After 116 years of waiting
By: VICKY C. ARNAIZ
BALANGIGA, Eastern Samar- President Rodrigo Duterte revived the century-old fight for the return of the historic Balangiga Bells seized by the United States (US) during the Philippine- American war.
He called on the US government to return the Church bells which was taken by American soldiers on September 29, 1901.
“Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said amid applause from the audience when he delivered his second State of the Nation Address on July 24 at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City.
“Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit yun sa amin, (Return them to us, it is painful for us)” Duterte said.
Balangiga is the site of the single biggest defeat suffered by the Americans in the Philippines. At least 54 US soldiers were killed while 18 others were wounded in what is now called the Balangiga Encounter of September 28, 1901.
An outraged General Jacob Smith deployed 180 soldiers on September 29, 1901, to turn the town into a “howling wilderness.”
He commanded that every Filipino male at least 11 years old and capable of carrying firearms should be shot dead.
The soldiers also burned down the communities.
Balangiga Mayor Randy Graza in an interview with the Leyte Samar Daily Express said he is thankful to President Duterte not only for bringing the issue of Balangiga Bells to the national and international arena, “but for also being with us in passionately believing that those bells should be returned as they rightfully belong to the people of Balangiga but to the Filipino nation as well.”
Balangiga is a sleepy town in Eastern Samar with 14,085 population spread among its 14 barangays.
Karina Rosa Santiago Tiopes, tourism regional director, said that she was “truly happy” that no less than the President has called and urged for the return of the bells of Balangiga.
“These bells are not just ordinary relics of our past. These bells are a symbol of the bravery of our ancestors. It serves as a reminder to all Filipinos of how we can unite as one and fight oppression and aggressors,” Tiopes said.
“In the past, initiatives were made in pursuit of the return of these bells. Sad to say these moves did not have positive results. Today, with the President himself making this call, we have high hopes of seeing these bells returned to their rightful home in Balangiga,” the tourism regional director added.
Not contented with the deaths of the thousands of Filipinos, the Americans took the Balangiga bells and a 400-year-old British Falcon cannon in the plaza as war booties.
The bells were used by Filipino resistance fighters to signal the attack on the American detachment in Balangiga.
One church bell is at the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Cloud, South Korea. The two bronze bells are on a former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Balangiga Bells now St. Lawrence Bells
The Balangiga Bells, which is also called as St. Lawrence Bells (or San Lorenzo Bells) in honor of the town’s parish St. Lawrence the Martyr Church according to Fr. Serafin Tybaco, parish priest.
“We have sent out letters to Wyoming and to the United States Bishop Conference of Catholic Bishops (USBCCB). It would be easier for the US government to return the historic bells since it sounds apolitical,” Fr. Tybaco said.
Two years ago, during the renovation of the church, the workers found human remains and the priest related it as those of American soldiers who died during the Philippine-American war.
The bones were big, including skulls, he said.
There were forensic experts who examined the bones, but to this day no results have been made yet.
In the meantime, Fe Campanero, 55, the tourism officer of Balangiga and niece of Vicente Candilosas, one of the Filipinos who fought against the Americans.
“I hope it does not end here. I hope he will help our present efforts to have our bells back,” she added.
She and the other residents had not lost hope that their bells would be returned to the St. Lawrence the Martyr Parish Church.
The historic church, she pointed out, was a recipient of financial assistance from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The donation was used to restore the church which was damaged when super typhoon ‘Yolanda’ hit the town on Nov. 8, 2013.
The financial assistance was coursed through their local counterpart, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
A business firm based in Olongapo City and owned by an American also helped in the repair of the town public market and municipal hall which were damaged by Yolanda, Campanero said.
She considered the assistance provided by the Americans as a “peace offering.”
“This gesture will be completed if they return the bells just like what they did in La Union,” Campanero said.
Last May 2016, the United States returned a bell taken from a church in La Union in 1901, the same year that the American forces took the Balangiga Bells after they suffered their worst defeat at the hands of the Filipino guerrillas.