Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Filipina Lolas Campaign for Justice

By: Yong B. Chavez

LOS ANGELES - In the same week that an unprecedented number of Filipino Americans expressed unity in contesting a controversial line in "Desperate Housewives," and on the same day that thousands of Filipinos once again cheered as one for Manny Pacquiao in his latest boxing match, without fanfare and with only a handful of supporters, Adela Reyes Barroquillo, 78, related to a small group of book launching attendees in Historic Filipinotown why she is fighting to tell her story.

"I have to tell my story. I kept it to myself for a long, long time because I was ashamed. Sila ang dapat mahiya sa amin, I should not be the one who should be ashamed," she said. "I want justice."

Lola Adela is a survivor of Japanese military sexual slavery during World War II. The victims, their families, and supporters have been asking the Japanese government to issue an official, unequivocal apology for the crimes, as well as demanding that restitution should be made to the survivors and their families.

Adela's testimony was one of the highlights in a historic world conference recently held in Los Angeles on the sexual enslavement of women and girls by the Japanese military. U.S. House Resolution 121, authored by Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), was passed in July. It urged the Japanese government to apologize for its wartime sexual enslavement of at least 200,000 Asian women. H.R. 121's passage has strengthened a global alliance that seeks justice for surviving sex slaves.

In the new book called "Justice with Healing," an anthology of 23 Filipina survivors, Adela, a former schoolteacher and auditor bares her pain.

She was born in a small town in Capiz province to a simple family. Her father was a farmer and her mother kept the house for her and 6 siblings. Adela was the youngest.

When the war broke out, she was only 12. Two years after hiding in the mountains with her family, she received information that it was already safe to go back to her hometown. She encountered two friends, Pestang and Nita, whom she hasn't seen in years. Together they went to the public market.

There, they were accosted by Japanese soldiers and later delivered to a garrison where her and her friends' nightmare began. At 14, she was raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers.

"I remember being forced to enter a room. I hesitated because it was very dark inside. One soldier shoved and kicked me in until I tumbled face-down on the floor. Then the soldier slapped me hard in the face until I fainted," she said.

When Adela got to this part as she was recounting her story in the book launching, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes watered while she stared ahead, looking at no one and nothing in particular. Sixty-four years after, it is as plain as day that the horror of her experience still lives and breathes within her.

For more than three months, she and the other victims suffered physical and sexual abuse. At one point, out of extreme despair, she wished that a bomb would hit the garrison and kill them all.

But it wasn't a deadly bomb that liberated them. When a group of Filipino guerillas attacked the garrison in May, 1943, Adela and her friends escaped and walked on bare feet for many miles to get home. Many other kidnapped victims of Japanese military sexual slavery died in captivity.

Except for her mother, Adela kept the horrors she experienced a secret. When her mother told her not to tell anybody else to avoid a scandal, she readily obeyed.

"I was sick for a long time after we escaped. There were days when I didn't even speak at all. I fainted sometimes. I was so afraid of people. I couldn't eat nor sleep," she said.

When the war ended, she went back to school. Eventually, she met and married her former schoolmate, Servando Barroquillo. They had six children.

Servando died in 1995 not knowing that the woman with whom he shared a life harbored a painful secret. Four years after his death and after hearing from fellow former sex slaves who have gone public with their stories, Adela felt it was time to share hers. Shortly thereafter, she joined Lolas Kampanyeras, a survivor group coordinated by Filipina human rights activist Nelia Sancho of Asian Women Human Rights Council.

"They were very young. Most of them have never even experienced having a boyfriend before they were attacked," Sancho said. "Their traumas were multiplied. They had low self-esteem and their families and the society imposed silence on them."

"Most of them kept what happened to them a secret. Many of those who shared their stories with their husbands had to endure being called "just remnants of Japanese soldiers" whenever they fight," Sancho added. Some never even recovered enough to have healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, even up to now, the survivors – euphemistically called "comfort women" – suffer from triple discrimination due to their gender, race and class.

While there are many supporters of Filipino World War veterans who are fighting for equity, Filipina "comfort women" still struggle to find champions to aid their cause. While the veterans have medals and the unstinting admiration of the community for their wartime bravery, WW II sex slave survivors, to this day, have to endure unkind words and a lack of support even from their own family and community in the Philippines.

"My children don't like that I talk about what happened to me. Some of my neighbors told me that I should just have just kept this "shame" a secret. Some tell me I'm just doing it for the money," Adela said. "But I have to fight for me."

Before Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won the election, she was a supporter but "she has changed her tune," Sancho said, adding that despite overwhelming evidence attesting to the veracity of their stories, up to now, they are also still fighting to include in Philippine history textbooks the fate the women suffered during World War II.

