For whom the bells toll?

Three days before Yolanda hit land on 8 November 2014, the decisive Mayor Viscuso de Lira ordered forced evacuation and bought 100 sacks of rice for relief operations. As a result of this forward thinking, Balangiga suffered only 13 casualties and no record of any missing person. But Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) was a typhoon like no other. It still left Balangiga with massive damage in property and infrastructure. The town’s coconut industry suffered a 625 million-peso loss. Rice and fishing were also hard hit. Damage to private and public infrastructure was estimated at one billion pesos.

And yet, with national and global attention focused on the aftermath chaos in nearby Tacloban City, outside help to the no-casualty but equally devastated Balangiga arrived six days after the typhoon hit. “We went hungry for days,” de Lira said, as roads blocked by trees and debris made travel in and out of the town an impossibility. As soon as roads were cleared, de Lira tried to augment the meagre relief goods going to Balangiga by going as far as northern Samar to buy additional sacks of rice and assorted noodles. “The relief goods were simply not enough,” the mayor said.

But by end of November, Balangiga was ready to rebuild. It refused to rely on relief goods forever. Top on the priority list was infrastructure like farm-to-market roads and government centres. Yolanda had destroyed Balangiga’s  municipal building, public market, and roads—all that was necessary for the leadership was to address and deliver the needs of its people, according to de Lira.

And as though destroying commerce and livelihood were not enough, Yolanda also severely damaged the symbol of the spirit that has spurred on Balangiga’s people for generations—the town church with its belfry that once housed the bells that played a major role in Philippine history.

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Above A boy optimistic about going back to school

The Bells of Balangiga

An American sentry on duty noticed flickering lights amid the darkness, floating gently toward the parish church. It was the eve of 28 September 1901. As he drew closer, the lamentation of heavily clad women carrying small coffins grew louder. He ordered them to stop and, with his bayonet, opened one of the coffins. “El colera!” the woman wailed. The sentry found a dead child. He quickly closed back the casket and moved aside, letting the grieving mothers pass. He didn’t know the women were actually cross-dressed men and the other coffins were loaded with bolos. After midnight, the women and children quietly left the town for safety.

When the church bells tolled the next day, the men of Company C, members of the United States 9th Infantry Regiment, went on with their breakfast in the mess tent, talking about the tension their two drunken comrades created when they tried to molest a Filipina. Sent to Balangiga, a picturesque town on the southern coast of Eastern Samar facing Leyte Gulf, to close the port and choke supplies to Filipino revolutionary forces in the mountains, thus causing a threat of widespread starvation, the troops paid no heed to what they thought was the call for morning service. They continued eating, unaware that the town’s police chief had seized the rifle of one of the sentries from behind and hit him unconscious on the head.

The townspeople made their move at once. A blaring call for freedom and hope, the peal of bells reverberated and mingled with the roaring of conch shells from the edge of the forest. Men grabbed their bolos out of the coffins and stormed out of the church to the plaza and into the tent. The surprise attack, which lasted less than five minutes, killed 48 out of 74 American soldiers. It was a shocking defeat.

The Balangiga massacre (or the “Balangiga uprising” from the point of view of the Balangiga-ons) was the US military’s worst single defeat in the Philippines.

Company C launched a counteroffensive—a six-month “kill-and-burn” campaign—the day after. “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness” was the order. Every male over the age of 10 must be killed. About 250 Filipinos were slaughtered, though historians say the exact number cannot be determined. In those days, the priest would ring the bells every time the American soldiers were on a search and destroy mission. But in the end, even the church was not spared. The thatched huts were set on fire. Company C looted and burned Balangiga to the ground.

When they left, the US troops took the three church bells of Balangiga as war booty. The bells, symbolising the people’s spirit and dreams, have not yet been returned since then. Two of the bells are now enshrined as trophies in their base  in Wyoming and one in a travelling museum in South Korea.

Over the years, many attempts have been to bring back the bells to Balangiga. Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos initiated the attempt to recover the bells “in the spirit of fair play” from Bill Clinton’s administration. In 1994 during his visit to the country for the 50th anniversary of the US landing on Leyte, former US President Clinton pledged to return them.

In 1998 the centennial of Philippine Independence, the Philippine government pressed the issue again. Balangiga even built a new bell tower in anticipation of the bells’ return.

“There is no memorial for those who died in the Philippine- American War. Why not create a peace memorial in Balangiga that would honour both Americans and Filipinos and remind us that peace is always a better alternative than war?” says Wright

The dream of bringing home the historic bells one day is not that far-fetched. Wright believes that the time has come to “reconcile the past” and to “let the bells once again ring a symbol of friendship, freedom, and goodwill”

An American Ally

Curiously, passionately continuing the fight to retrieve the Balangiga bells from the Americans is a group of American World War II veterans. The Bells of Sorrow Association has no political agenda. Its members are mostly American veterans. Its main purpose is to research and record the events regarding the removal of the bells and, more important, to promote awareness in the US and the Philippines about the tragedy that destroyed the whole town and had a big impact on Philippines-US relations.

