Flashback: ‘Bahay na Pula’
In the news again are clamors for the belated compensation and apologies due to Filipino comfort women/sex slaves, now aging and fewer in number, who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military in World War II. A flashback here:
When going north via San Ildefonso, Bulacan, years ago, you would not have failed to notice on the left side of the highway an ancient house standing tall and solitary on a grassy field. Big tamarind, camachile, and duhat trees surrounded this house that the townspeople called “Bahay na Pula” or the Red House. It reminded me of a grand old lady wearing a shawl, the color of a fading roseate sunset.
This I learned when I was there in 2000: Bahay na Pula was used as barracks by the Japanese Army during World War II. There, scores of young women and girls from Bulacan and Pampanga were held for months, and used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. The house has a dark, painful history that has been recently pushed to the light, thanks to the brave, aging women who emerged from more than half a century of silence and grieving.
That time in 2000, more than 50 women, mostly in their mid-70s, came to Bahay na Pula. They had held many meetings in the place, their regular haunt in recent years. But the gathering when I was there was different. The women wearing colorful Filipino dresses sat for noted visual artists who wanted to capture them on canvas and paper. It was a happy occasion, but when life stories were shared, tears flowed and hearts broke into shards. I had heard and written about some but listening to them speak in the very place where that dark chapter happened was something else. Here … soldiers stood in line, waiting for their turn …
The lolas had found a less painful way of letting it all out, of distilling their past, and that was through songs and poems. Oh, but how they laughed and told jokes about their present lives.
I was the only journalist present, so I was able to just blend in during the whole day sketching session and have conversations with some of them. The women were mostly from nearby Barrio Mapaniqui, Candaba, Pampanga.
On Nov. 23, 1944, after Japanese soldiers had set fire to Mapaniqui and massacred the men, they ordered the young women to carry the loot and provisions to San Ildefonso, where the troops set up their barracks and where the women were held as sex slaves for months.
Lola Beniang, the live-wire in the group, recalled to me how the Japanese soldiers killed, mutilated, and beheaded the men and tossed them into the burning schoolhouse. She remembered the sound, the smell. “Mabango ang amoy ng taong nasusunog. Kung gutom ka parang gusto mong kumain (The smell of burning human flesh is good. If you were hungry, you would want to eat).’’ I gasped. “Pagkatapos noon, parang humukay ako ng butas na napakalalim at linagyan ng takip. Na ayaw ko nang mabuksan (After that, I dug a hole so deep and then placed a lid on it. I didn’t want it opened ever).”
She said these while we were seated on the front steps of the house littered with tamarind leaves. All that green vastness around, I was told, was where the troops set up their tents. The officers lived in the big house where the women were held.
Inside, the artists were busy sketching. The ones who came were Egai Fernandez, Bogie Tence-Ruiz, Biboy Delotavo, Adi Baens-Santos, Boy Dominguez, Gig de Pio, Analyn Gajudo, Ramoncito Racho, and Paeng Pacheco. The 70-ish Pacheco could not hold back his tears and stop his jaws from trembling when he spoke to the women about his boyhood days during the war. Some of the women were about his age.
Later, I asked Lola Honor ever so gently if I could see the scar on her thigh caused by a bayonet. She raised her saya and there it was, straight and white and long. She had tried to refuse the sexual advances of a soldier, she said. She was only a prepubescent girl then. But the soldier would not hear of it. He bloodied her thigh and wounded her soul. There were more harrowing months ahead.
Among women’s rights advocates, there was great effort to include this “forgotten” chapter in history books. At least two whole pages—the color of faded rose—have been devoted to it in the 10-volume “Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People” published in 1998. It’s in Volume 7, “The Japanese Occupation,” pages 110 and 111, in case you want to look it up and weep. I wrote it.
The Bahay na Pula gathering was in preparation for the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in December 2000. Former sex slaves from Taiwan, China, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines came to testify. I was present to report on that solemn event where the ghosts of the past came alive.
(Bahay na Pula is now an empty shell, a recent photo shows. Owned by the Ilusorios, it could have been preserved as a heritage site like so many other sites that cry out to the world, “Never again.”)
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