Thursday, 20 February 2014

REPOST: A history relived: Once upon a time on EDSA

A scene on EDSA on the second day of the 1986 EDSA Revolution. - Internetpic

Marines form a human barricade inside Camp Crame. -- Photo courtesy of NOELBONDOC Album   


THIS MONTH marks the 28th anniversary of the EDSA Revolution.

As a working journalist back in Manila, the four-day "revolt" of 1986 was the biggest story I ever covered.

During the initial hours of Day 1 that began at 6pm, Saturday, February 22, 1986, I viewed the whole exercise as huge karnabal (carnival) stewing with thousands of animated people from all walks of life, their faces either smiling or contorting and looking agitated, but in most cases, unrestrained.

It was a carnival, no doubt about it, save for the absence of a Ferris wheel and a giant tent where a circus show might had been going on.

No, they weren't those carnival-ish spectacles that drew thousands of people from all corners of the metropolis; it's the "revolution" waiting to explode.

But how it was to happen, nobody knew. And those people who surged to EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) were seemed to have been herded by an unseen hand but whose voice over the radio was very recognizable by kids and grown-ups.

They came because the appeal was for them to jam every inch of a space around Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame, two major military camps on either sides of EDSA, in a bid to forestall the coming of the people's enemies who wanted to pluck the two men of the hour - Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt General Fidel V Ramos - out of their hole at Camp Aguinaldo, the seat of the Philippine armed forces.

Realizing the magnitude of the event, I felt an uneasy chill creeping all over my skin, aware that I had to compete AGAIN with hundreds or even thousands of local and foreign journalists whose business was to expect the worst from such an event - the biggest story there was to report.

My immediate concern was my "usual enemies" - the foreign correspondents who parachuted into Manila for this coverage. And this concern was even compounded by the presence of scores of Japanese media men who descended upon these besieged camps to get a chunk of the action for their respective news organizations back home.

During those days, I was one of the two deputy bureau chiefs of Yomiuri Shimbun-Manila Bureau, based in Bel-Air, a plush village in Makati. 

The bureau was then headed by my boss and good friend, Japanese journalist Ryoichi Nishida. 

My other Filipino journalist-colleague at the bureau was Edmundo "Bong" Dolores.  

Yomiuri has remained the biggest newspaper in the free world and that time, it had a morning circulation of 14 million with another 2 million for the afternoon edition.

The burden of getting scooped by my competition weighed heavily on my shoulder.

Yomiuri had a good track record of beating its rival Japanese media operating in the Philippines - among them the mainstream Asahi Shimbun, NHK, Tokyo Broadcasting Service, Mainichi Shimbun, Jiji Press and Tokyo Shimbun, and this thought alone kept drilling hard into my head.

I couldn't forget how I fiercely fought with our Japanese rivals over the juicy stories during the Agrava Commission investigation of the late Senator Benigno Aquino's murder. 

But anyway, I survived with occasional scoop here and there.

And one of such scoops was the verdict handed down by the Agrava Commission on the soldiers for murdering the then Senator Aquino as he was coming down the tarmac at the Manila International Airport (MIA) shortly after arriving from a long exile in the US.

Our contact within the probe panel leaked to us the night before a copy of the official report that was to be release to the public shortly before noon the next day.

Together with my Reuters buddy Cas Mayor Jr, we broke the news through our respective organization several hours ahead of every news group covering the event.

While the panel was reading the official panel report, Yomiuri was at that moment printing the noontime edition carrying the story on the front page. 

Reuters flashed the news worldwide only within two minutes after the verdict was read.

That's why on the first hours of the "revolt" on the night of Saturday, February 22, 1986, I immediately felt that I was in for another nightmare.

Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and General Fidel V Ramos

MY "OFFICIAL INVOLVEMENT" in the revolution came with a phone call at the bureau from my usual source at the Ministry of National Defense at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Saturday, February 22 at 4.30pm. 

