The 10th of April this year disappeared under the splendor of a week considered holy by most Filipinos. The Redeemer had just entered the city to the spectacle of swaying palms. By Monday, it was the beginning of sorrows for Him and His mother.
Grief was elevated to the sacral level and memories of war, fairly recent by historical reckoning, is profane. And yet, if there is an event in the country that figures in the annals of world history, it is that fateful day on the 10th of April, in 1942. Called the Bataan Death March, it was a march to defeat. American and Filipino soldiers who fought with them were forced to walk under the heat of the April summer from Bataan, the last bastion of defense made immortal by a speech which begins with the fall of Bataan and the imagination, or exhortation, that it will rise again.
For 60 miles, nearly 80,000 people (the number varies according to memory and histories) marched without food or drinks. Some survived to arrive in the concentration camps; some were lucky to fall on the wayside and die, forgotten but heroes in the documentation of a nation, unless if forgets an event for something important.
Some years back, I was with writers as we drove past the markers of the march. The ricefields and trees have grown over the remembrances of that day.
How did the place look like in 1942? Were women and children allowed to look at the odd mix of cruelty and courage? Were people, already seeing the future, predicting that this day would go down as one of the biggest triumphs of the human spirit? History is generally about big tales. History to make it to books is writ large. What is missing in this Death March is the imagination of the ordinary.
I am interested in what the young Filipino soldiers talked about as they walked. The embankments along the way could have encouraged them to roll off them and disappear into the dark. I can see people hiding behind the trees brave enough to pull into the comfort of their homes some of the prisoners.
The Japanese soldiers, young as most of them, would have admired the tropical sceneries new to them, unless they came from Okinawa. Contrary to the faceless, vicious killers materializing from the dark shadows, the youthful Japanese soldiers recruited or conscripted fresh from high school must have known a smattering of English greetings. Did they practice their English conversation skills with the Americans. In the heat of April, they must have missed the early spring and the sakura blooms in the Ueno Park.
It was war, however, and youth had nothing to do with peace. Only films would bask in the heroic tales. The men marching were there to die and the Japanese, the enemies, were there to kill. These soldiers would benefit from the system called “comfort women”. Not the peaceful years of correct politics would right this wrong.
If I walked this road, at night, would I be able to listen to more stories? Darkness is such a solace in Bataan. There is a quiet that tells me if I just paused behind the markers,
I would hear pains and dreams.
Juan Gelman, the Argentine poet of loss, could tell them: it’s beautiful to walk along with you/to discover the source of new things,/to get at the root of happiness,/to bring the future in on our backs….
To them, the spirits of the Great March, I would offer these lines from Gelman: I tell them, it’s beautiful, what a great mystery/to live treated like dirt….
And, like what Gelman says, still sing and laugh. For that was what some of them were doing, in the heat and in the night, to sing a bit, and to laugh, and to weep in silence. All of them, including the young unfortunate enemies.