Do we need a war museum?
I have always wondered why there is no major war museum in Manila, no peace museum in a city that has often been described as the second most devastated city of World War II after Warsaw. The Warsaw quote is an often repeated claim that has to be fact-checked. Aside from the lives and physical structures that were destroyed during the Battle for Manila, much cultural heritage was also destroyed—art and antiquities in Intramuros, books and manuscripts in the various libraries institutional and private in the city. Intramuros, the center of Hispanic heritage in Manila, was destroyed with only San Agustin Church left standing after the Battle of Manila raged from February to March 1945.
It came quite late, but a group of survivors of the war formed themselves into the Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation that erected a monument in Plaza de Santa Isabel with a moving text by National Artist Nick Joaquin that reads:
“This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or never even knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins.
“Let this monument be the gravestone for each and every one of the over 100,000 men, women, children, and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation, February 3 – March 3, 1945. We have not forgotten them, nor shall we ever forget.”
It is significant that when the emperor and empress of Japan visited Intramuros in 2016 they did not pass nor pay their respects at the Memorare monument. Not in Fort Santiago that has become a picturesque tourist attraction that hides its notoriety as a prison and place of torture and execution by the dreaded Kempeitai during the war. I first visited Fort Santiago on a school field trip and remember visiting the cells near the Pasig River where, we were told, the Japanese kept their Filipino prisoners in such a way that they could neither sit nor stand. The cells were overcrowded and many died of exhaustion, starvation, or disease. Some, it was said, drowned when the tide rose and the Pasig River flooded some of the cells.
Years later, I read “Interesting Manila” by George A. Miller that said the same thing about the riverside cells in Fort Santiago, but this time the villains were the Spaniards. He wrote:
“There are all sorts of stories floating about the old fort. So far as the walls are concerned, there is some foundation for the stories. There are storerooms and magazines, and the outer curtains are connected with the main wall in some cases by underground passages, or were, before these tunnels were destroyed … When the Americans took charge of the place (in 1899) there was no opening in the wall where the large stairway is now located on the river face, but from the large room now used as a magazine there was a circular well just under the new stairway. This well was entered by means of a series of winding stone steps, and led down to a passage considerably below the level of the water in the river. This lower passage led back from the river and was lined on each side by cells which could be closed from the front and which were so low that it was impossible to stand in them. There was also a movable gate by which the water could be admitted from the river, and all the evidence pointed to the use of these cells for purposes of ‘unintentional’ executions of persons whom it would be expedient to have out of the way without open trial or public capital punishment. The natives have a terror of this old place and have no desire to see anything below the surface of the walls. As a genuine source of history, literature, and romance, Fort Santiago is one of the most unique relics of the oriental world.”
A World War II eyewitness account described the same cells as follows:
“The air and general atmosphere inside the prisoner’s cell was foul and nauseating due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. For instance, Cell No. 12 was only 15 feet by 4 feet. It had headroom of about 20 feet with no windows at all; the size of the door was around 3 feet by 5 feet. Human waste littered the floor, dead bodies that were not removed at once, and vermin or lice crawling around were common sights. A common wooden pail or gasoline can emptied only after a few days served the purpose of toilets. Due to unsanitary conditions, it was not surprising that many prisoners got sick with dysentery or diarrhea. In December 1944, no less than 700 prisoners died due to overcrowding at Fort Santiago.”
Fort Santiago cells were used by both the Spanish and Japanese military to confine Filipinos, but which do we remember? The National Museum has a hall dedicated to paintings that depict the horrors of the war. So disturbing are these paintings that a discreet warning about its content is posted outside. How do we remember the war? How should we remember the war? Those are questions not just for our textbooks but for a future wartime museum.
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