My contact told me something was simmering right now and that I should come ASAP if I didn't want to miss the party.

It was Saturday and nothing much to expect for a news breakout except when a Japanese national who could be anywhere in the country had gone missing or was murdered.

That, usually, was our kind of story. So, far it was a calm Saturday afternoon and sipping my favorite coffee was a treat I didn't want to miss. 

I put the phone down and checked our Associated Press wire tickers, but at that moment, it was spewing out nothing earthshaking. I nudged my buddy Dolores who was drowsing on his desk, telling him that I had to rush to Camp Aguinaldo. 

"There could be something," I told him, and he said "go for it ... I will call our checkpoints (meaning contacts and sources).

Flashing my military accreditation press card at the camp's gate checkpoint on Santolan Road, I was told by the Military Police to park the car away from the Ministry of National Defense building.

Just as when my driver was looking for his slot, a military helicopter roared down right on the parking lot fronting the MND building and offloaded combat-ready soldiers who were dragging several crates obviously containing automatic firearms and ammunition.

Some of the crates were hauled off behind a pile of sandbags on both sides of the building, while the rest was brought up to the MND building.

While trying to absorb the scene, I spotted two tanks parked nearby, both facing west towards Malacanang Palace where President Ferdinand E Marcos wielded his power. 

I told Ely, our bureau driver, to get out of the camp "now ...". He drove off in haste.

On the second floor where the press office was located, I bumped into the correspondents of Associated Press and Reuters who told me in chorus, "you're just in time, Freddie ..." without giving away the story. 

I rushed to the office of another source - a desk-bound colonel - and right away he told me: “It's not confirmed yet ... but Gen Ver's men are going to attack the camp ..."

Why? When? Why? I asked, and he said: "You just hang on ... there will be a press conference shortly ...". A rebel soldier in full battle gear shouldering a light machine gun called Ultimax 100 barged in and whispered something to the colonel.

Having made sense of what was going on, I grabbed the phone beside the colonel and dictated a five-paragraph story to Dolores at the home base. 

That moment, he was now getting new information from his contacts but it was still too hazy for him to know what it really meant.

Just before I left the colonel's office, he told me he was going to see me after the press conference. On my way back to the press office, I bumped into more harried rebel soldiers who were either armed with shiny M-16s and Israel-made Uzis or Galills.

The long wait for the big news finally came.

At exactly 6.45pm, the two men of the hour walked into the Social Hall, blinking under the glare of television lights. 

Clad in olive and gray, Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt Gen Fidel V Ramos settled into their chairs before a heap of microphones and assortment of cassette recorders. 

The journalists waited, each one ready to fire a question.

Enrile and Ramos announced they were withdrawing their support from the government of President Ferdinand Marcos and then declared open rebellion against his 20-year-regime.

They said: "We're going to die here fighting." They said there was a plan by Marcos to have them arrested. 

Ramos said that the President of 1986 is not the President to whom they dedicated their service and that Marcos was no longer able and capable commander-in-chief that they could count upon.

"He has put his personal family interest above the interest of the people ... we do not consider President Marcos as now being a duly constituted authority."

Enrile made a statement to that effect as he appealed to the members of the Marcos Cabinet to heed the will of the people expressed in the last elections, in which Cory Aquino was largely believed to have won. 

He said that in his own region in Cagayan, "I know that we cheated in the elections to the extent of 350,000 votes ..."

Then he said that he would not serve under Mrs. Aquino even if she was installed as President. "Our loyalty is to the Constitution and the country ..."

While the Q & A went on, I then realized the reasons for all those unusual movements outside - pile of sand bags, soldiers in full battle regalia, with canteens and knapsacks and K-rations, and tanks at the ready.

About this time, Enrile's security force numbered only 320 officers and men, including several civilians from the RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement).

After the two gentlemen gave the closing statement, the Social Hall broke into pandemonium as journalists scampered towards all directions, obviously to hunt for telephones.

