explosions were all around us. Big planes in formation darkened the sky. The sound of their engines was deafening and the ground vibrated violently. The whistling sound of hundreds of bombs falling from the sky was terrifying. It is hard to describe. It was hell as bombs continuously exploded everywhere. Civilians were scampering in all direction, women and children screaming; some just ran and ran like headless chickens not knowing where to go. We hid in our makeshift bomb shelter laying flat face down on the ground. In my innocence I kept wondering why the Americans are bombing even civilians. I kept telling myself that we are friends. Then an ear-splitting explosion! A
blinding light at first, then smoke and burning debris enveloped the whole place. My mother screamed in pain and kept calling us. With Esther holding on to me tightly and trembling in fear, I tried to crawl to where my mother and father were a few feet away. When the smoke and dust cleared we saw our mother still alive, lying in a pool of blood. We embraced her and after a while she was quiet. Beside her we saw father with one of his arms blown-off, blood gushing from his neck. He beckoned us and in barely audible words tried to say something. I just embraced him crying not knowing what to do; his last words which I barely understood were, “run away with your sister and live, live, live.” He breathed his last as American bombs kept on falling all over the city.
“The explosion and gunfire seemed forever. When it ended thousands of dead bodies littered the streets, most buildings were totally destroyed, fire and smoke were everywhere. We learned later that the order of the “liberating forces” was to burn Manila and many more died. I cannot describe enough the horrible sight that I beheld after that bombing carnage. Tired and hungry, my sister and I walked for hours toward the town outside the city where my mother’s relatives lived. It was the time I learned that injury and anguish caused by one you trust and love like what America did to us is more painful than one inflicted by the enemy. In my tender age I told myself that only death can erase the pain of the victim, and death for the perpetrator is the equalizer. Through the years that hatred remained.
“I did all kinds of odd job to survive. Through the help of relatives I finished high school. I refused to let poverty stop me from graduating with honors. Not much but enough perhaps to have made my parents proud. My sister Esther grew up with the sister of my mother in another town. After high school I enlisted in the Army and lucky to pass the test for Special Forces training. That made my preparation for my plans complete. Later, in one of the war games with the U.S. forces in the Pacific based in one of their bases in the country, an American platoon commander was hit and died instantaneously. They never found out from whose rifle the bullet came from. Hazard of the game, they admitted. The next day a Sergeant Dean was found dead in his tent with bayonet wounds. In the investigation I was never even asked any question. The day before, my squad was assigned a few hundred meters away from where it happened.
“Near our camp there were many bars frequented by soldiers on R&R. One place was the favorite of American sailors whose ships dock in the harbor often. I was on pass one night and with a friend went to this place. Three men in navy uniform, two whites and one black, were drunk and noisy. Before leaving, they went to the men’s room. There was commotion later when one of the waiters shouted for help. The three men were found sprawled on the floor. One of the men was still alive when brought to the nearest hospital and was able to give a sketchy description of the killer. A few minutes later he died. In the investigation the day after, my friend admitted that I followed the three men to the toilet and did not see me after that. The order to arrest me was late because by then I was already in hiding in the mountains. I was declared AWOL and the military wasted no time in circularizing the investigation in all military camps, posting my name with the others who were wanted by the law.
“It was at a time when the government was almost winning against the communist insurgency when I decided to join its “people’s army.” My being from the army was good qualification for a quick admission in a declining armed group already being branded as nothing but bandits and armed robbers victimizing civilians in the countryside. In the years that I have been with them in the mountain, I have grown to respect their discipline and courage. I have seen action in many ambuscades of military patrols; there were countless encounters where both sides suffered losses of precious young lives especially from our side – students who left school to go underground for a cause which to them seemed glamorous and exciting. Then I fell in love with Jennifer, known in the group as Ka Mutya, a comely young member and former student of the University of the Philippines. It is against the code of the group to co-habit with one who is not married to you so in a unique marriage ritual Jennifer and I got married. When she became pregnant she was giving permission to be on leave until the baby was born. I visited her often until our baby boy was born. I convinced her to leave the cause she swore to defend to the death to care for our son. With much hesitation she finally consented.
“After years in the mountains I thought of going down and pay my sister a visit. Our auntie who took care of her and spent for her education told me in tears that it has been years since she last saw Esther. After graduation in high school she left to seek her own destiny. I found out later that she was working in one of the beer joints outside the US Naval Base in Subic. I tried hard to convince her to leave her job and go home to help our auntie in her small business. She refused and told me to go away and mind my own business, obviously nursing a bitter resentment against me for all the years that I have not even cared to find out how she was. I understood.
“A year later I heard on the radio that a young girl was in a hospital near the naval base after being gang-raped by four American servicemen. I was about to dismiss it as one of those things American soldier s do against the natives when I heard the name of my sister. Doctors and nurses were attending to her when I arrived. She was obviously in terrible pain when she tried to speak. She whispered in my ear the names and description of the men who raped her. After asking for my forgiveness, she died. I died with her that day. I kept to myself the seething rage in my heart until the day I have consummated my revenge against her killers. Three of the four have met their gruesome death in my hands after almost a year hunting them down.
“Miss Damon, I have nothing to do with the assassination of Special Envoy Wilson last week. I am told I have been presumed guilty even before I am proven innocent. I know this incident has brought you here. I wish I can tell you who did it but the truth is I don’t know. All I know is, many people in this country and for that matter in many countries in the world have nothing but contempt against your country. Tell America to look in the mirror and be honest with itself about what the mirror reflects. I have done enough to avenge to death of my family in the hands of a country who does not care killing innocent people in the name of democracy. Others justify it but the weak who are victims can only cry and accept their fate. Ms. Damon, beware the portent you face – the rise of Muslim jihadist movements around the world. I want you to meet his young man beside me. He is my son Raymond III. Her mother Ka Mutya died only last year. He is leaving for Mindanao tonight. By the way his name has been changed to Abu Ahkmed. Thank you, Ms.Damon and goodnight.”
(Eddie Ilarde, the longest-living radio-tv personality in the Philippines today, is a former councilor, congressman, senator and assemblyman. He is presently a free-lance writer, independent radio and television producer-host. He is the founding president of Maharlika Movement for National Transformation, founding president-chairman of Golden Eagles Society International, Inc. for the welfare and dignity of older persons; he is a Lifetime Achievement awardee for radio-television. He is heard every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 1:30 in his radio program “Kahapon Lamang” over DZBB GMA AM RADIO. He may be reached at PO Box 107 Makati City, Philippines.)