By: JOEY A. GABIETA
TACLOBAN CITY- Music to the ears and hearts.
This was how the officials and residents of Balangiga town in Eastern Samar reacted on the demand of President Rodrigo Duterte for the United States return the bells taken by them 116 years ago.
Mayor Randy Graza said that they are grateful that the church bells would finally find themselves restored back at their old church now that President Duterte signified his desire for their return to the country.
“We were really grateful and ecstatic that he mentioned for the return of the bells during his Sona,” Graza, in a phone interview, said.
“We just don’t consider the bells as mere part of our heritage but a symbol of the sacrifices made by our forebears (fighting against a foreign power),” the town mayor said.
“We are proud what our forebears did… offering their own lives for our sake,” Graza added.
During his State of the Nation Address (Sona), Mr.Duterte called on the US government to return the bells they carted away on September 28, 1901, as war trophies.
Mayor Graza said that when he heard the President sought for the return of the bells during his Sona, he became emotional.
“I was heartened when I heard him seeking for the return of our bells.It is very heartening that he made it while he was delivering his Sona,” Graza said.
Former provincial board member Enerio Sabulao, who authored a resolution for the return of the bells when he was a member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan in 2007, said that they are thankful for the President to ask the US government for the return of the bells.
He, however, appealed to the President to at least slow down his tirades against the American government now that the government needs their help on this particular issue.
“It’s a give and take thing,” he said.
Meantime, a great granddaughter of one of the heroes of the Balangiga Encounter also expressed her elation on this announcement of Pres. Duterte.
“Wow. Just wow! When we heard it from the President, we all rejoice! There were shouts of joy!” said Ma. Aida Addellia Elaba, who works as the secretary of the Sangguniang Bayan.
“Hopefully, this time, it will be for real,” she added.
Elaba’s mother, Constancia, is the granddaughter of local hero Valeriano Abanador who was among the leaders of the uprising against the Americans in 1901.
Her mother always serves as a narrator during the reenactment of the Balangiga Encounter every September 28.
Her father, Cresencio, served as the town mayor from 1988 up to 1992.
The residents of the sleepy town of Balangiga have been clamoring for the return of the bells that were taken by the Americans who could not take the defeat they suffered in the hands of the locals in 1901.
Balangiga is the site of the single biggest defeat suffered by the Americans in the Philippines. At least 54 American soldiers were killed while 18 others were wounded in what is now called the Balangiga Encounter of Sept. 28, 1901.
An outraged General Jacob Smith deployed 180 soldiers on Sept. 29, 1901, and ordered them 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. Not contended with the death of thousands of Filipinos, the Americans took the Balangiga bells as war booty.
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. There have been efforts by the Philippine government but nothing happened.
Former President Fidel Ramos wrote a personal letter to then President Bill Clinton, for the bells to be return to Balangiga but it was not heeded.
The statement of the President rekindled the residents’ hope that had diminished over the years.
“This time, we see a glimmer of hope that the Balangiga Bells, which we consider as part of our history, will be returned to us,” said Elaba.
Fe Campanero, another Balangiga resident, also expressed her happiness on this declaration of Mr. Duterte.
“We Balangiganons are glad by the President’s pronouncement regarding our bells. I hope it does not end here. I hope he will help our present efforts to have our bells back,” said Campanero, niece of Vicente Candilosas, one of the Filipinos who fought in Balangiga Encounter.
“For so many years we have been promised that these will be given back to us. This time, this present administration will turn our hopes into reality. When that day comes we can say, our efforts did not go to waste,” she added.
(JOEY A. GABIETA)