Leading the association is Dennis Wright, an American who, in 2010, formed a nonprofit group called the Clark Veterans Cemetery Restoration Association. This group lobbied the US Congress to pass a legislation that would provide money for the rehabilitation and maintenance of the cemetery in the former American air base in the province of Pampanga. This burial place for thousands of veterans who served in the US Army fell in disarray after Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, and the US Air Force left the Philippines.

“There is no memorial for those who died in the Filipino-American War. Why not create a peace memorial in Balangiga that would honour both Americans and Filipinos and remind us that peace is always a better alternative than war?” says Wright. He wants the bells to be returned so that they would be part of the peace memorial that they are planning to build in the town. The bells of Balangiga are a war memorial to the US Army; to the Filipinos, they symbolise their fight for freedom and independence.

Wright also happens to be the president and ceo of Peregrine Development International Inc, an American firm into project development, design, engineering, construction and project management, maintenance and logistics. It is the prime developer of the Global Gateway Logistics City in Clark.

Doing business in the Philippines keeps Wright grounded with his passion to bring back the bells to Balangiga. In fact he married profession and advocacy by making the Bells of Sorrow Association as Peregrine’s corporate social responsibility. This strong link to the town of Balangiga worked to the town’s rehabilitation programme after Yolanda. Not only is Peregrine capable of rebuilding, being in the line of work it is in, it also has the heart to help, through the Bells of Sorrow Association.

So when the government divided the towns and cities in the Visayas devastated by Yolanda into 24 areas and offered these to the private sector for rebuilding and rehabilitation, Peregrine grabbed at the opportunity to help Balangiga.

Road to Recovery

In December 2013, a month after the tragedy, Peregrine launched Operation “Helping Hand” in Balangiga to rehabilitate destroyed community infrastructure. Specialising in project development and construction management, Peregrine has extensive experience in disaster relief in Honduras, Indonesia, Haiti, etc. In Balangiga, the company deployed equipment and materials and more than 30 construction employees, and repaired the town’s loader and backhoe to facilitate in the clean-up. The company helped the Balangiga-ons rebuild their municipal hall, public school, and public market. Currently, the company is planning to reconstruct the parish church.

The first work Peregrine did was the Balangiga Municipal Hall, in order for the local government to easily supervise subsequent rehabilitation efforts. Afterward, Peregrine began work on the public market. Business activities have resumed since then. To attract tourists, the Balangiga Encounter Memorial Library, which serves as a reminder of the heroism of Balangiga’s freedom fighters, was also rebuilt.

Peregrine used regular raw materials to rehabilitate the city hall, public market, and library. In the reconstruction of the third building of Central Elementary School, the company used great engineering and design innovation to make the public school stormand earthquake-proof. Because all structural works were done in strict compliance with international quality standard, the models can be replicated anywhere. The company also installed two water-purifying system units in the municipal hall to serve the communities until the local government restores clean water.

On 19 February 2014, after only three months of feverish rehabilitation, Peregrine formally handed over the renovated municipal building, public market, and public library. The ceremony was attended by Assistant Secretary for Rehabilitation and Recovery Ping Lacson, Representative Ben Evardone, De Lira and Wright.

Amid relentless crisis and unnecessary bureaucracy, the willingness of the Balangigaons to move forward and their optimism have  never been more palpable. Lacson lauded Balangiga for its initiative and determination to get back on its feet. He guaranteed that the national government would remain steadfast in its support. After all, Balangiga has become a model of an efficient partnership between the government and the private sector in the Yolanda rehabilitation efforts.

Despite all the help Balangiga gets from the government and the private sector, the Balangiga church still needs a significant amount of money. Wright said that half a million dollars is the estimated amount needed to restore the badly damaged church. The Bells of Sorrow Association is helping Balangiga look for ways of raising the money.

Back to the Wait

When Yolanda unleashed its fury in Balangiga, everything that stood upright fell to the ground, including the church. Spared perhaps, or too symbolic for nature to destroy, was the bell tower with its red steeple that Balangiga-ons built in anticipation of the return of their bells. It was a sign to rise up once again, a symbol that saw the town through this latest crisis brought about by nature.

Now it is time, again, to face the unresolved crisis brought about by man—the theft of their historic bells. An old bell-ringer of Balangiga church once said that the replacement bells, which he tolls two times daily, lack the originals’ rich sound. Legend has it that the ringing of bells could be heard two towns away. With the Bells of Sorrow Association initiative, the dream of bringing home the historic bells one day is not that far-fetched. Wright believes that the time has come to “reconcile the past” and to “let the bells once again ring as a symbol of friendship, freedom, and goodwill.”

This article was originally published in the Philippine Tatler August 2014 issue

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