In my mind, I had one place to go and that was the colonel's office located just next to Enrile's. Inside his office, I hid behind the door, while MND staff, soldiers and journalists whizzed by at the corridor. 

When the colonel came in, he was startled to see me. I told him: "Boss, I need your phone ..."

Seeing that I was done with my report, the colonel closed the door, walked around his desk and pulled one of its drawers. 

From it he fished a handgun - a brand-new M9 Beretta 9mm pistol - a box of ammunition and a loaded clip. 

"You'll need this tonight ... or until this thing is over ... do you know how to use this?"

A bit stunned, I just nodded and asked what it was for. He told me it's for my own protection against the Marcos loyalists soldiers.

"We don't know how it will go tonight ... the boys got theirs already," he said. 

"Boys" meant those reporters who had regularly covered the military and Defense beat.

I took the gun, felt it and checked the clip. I was grinning as I tinkered with the moving parts because when I was with the mainstream daily Times Journal covering the police beat, I had carried an old Colt .45 pistol.

Satisfied with what I has holding, I dropped it into my black shoulder bag along with the ammo and clip.

Then colonel gave me a stick-on miniature Philippine flag, which he said I should be wearing on my vest at all, times as patch because it was a countersign to be used by all the rebel soldiers inside the camp. 

It changed its position every few hours and that moment the red stripe was uppermost, indicating "war". It would also serve as my clearance pass while moving around.

Later that night, Enrile ordered his security to provide a delegation of mayors from Cagayan province who came to the camp with M-16s "for their protection".

Just before I withdrew from Camp Aguinaldo to follow Gen Ramos with his security to Camp Crame, I phoned in another 500-word story for the city edition on the atmosphere around the two camps, describing how delirious people barricaded all the entrances to the two camps with all kinds of vehicles; the people praying the rosary, the nuns, the lay sisters and the seminarians lying flat on their backs on the road to prevent loyalist tanks from reaching the camp; those who came in jeans and t-shirts; couples and their children; the food peddlers and the plain kibitzers.

That moment, the crowd that packed EDSA and Santolan Street - two thoroughfares bounding the two camps - had swelled to about a hundred thousands.

WHEN I entered Camp Crame for the first time just before midnight, I had the impression that my coverage would soon be over after phoning in my supposed final story for the next day's edition, and that I could take off, go home and drop dead on the soft bed next to my wife.

Far from it.

My boss, Nishida-san, told me there were four reporters and a senior photographer arriving in the next 6 to 10 hours from Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur - all of them Yomiuri Shimbun's bureau chiefs, so I needed to stay put and get the stories out until this "picnic" was over.

The job of the reporters -Tobari-san, Suzuki-san, Arai-san and Hamamoto-san - would be to cover events outside Metro Manila. 

Disappointed, I phoned my (ex) wife Janet at home in San Pedro, Laguna, telling her I was held up at Camp Crame and couldn't come home. 

She said she was monitoring the news and had expected it. She told me to take care.

But before I camped out along with other journalists on the fourth floor where Gen Ramos was holding out, I made it a point to secure a telephone within the building away from the eyes of my colleagues, for my exclusive use.

To do this, I had to bribe one low-ranking officer to keep one line for me, asking him to shove it into a drawer within his sight. 

Whenever there was a news breakout, I ran to this phone for my story. I learned later that most of the American journalists did the same.

By 2pm of February 23, Minister Enrile crossed EDSA from Camp Aguinaldo to Camp Crame to join forces with General Ramos. 

The two men getting together over the last 12 hours had spurred journalists to crowd together around them, as they tried to fish for the latest news to send to their respective home bases.

I filed a small feature describing how the crowd who witnessed the event was thrown into frenzy, believing that the revolution was already half-won.

The next three days inside the camp were like hell, with little sleep, no shower, no shirt-change and no tooth-brushing. 

What I had in my black shoulder bag were the usual stuff - notebooks, pens, a cassette recorder, a pack of batteries and the pistol and ammo.

