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Letters from prison

"Are you truly free out there? Or have you resigned yourselves to be shackled by the chains of your fears, your anxieties, your apathy?"

This is Part 5 of an open letter to Jose G. Burgos Jr. former publisher-editor of WE Forum and Malaya, the pioneer mosquito press (opposition newspaper) during martial law. Joe passed away in November 2003 at the age of 62. He was honored with the title “Press Freedom Hero of the World” by the International Press Institute along with 49 others on the 50th anniversary of the founding of IPI.

Dear Joe,

It was a double traumatization when after the arraignment, you were all hurriedly led out by the guards. We tried to follow as fast as we could, but the guards, “experts” in herding their prisoners away, moved fast and we could not catch up. By the time we reached the ground floor, we only saw the tail of the convoy leaving the grounds of the Quezon City Hall. The feeling of frustration at not being able to wave goodbye obvious on the faces of the kids tore at me, but this would not last long. Left behind with us were friends and a group of supporters.

Standing among the supporters were some nine non-sighted friends who were there with their own placards. With just one sighted guide, a young boy not older than 15, all nine held on to each other’s shoulders with one hand and with the other hand brandished their crudely made placards expressing their support. “Palayain si Joe Burgos (Free Joe Burgos).” They happily told us that you were able to approach them to say thank you. Remember how you made it some kind of a family tradition to spend December 23 with their families in their community in Escopa, Quezon City. Deeply touched, we forgot our own disappointment. I remember one of the kids reminding me that we should give them something for their fare back to their communities.

I remember Director Behn Cervantes leading one rally and how members of the Concerned Women of the Philippines gave their full support in demanding for your and your companions’ release and the return of WE Forum.

I remember a friend whispering to me that there were about 2,000 people demonstrating outside Camp Crame, a military camp in Metro Manila, wearing black clothes and armbands to symbolize what they said was the death of human rights and press freedom in the Philippines. They waved placards calling on the government to “stop military atrocities,” “free all detained church leaders and labor leaders,” and “restore freedom of the press.”

What hung heavily in my thoughts were the words of our lawyers saying that subversion in connection with an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. is punishable by death if convicted.

- Newsletter -

At the arraignment, you whispered to us that you and all your companions were jailed at the Maximum Security Unit in Fort Bonifacio. Except for you and your brother Teddy, who were in solitary confinement, you were divided by twos separated from each other.

Teddy is naturally serious about most things unlike my brother Angel, who always saw the funny side of even the most serious matter. When after your release, we asked Teddy who his companion was in his cell, he would respond with a single word “chicks.” Actually, he shared his cell with its first occupants, a mother hen and her brood.

Angel was in a cell with Dean Armando Malay. He recalled that Dean Malay was writing all of the time and if he needed something, he would keep on shouting to the guard until what he asked for, such as a small table and a stool was given to him.

Of course we didn’t know this. Reality was that it was very difficult to overcome the silence during meals, which normally would be the family’s noisiest pastime, trying to outdo each other with stories and jokes. Unknown to you, the kids never pestered me with questions. Not having the facts about your state, I didn’t want to make up stories, and you in your wisdom, you knew how we needed to know somehow. So in less than 24 hours after your arrest, as soon as you were in your cell, you wrote to us.

Your letter on December 8 pleaded for me to be brave and not to grieve and assured me you knew I was praying as you were, too. But the letter below is evidently made deliberately light to suit the appreciation of the young ones. Behind the words one senses the intense worry of a father separated from his family.

December 8, 1982, 6:00 p.m.
Inside my cell

Dearest Peach, Sonny, Jay and El,

Hanip ang Dads ninyo, ano? Nasa lahat ng mga dyaryo (Isn’t your Dads great? He is featured in all the newspapers).

I want you to behave and don’t give Mommy any problem or worry. Keep her happy and be happy too.

Your Dads and his companions are doing a great sacrifice for freedom so that when all children like you grow up, you will also fight for the same things.

Tell your friends that your Daddy is in prison because he loves them, and he loves their country. Magtiyaga muna kayo (Please make do with what you have). Don’t ask for many things from Mommy.

Konting tiis na lang, mga pards (Just a little sacrifice, my buddies).

Also, don’t forget to study hard and to know more because only by knowing more will you be able to feel the same way Dads feels. Only by searching for knowledge will you be able to find the truth.

I know that someday, you will feel, think and do what Dads is feeling, thinking and doing now.

Finally, please pray, I’ve been reciting the rosary inside the cell, not only for my sake but for the sake of everybody with me, for the sake of the people, and for the sake of my beautiful, wonderful, lovable and brave children (Peach, Sonny, Jay-Jay and Jay-El) and your Moms.

Remember now I love you so much. Kisses and hugs.


P.S. Just imagine na lang na nag-abroad ako. At babalik din ako. Kaya lang walang mga bilin, ha? (Just imagine that I am abroad and I will return soon. But please don’t ask for presents from abroad.)

The letters were handwritten on small pieces of paper, folded into very small pieces and handed to me two days after you were taken. With the letters was another paper where you sketched the floor plan of your room. With the description, we could imagine a small, dark, smelly, bare cell with a small window beyond your reach through which a ray of sunshine shone. The only furniture was a hard wooden bed.

I do not remember how your letter reached us. What I do remember is what you told me much later about the guard assigned to you when you were inside your cell. He gave you cigarettes, lent you his lighter, even slipped in some newspapers. He was always apologetic when he served your meals. He spoke Ilocano. I presume that the letters passed through the friendly hands of an ally of a friend of a friend until they reached my hands.

Young as they were, the children, like their father, refused to be crippled by the events. With as much bravado as they could muster, they responded. But this is another memory with a long story.

Thank you dear Joe for the following letter which you wrote assuring us that it would take more than an imprisonment to crush the spirit of the Joe Burgos I know.

“I am writing this inside the confines of my solitary cell at the Maximum Security block of Fort Bonifacio – the name of our great hero which had been mangled and demeaned for having been transformed into a depository of Filipinos who hunger and struggle for truth, freedom and justice. What a tragedy!

“As you read, do not grieve. For contrary to your feelings and sentiments now, I am free – notwithstanding the four concrete walls and steel bars that confine me and the brave souls of Soc, Ernie Rod, Dean Malay, Prof Gonzalez, Cris, Teddy C, Teddy B., Eduard B and Angel T. I am indeed free to think and feel the way I have always thought and felt.

I am still free to seek the truth and struggle for justice, to be free.

No matter where – inside a cell, outside the cell -man can only do what he believes is freedom.

Man must think freedom, act out freedom.

I and the rest – may have been physically detained but our spirits loft high in freedom.

Are you truly free out there? Or have you resigned yourselves to be shackled by the chains of your fears, your anxieties, your apathy?

Smash your chains. BE FREE.

Peace, truth and freedom to you all.

Jose G. Burgos Jr.

Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing. She was general manager of the publications WE Forum and Malaya.

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