Written by Roberto Verzola
O f all the body blows, I found it hardest to deal with those to the solar plexus. Exhale all the air in your lungs. Then force more air out — twice, three times — until you can squeeze nothing more out of your lungs. Hold your breath as long as you can. Now breathe in. If you somehow cannot, that’s how it feels to get well-placed blows to the solar plexus. It leaves you gasping for breath, for air that won’t come because of the cramp on your diaphragm. The physical pain of fists hitting skin, muscles, and bones recedes to the background, until it’s just you and the air that won’t come. (I wonder if Sisa’s Basilio felt the same, hung upside down and dunked into a well?)
Three, perhaps four, men were coming at me with their fists and occasional kicks. Fists hit me on the chest, back, sides, and of course the solar plexus area of the abdomen. After watching me gasp for breath, they would let me catch some, then ask the questions. Essentially, they wanted from me names and addresses. I would give my name and home address, and start with the Story. Then the blows would come again. I told them that when I wasn’t home, I stayed with uncles and aunts. They then wanted my uncle’s address. More body blows.
Captain Esguerra peeks into the room and asks his men, “Anything?” They shake their heads, “Sir, ayaw ibigay ‘yong bahay ng uncle daw n’ya, e!” (“He won’t reveal the house of his supposed uncle.”) Esguerra reminds them, “Tactical, tactical!” I took that to mean he wanted them to focus on the tactical interrogation objective, which was to trace the network of UG (underground) houses. Raiding my parents’ or any relative’s home would have given away the information that I was already in military hands, and wouldn’t net them to any UG house.
I don’t really remember how long it took. An hour or two, perhaps more. Probably less than what it seemed to me. At one point, when I felt I was about to give in (the bone of contention was still my uncle’s home address), I told myself to last a little longer. A few seconds more, a few minutes more. No, not yet. Then they would pause for the questions. And we’d go one more round. Subconsciously, I felt that giving away my uncle’s address would be giving away nothing at all. It would, on the other hand, inform my relatives and subsequently my parents that I was in military hands. And that information might protect me from a worse fate. But then I didn’t want to impose on my uncle and aunt the terror of getting raided in their home.
My frustrated interrogators probably did not realize it, but they were testing not my loyalty to the Movement, but my filial love for Auntie Orang, a cousin of my father, and her husband Uncle Domeng, who gave me sanctuary in the earliest days of martial law when I had nowhere to go.
I felt numb and totally exhausted when I was finally put inside a jail cell, which was in the same building where I was interrogated. In a way I was lucky. I was a junior catch. The interrogators were focused on Roger, Julius, and their prize catch, number two in the communist hierarchy, CPP secretary-general Monico “Nick” Atienza. If they spent their time tracing up instead of down, Nick’s household could lead them to an even bigger catch, the chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines who, the military said, was Jose Maria Sison.
Before dawn came, captives trickled into the jail cell one by one. Onie (tall, fair-complexioned, square-jawed, with a lilting Ilonggo accent), Roger, Julius, Agapito “Ka Pitong” Medina, Nick, and one or two more. In the other cell was Nick’s wife, tall and frail Edith Sangalang. Nick wasn’t himself. He appeared really distraught and harassed. I would learn later that the military’s preferred mode for him was the “truth serum” (sodium pentothal), which was supposed to make captives talk. Could an overdose of this “truth serum” lead to psychotic problems in the victim? Nick thought we were out to kill him, so he was moved to the other cell, to be with Edith. Nick’s condition would subsequently worsen and he would be taken to the V. Laguna General Hospital for treatment and, possibly, further interrogation.
Ironically, I felt relief inside the jail cell. It seemed like a haven because it meant I wasn’t under interrogation. When a guard opened the cell and called out a name, our hearts would leap. It meant somebody was being taken for further interrogation and possible torture. My relief at not being called would only be tempered with concern for those whose names were called. I was tense but safe in the Haven.
Within the critical twenty-four hours after our arrest, or sometime in the afternoon, my name was called. I braced myself for another round of interrogation. It was Captain Esguerra and a few more officers. I repeated my Story, which no one believed, of course.
So they made me do a “squat jump.” With one foot forward and the other back, you squat first, then jump as high as you can, falling with the other foot forward. Then you jump again, for as many times as you can. Until I could barely stand. No body contact at all. Esguerra told me, “O hindi yan torture ha!” (“See, that’s no torture!”) He added, “We do that to PMA cadets all the time!” Well, I’ll take the “squat jump” over blows to the solar plexus anytime. But after the session, my legs hurt so much, I couldn’t walk by myself. Two men had to assist me on the way back.