The stress that ate into my nerves burst forth whenever there was updating on the on-going "revolution". 

My orders from Tokyo were to file a story every hour because Yomiuri was running its usual 14 editions a day, starting from 1am and the editors wanted to carry every story there was to report.

And worst, my ears were always cocked for the roar of attacking helicopters or bombers or the whiz of an approaching artillery shell or the ramble of hostile tanks.

Over the four-day coverage, I was craving for decent food. To be specific, I was craving for rice. 

But there was none, just bread, cakes, noodles, pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, rice cakes, pancakes that streamed into the camps by the minute for the rebel soldiers and everybody who cared to eat. 

One nun who offered me a box of assorted foodstuff said there's no time to cook rice so they encouraged donors to bring just bread and the like.

WHEN A FLEET of 12 gunships, including seven Sikorsky armed with cannons and rockets, circled the air above Camp Crame on Monday, February 24, at about 6am, all the journalists, including me, feared for the worst and scrambled for cover outside the building.

We were anticipating the main building would be strafed because that was the plan relayed to Ramos earlier. 

But the gunships, after making a pass, returned and steadied over the parade ground and proceeded to land, very slowly with their lights on. 

The journalists started popping one by one from their cover and headed towards the gun ships.

The choppers' crews disembarked in formation, led by led by an officer whom I recognized as Col Antonio Sotelo, the head of the 15th Strike Wing of the Philippine Air Force.

Reaching Col Sotelo first, I asked him: "Colonel, why did you come here ...?"

Col Sotelo said he was defecting with the entire elite 15th Strike Wing of the PAF.

Hearing this, the crowd of soldiers and civilians who feared massive air strafing cheered wildly. 

We followed the colonel to the War Room to meet for the first time with Gen Ramos and his men. By then the general, who was visibly in tears, knew it was a major turning point in the revolution.

With more and more threats from General Favian Ver about shelling the two camps, I was advised by one officer to sleep under a heavy desk at night. 

And so I did, but sleep never came to my eyes as the situation became scarier and tensed.

Just like the rest of the journalists, I maintained my vigil close to the war room where Gen Ramos and Minister Enrile plotted their next moves. 

The war room was actually just small space surrounded by bulletproof yellow canvass curtains and closely guarded by the close-in security headed by Col Gringo Honasan.

AT THE crack of dawn of Tuesday, February 25, while I was trying to hang onto my Z's under my favorite desk, dead tired from coverage stress and exhaustion, I was startled by one of the aides - a colonel - who were close to Minister Enrile and with whom I had made friendship over the past three days.

The colonel whispered to me what I thought to be a big story: That a few minutes ago, he overheard Enrile talking with President Marcos.

Apparently, Marcos had told Enrile they (Marcos and family) wanted to leave the Palace that Tuesday night and get out of the country but demanded an assurance they (Ramos and Enrile) won't do anything against Gen Ver and his three sons, soldier-officers Irwin, Wyrlo and Rexor. 

Apparently, the minister had assured the Marcoses of safe passage out of the palace and out of the country, but nothing similar for Gen Ver and his three sons.

Jotting notes profusely, I listened to more details and asked him if there's a way for me to confirm them. 

"None," he said, except with the minister himself. I thought that IF I did that, other reporters could get wind of it. 

"Forget it," I told myself. I asked the colonel again for the exact quotes he overheard from Enrile and he repeated them.

Suddenly, I was awake and my adrenalin was pumping. Realizing I just got a big scoop, I hastily banged a 12-paragraph report in my notebook and stealthily phoned it in to the equally charged up Nishida at the home base, after which he sent the story to Tokyo for the noon edition.

Early that morning, I called Chuchay Fernandez, editor of Malaya for which I was moonlighting as correspondent, and told her about what I got. 

I wanted Malaya to carry the story in their after-lunch extra edition. Chuchay rejected the story, saying she doubted Marcos' living the Palace that soon. 

