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Echoes of Balangiga

By: Jullie Y. Daza

THESE many years that we could not get the US government to return three church bells owned by the parish of Balangiga in Eastern Samar, we were told that they are “war booty,” forever a possession of the US military. More than 100 years later, we are learning from former senator Nene Pimentel that the bells are not to be counted among the spoils due the victors of the Philippine-American war: They are religious or cultural objects that belong to the Philippines, and that’s according to international law.

Since President Duterte’s address to the nation last week where he demanded that America return the bells – “Ibalik ninyo sa amin!” – the impact on media and the public, not just Samareños, has continued to ring and reverberate. I daresay, more comments were spawned by that brief but ringing portion of the SONA than any other topic, and there were many, though none so dramatically delivered, or as fresh and startling.

The Battle of Balangiga in September 1901 was a total embarrassment to the Americans – they lost 48 men to a band of rebels dressed in peasant women’s clothes, armed with bolos and knives. The rebels, including Capt. Eugenio Daza (great-grandfather of my children), attacked the soldiers while they were eating breakfast. It was a short-lived victory, but as it was the US army’s first defeat, retribution was swift: “Take no prisoners,” i.e., spare no male above the age of 9, following a “scorched earth” policy that signaled “a howling wilderness.”

According to the stories circulating in Samar, one soldier was so disgusted by Gen. Jacob H. “Howling” Smith’s cruelty that he defected and fought side by side with the Filipinos. Many more stories are incorporated in at least three movies about the bravery of Balangiga filmed in the last 50 years, plus a prize-winning script by Pete Lacaba.

Of the five congressmen representing Samar, only Rep. Raul Daza stood up to applaud when he heard the President tell the USA, “Those bells are a symbol of the gallantry and heroism of the Filipino soldier. Return them to us!”

A privilege speech by the congressman (to whom I am distantly related by affinity) should be in the works soon, to strike while the iron and public opinion are hot. Let not those bells stay silent, let them ring again, in Balangiga!