But I was not going back to the ISAFP (Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) jail cell. I was being “borrowed” by another intelligence unit for further interrogation. ISAFP had its own methods; Metrocom intelligence had its own. Metrocom was the Metropolitan Command of the Philippine Constabulary (PC), headed then by General Fidel Ramos. Lieutenant Garcia of the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) took me to Camp Panopio, near the PC headquarters along EDSA. He made a perplexing comment which made sense only later, “So, you’re taking up electrical engineering!”
The MISG office was bigger than the ISAFP office I saw. It was longish, and the middle served as an aisle separating a row of perhaps eight to ten tables. I was taken to the far corner, on the right. With Garcia was a senior officer whose name escapes me now. After the usual questions, I told them the Story. They didn’t believe me. They gave me paper and time to right my personal background and history in the movement. Same Story.
Then they brought in the Machine. Two lengths of wire extended from it, both ending with bare wire, the insulation stripped. One end was tied around the handle of a spoon. The Machine is a field telephone generator. It has a wheel with a handle. The wheel turns a dynamo, which generates electricity that causes a distant telephone to ring. An operator at the distant end picks up the phone, and the two ends can talk. The field generator probably generates forty to sixty volts and, if turned really fast, may give as high as ninety volts or even more. The standard house wiring in the Philippines is 220-volts. In the U.S, it is 110. My interrogators tied the end of one wire around my right index finger and inserted the spoon into my pants, on my right waist, until it rested where the leg meets the lower abdomen, near the crotch. My body would complete the circuit.
When I was young, I used to watch my uncles and older cousins whenever they slaughtered a pig. As soon as the pig realized something bad was going to happen, it would shriek for dear life. It was a grating shriek of helplessness, desperation, and terror, one that rang in your mind long after the pig was dead. It was that kind of scream that issued from my throat everytime my torturers spun the wheel around. It was totally involuntary, the automatic response of a body invaded by an alien current of a thousands spikes snaking through one’s cells and nerves. I could stifle it no more than I could stop my hand from jerking away when shocked briefly by live house wiring.
Across the aisle were to civilian Metrocom employees. They were women, apparently on overtime. They went on with their work, as if they heard or saw nothing. Business as usual. No signs of surprise or concern. Metrocom apparently used the electric shock treatment often enough to make its civilian employees inured to screams.
Since it was mid- to late afternoon by that time we got to the Metrocom headquarters, I knew that my twenty-four-hour margin was almost up. I had already missed several meetings. Within twenty-four hours, houses whose locations I knew would be abandoned. In those twenty-four hours, I had forced myself to forget all the names and aliases I had ever heard in the underground. (As consequence, my memory of people’s names has been bad ever since.) I also realized that the smallest information the MISG got from me now would only lead to more questions and further interrogation. And if I gave some more, then they would want even more, and the torture would not stop until I had given all. So I’d have to spill all, or nothing. At this time, they were still asking me details about the Story that I had made up. And we all knew that this was leading to a dead end.
Eventually, they moved the spoon’s position so that it now cupped my genitals. The senior officer had become so exasperated by this time that he spun the wheel really hard, earning them a particularly bad case of screaming. He admonished me, “Ang hirap sa iyo, alam mo na, na alam namin, na nagsisinungaling ka, ipinipilit mo pa rin ang istorya mo! Kaya pala Obet ang pangalan mo, e. Obstinate ka!” (“The problem with you is, you know that we know that you are telling us lies. Yet, you insist on your story! So that’s why your name is Obet. You’re obstinate!”) I thought back: Well, it’s all or nothing. Whether my twenty-four hours are up or not yet, I chose nothing.
Spin a wheel — all or nothing?
Nothing. Like Basilio.
When they escorted me to my cell, I was completely exhausted physically and emotionally. But I was at peace with myself.
This is an excerpt of the essay “Lest We Forget” written by Roberto Verzola (PSHS Batch ‘69). It was originally published in the book Not On Our Watch. The author has given permission to republish it in The Science Scholar.
Roberto “Obet” Verzola has been a social activist since his college days in the 1970s. He was a political prisoner for three years (1974–1977) of the Philippine martial law regime. Educated and trained as an engineer, he has worked closely with social movements and civil society organizations on issues ranging from nuclear power, intellectual property rights, information technology, genetic engineering, environmental issues, farming methods, and election automation.