Their harrowing ordeal first came into light when Lola Rosa Henson came out in public in 1992 after she heard the story of a Korean sex slave survivor. There are about 400 documented Filipina survivors of sexual slavery. There were three batches of victims who came forward – one group consisted of more than a hundred survivors of mass rape in just one village in Pampanga. Around 94 have passed away without seeing justice.

In the last 15 years, Japanese soldiers have come forward to admit their wrongdoing. Recovered documents showed that the military was involved or knew about the "comfort stations," according to news reports. Many, including Japanese human rights activists, have criticized the Japanese government for admitting only moral but not legal responsibility for wartime atrocities against the women.

In 1996, Asian Women's Fund, a private fund collected by the Japanese government from its citizens, was set up to compensate the former "comfort women." Japanese officials wrote letters of apology to women who received the payments. Not all of the victims received the compensation.

In 1998, the Tokyo District Court dismissed a case brought by 46 former sex slaves from the Philippines who accused Japan of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Some of the lolas included in the lawsuit died even before the ruling was handed down.

It is because of their advancing age that the survivors and their supporters thought it was imperative to participate in the World Conference on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery held in UCLA early this month.

Some delegates of the Lolas Kampanyeras didn't make it to the Los Angeles conference due to lack of funds. Those who made it hocked their jewelries and went house to house of well-to-do Philippine families to solicit donations to fund some of the trip's expenses. Sancho's Los Angeles-based friends provided assistance to the group, from picking them up from the airport to transporting them to the conference.

When they arrived, they stayed in Fasgi, a Filipino agency that provides social services to low-income and homeless individuals.

At the book launching, Annalisa Enrile of Gabriela Network volunteered to pass a box around and asked the attendees to give what they can to provide some pocket money for the delegates. The event, which drew a very modest but enthusiastically supportive crowd, was sponsored by the Filipino American Press Club of Los Angeles, Philippine Press Club, Inc., and People's Core.

Copies of "Justice with Healing," priced at $10, immediately sold out. The book includes just 23 stories - even though its researchers were able to interview 50 survivors - because of their measly publication budget.

The title of the book, a product of seven years of painstaking work and research of the Asian Women Human Rights Council and the Buhay Foundation for Women and the Girl Child, came from the group's desire to finally get justice and to provide healing to the survivors. Lolas Kampanyeras provide therapy and counseling to the victims – something that wasn't available to them for decades.

Sancho was touched by the positive reaction expressed by Filipino Americans at the event. She hopes to be able to put up a website soon where they could be easily reached and where the book can be sold.

"I'm really thankful to our kababayans and to many foreigners, too, who have shown their support to us during our trip here," Adela said. She admitted that for many years, she cannot even bring herself to look at any man who resembled a Japanese national. But she met many wonderful people at the conference who told her how they admired her courage.

At 78, the petite grandmother remains strong but her strength cracks noticeably when she hears the term "comfort woman."

"Mali at masakit kasing pakinggan eh. Hindi naman kami prostitutes (It's a wrong term, and it's painful to hear. We're not prostitutes)," she said. The euphemism was coined by Japanese military officials.

The day they were scheduled to return home to the Philippines, she was nursing a headache brought about by her group's visit to Disneyland the day before but she gamely recounted the experience, how she savored a chance to be happy on their last night in America. When asked if she went on any of the rides, she said that they actually just stayed outside of Disneyland.

"Naku, ang mahal ng tiket eh (The admission price was expensive)," she said with a laugh. Just being able to set foot on such a place was already an impossible dream come true for her, she added.

While her elusive dream of getting justice remains unrealized, Adela vows to keep on fighting for as long as she lives.

"I just hope they don't forget what happened to us," she said.
To contact Lolas Kampanyeras, e-mail Nelia Sancho at neliasancho@yahoo.com or neliaphil@yahoo.com; Phone number: (632) 433-1680.


Isabel said...

I understand there is another Filipina, Evelina Galang, undertaking this type of task for the so-called Comfort Women. Are you in collaboration with her, or is this another copy, or reversibly?

Yong B. Chavez said...

Hi, Isabel,
No, I'm not in collaboration with any of the groups. As a journalist, I wrote this article to shine some light on the issue. Try e-mailing Nelia Sancho, she might be able to answer your question. Thanks for reading!


John Noel said...

Good day!
I am John Noel, currently, a college student, and will be writing a play about Nelia Sancho.
I would just like to ask, if you can share to me, Nelia Sancho's e-mail. I will be using it to ask questions from her and also to improve the quality and accuracy of our play. This play will be for our Kasaysayan 1 project.
You can post her e-mail as a comment in this page or send it to me through e-mail at: jnmv61592_impt@yahoo.com.
Your help will greatly be appreciated. More Power! God Bless! Thank you very much!