I was disappointed

Secondly, she said, Mrs. Aquino was to be sworn into office that day as the new President and that was to be the major story for the edition. 

As expected, at 10.46am, Mrs. Aquino took her oath of office as President of the Philippines before Senior Supreme Court Justice Claudio Teehankee.

Shortly after Yomiuri broke the story in its noon edition in Tokyo that day, along with President Aquino's inauguration, Nishida sent a message through my beeper, asking me to call him.

On the phone, he said our editors at the Tokyo head office had congratulated me for the big scoop - one thing that sent all the Japanese journalists flying all over the camp for confirmation of Marcos's plan to flee the country. 

But their sources were clueless.

And true to my story, the Marcoses finally abandoned the Palace that night at 9.05pm with the help of US Embassy -sponsored helicopters amidst the maddening jubilation of the people on the streets of Metro Manila.

Finally, I gave out a sigh of extreme relief. I was going home.

JUST BEFORE I pulled out of from the war room that night, relieved that the grueling coverage was finally over, I shook hands with Ramos, telling him in jest: "Congratulations, Sir ... and see you again in 20 years ... in the next revolution."

"You see Freddie..." the general said as he eyeballed my press ID, his favorite unlit cigar dangling from the left corner of his mouth, "I don't think that circumstance you just mentioned would ever come again ..."

"Of course, see you again in 20 years ... if ever that circumstance came again ... but be sure to remind me of your name ... after this battle, I think I had grown a bit old..." said Ramos, who was just promoted to full-star general by President Aquino. 

The new President also named Enrile as her Defense Minister.

OUTSIDE the headquarters, I ran into driver Ely who told me that one of our Japanese reporters - Tobari-san, the Hong Kong bureau chief - just came back from his coverage in Baguio City and wanted to go to Malacanang Palace with me.

After instructing Ely to go back to the office, Tobari-san and I hailed a cab and we snaked through barricades, bonfires and mass of people until we reached the smoke-covered Malacanang grounds.

Immediately we learned that the 1,000-strong Marines contingent guarding Malacanang perimeters had just pulled out and returned to barracks across Pasig River just at the back of the Palace, prompting hundreds of people to rush inside the building and loot it.

The Inquirer headlines the departure of Marcos.

But the looting, vandalism, and subsequent property destruction did not last long as the remaining loyalists soldiers moved in to flush them out.

As we toured around the second floor, amused with the shoe collection of Mrs Imelda Marcos and her hoard of perfumes and bathtub liquid soap, we were persistently assaulted by a nasty stench permeating all over the place; it was blowing silently from the room of the deposed President.

His bathroom was a total mess, littered with disposable diapers, all browned by shit, apparently of Marcos. 

There were bottles lying around which I thought had something to do with his dialysis treatment, the source of the stench.

While Tobari-san was taking pictures, I looked for the chair where the former President sat when he presided on important government matters. 

Finding it at the head of a long, polished, brown table I sat on it, trying to feel how it was to be the President of the republic and mimicking the familiar gestures only Marcos himself could create. 

My Japanese buddy was amused no end.

We left the Palace as the delirious people plunged into frenzy of lighting more bonfires all over the place, fed with thick piles of documents and folders looted from different places inside the building.

Remembering that we were both famished, we hailed a cab and asked the driver to bring us to Ermita, a district in Manila, for a late dinner. It was almost 1am.

At the corner of a dimly lit Chinese restaurant, Tobari-san asked me what I wanted to have and I told him: "Anything with rice ... yes, rice ... and plenty of it."

His brows leaped twice and while he bothered not to ask why, he was grinning.

Shortly after we started with our lousy soup, an agitated newsboy rushed into the restaurant, the very first one I saw early that morning, waving the first edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Its two-decker headline screamed:

"It's all over; Marcos flees!" 

    A man reads the news of Marcos' departure from Malacanang Palace the next    
    day. - Bong manayonpic

1 comment: