“IT WAS NO TIME to put off doing good. What I saw, repeatedly, were people helping others as the need arose—now, this very minute; today, not tomorrow, because we could be dead tonight. That’s how detention during martial law taught me kindness more than anything else.”
Ricardo “Ricky” Lee, awarded author, stage and screen playwright and ex-political prisoner, estimates that he lived “at least three lives” during that crucial time in Philippine history if only because he nearly died twice, once by his own hand.
Labeled “subversive,” he was arrested and detained, beaten up, threatened with guns, hit in the head with a heavy book, routinely humiliated. He coughed up enough blood to be confined in the army hospital for three months. Soon after that, he slit his left wrist.
He relates all of these now with more amused introspection than pain. He insists, “It made me a very wealthy man in terms of experience.”
A story about Lee is likely to have all the elements of, fittingly, an epic movie—compelling characters, each with a fascinating backstory;one big conflict, maybe two; subplots, mercifully a good dose of comic relief; resolution and, in his case, redemption. Believe it or not, it looks like a happy ending.
This winner of about 60 awards for his writing is given to saying that the theme of his life is “a certain kabobohan.” He is hard-pressed to attempt a translation, except for, “Something like stupidity but a little more… endearing, I think.” It could be naivete, obstinacy, cluelessness, or just a quirk. Or all of that combined.
He went underground “full-time” in 1972, the year martial law was declared. He relates, “That meant there was no more ‘Ricky Lee,’ but I couldn’t stay in what was called ‘a collective.’ I wanted my own place, so I rented an apartment on Espana Extension.” Needing money, thus, he came to write his first screenplay, “Dragnet,” in 1973 under an assumed name, R.H.Laurel.
The apartment was raided in January 1974. “I knew it was trouble from the minute I heard ‘Ricky! Ricky!’ No one was calling me that anymore; I was ‘Jerry’ or ‘Angel,’ and a few other aliases. I was very scared because I knew they could kill me right then or ‘salvage’ me later. But while I was being led to the waiting jeep, I’m pretty sure I was smiling at some point. On the drive to Camp Aguinaldo I remember thinking, ‘If I survive, I can write about this.’”
In the next two days, five of Lee’s colleagues were nabbed in his house—Bien Lumbera, Bobby Tuason, Flor Caagusan, Cesar Carlos and Jo-Ann Maglipon. All six were interrogated for about 10 days in Camp Aguinaldo. Then they were brought to the ISAFP (Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) barracks in Fort Bonifacio.
The first time he was brought to the army hospital, Lee’s codetainees found their way to his bedside by feigning illnesses. “They brought a bag of different-sized briefs and shirts for me. They cleaned me up and the floor around my bed, too, on which blood I coughed up had dried. They asked to watch over me 24-7. They took care of me like they had no other concerns. To help immediately, without fear—we learned that together.”
Memories of kindness such as those “shine” for him, he says, “precisely because I was an orphan; comrades, codetainees, strangers were my family.”
When he relapsed, his jailers refused to send him back for medical care. Maglipon got through to Gemma Cruz-Araneta (one of Lee’s companions on the China trip), who brought the case before Juan Ponce-Enrile, Defense secretary at the time.
It must have worked, Lee recounts, because he was called to the guard house soon after, where a colonel was waiting to “evaluate” him. “Are you Ricky Lee? Are you the writer? Is it true you are coughing up blood again?” To all three questions, Lee’s reply was, “Opo (yes).” The colonel said, “All right, show me.”
As Lee tells it: “The kabobohan kicked in. I saw it was my way out, my saving grace. I concentrated, focused, coughed and coughed. No blood would come out. Annoyed, the colonel said, ‘These activists, they’re all liars.’ Walking back to my barracks, I scolded myself. Why did I want to please that man who was clearly my enemy? And my own body betrayed me! That felt like ground glass in my chest.”
He tried to resume writing; nothing came out of that, either. “I still have those drafts of four stories, really bad. Plus, no one was visiting me, except for a cousin who came on his day off from work. I was orphaned as a very young boy, so the only persons I could send word to were my relatives in Daet (Camarines Sur) but the feedback I got was, they had resigned my fate to God.”
He was sick most of the time, too, and his friends continued to take care of him. “Also, they gave me portions of everything their visitors brought so that, in the end, I had more stuff that everyone else. But it just me feel more alone and it was difficult to accept that I had become dependent on others.”
Frustration mounting, Lee started researching on suicide. “Ipil (name of the barracks) was a minimum-security facility. There were about 50 of us there, and many visitors brought books. We collected enough to start a small library. I learned that death by hanging was messy. I considered shooting myself but how could I smuggle a gun in? I was down to slitting my wrists. I went to the sari-sari store inside the compound and bought a razor blade.”
The sight of blood spurting from his wrist petrified Lee, and he couldn’t put the blade to the other wrist. He started to weep. That’s when Lumbera, found him. “There was this doctor among us who said I had done it wrong, fortunately, so the cut was not deep enough. I couldn’t end my own life! I was crushed.”
Life in Ipil
Outside of his deep-seated pains, Lee saw that life in Ipil
was easier than detention in, say, Camp Crame. “Sometimes I think it was really a matter of luck, where you were brought. We had a TV set in the mess hall, which helped us forget the wretched meals, like what we called ‘sore eyes,’ or spoilt fish with red eyes, and ‘sinibak,’ milkfish chopped every which way, briefly boiled, and served.”
One evening, they got to watch President Marcos announcing, for the benefit of visiting foreign dignitaries, “There are no political prisoners in this country.” Lee recalls, chuckling, “We looked around and asked one another, ‘So where is this place? Oh, and what are we, or do we exist at all?”
He also remembers jolly breaks with intrepid visitors. “Rolando Tinio turned up to visit and was irked. ‘What is this place? You don’t even have placemats!’ When he came back, he had tablecloths, silverware… for fine dining.”
Tinio’s wife Ella Luansing conducted a one-day acting workshop once and, intermittently, old movies were shown on an improvised screen. “I was arguing with some former friends inside,” Lee says, “about one of those movies. I said it was a Ramon Revilla starrer and the title was ‘Paglabas Ko, Lagot Kayo (When I Get Out, Beware).’ They said it was just wishful thinking on my part.”
Lee points out that many other ex-detainees will certainly have more provocative stories of life in detention. “There’s Pete Lacaba, Joel Lamangan… and you’ve heard of women prisoners who were made to sit on huge blocks of ice—blindfolded, naked, while their interrogators paced the room, threatening them with a pair of squeaky scissors, saying, ‘Talk, or I’ll snip your nipples.’”
But he has come to see that imprisonment breaks different people in different ways. “And whatever you suffered, it went straight to your soul, it never leaves.”
Where he lives now, ringing the doorbell is prohibited after 10 p.m. “And when I see men in uniform— police, soldiers— my instinctive reaction is to feel guilty. My tormentors left that inside me. Even when I was freed, I suffered—tuberculosis, throat cancer… Imagine what it’s like for others who got the water treatment, telephone treatment… bodies, minds, souls forever scarred. So many levels of pain! Comparison with others can’t diminish what was taken away from individual victims.”
Why look back?
Filipinos should keep looking back on the years of martial rule, he says. “It was a period when things were much clearer in terms of black and white, friend and foe, life and death. Today, there’s so much clutter; you can’t see what you have to see. The machinery of corruption and millitarization was set up then. We should be able to spot it in any form, something we can do only by looking back.”
Lee stresses, “It’s good to experience, as a community, your own history. Martial law needs to be re-experienced, not literally; commemoration is one of many ways. No one wans to go back there.” He remembers, “In Ipil, my captors owned me. They owned all captured ‘dissidents,’ the living and the alive or dead. Many people couldn’t claim their children’s bodies.”
Lee doesn’t doubt that danger remains real for active members of farmers’ or workers’ groups. “If you become a dissenting voice that says the opposite of what the system dictates, you could be courting personal disaster, from the most subtle to the most outrageous.”
He is not about to resurrect “Jerry” or “Angel,” but it’s not because he has detached himself from past or present. (“I cannot do that. If I kill my empathy, I’ll be dead as a writer.”)
But he is careful to say he understands what it’s like for more recent sufferers, like the accusers of former Major Gen. Jovito Palparan, or Edita Burgos, whose son Jonas disappeared in 2007.
“Many parents of desparecidos have kept their front-door lights on for years. When their children come home, they say, it will prove that they never lost hope, never forgot. I can only imagine how that feels. I Interviewing Mrs. Burgos and her family was agonizing for me. It’s as if every emotion they conveyed got multiplied ten times, given my past, plus my imagination. ”
During the shoot for “Desaparecidos,” a teleplay he did with Laurice Guillen, they put up a wall of photographs of the disappeared. “I saw the mother of one of them, a guy I knew, Henry. She went straight to the wall. I saw her face drop. I thought, ‘What happened? Did she see his picture? She approached me and asked, “Where is my son’s picture?’ I realized there was none on the wall. Parents never give up until the body is recovered.”
Sometimes, he says, he tries to detach. “At best, it becomes like a see-saw. I get into it, I step back; I get into it again… and so on.”
Upon his release in 1975, friends and the movies were waiting. “Ninotchka Rosca took me in, Rolando Tinio got me a job… the movies found me again. I wrote ‘Himala’ immediately after, so it is heavily colored with my experiences in prison. There’s atheism, questioning God, government…”
More notably, for “Himala,” Lee worked with Imee Marcos. The screenplay had won in a contest launched by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which Marcos’ eldest daughter spearheaded. “She knew I was a detainee,” Lee says. “She also knew about Joel Lamangan, Lino Brocka (also detained for anti-martial law sentiments). She’s unusual that way. In fact, she almost played ‘Insiang’ (written by Lee, directed by Brocka).
Lee was also associated with film projects launched by Armida Siguion-Reyna, Enrile’s sister.
He taught in UP, but only after being rejected three times, because he had dropped out during that eventul year, 1972. “Doreen Fernandez brought me to Ateneo, so I taught there first. Only after that was I allowed to teach in UP.”
Mercifully, he didn’t need counselling. “It’s that kabobohan thing. My memory has never been that sharp. So I guess all that I remember, I had to. I even consider that whole episode as a gift.”
Actually, he says, alongside the “harsh, cruel and dramatic” side of the period around and during martial law, “I remember a time bursting with life. We were young people brimming with dreams, ambition and promise. Activism wasn’t all a grim and tragic choice. We were happy to live the way we wanted. When I went to attend ralliees, I was at the peak of my… happiness; there’s not other way of putting it. Waves of red streamers, robust chanting… I belonged there. They were my family. Strangers in a life-and-death situation holding hands, embracing, fighting for what we believed, people living, or dying, for others… because when you embrace that way of life, you put to rest all your survival issues. We were one big ocean, even if we also knew that there were government agents and spies among us.”
Occasionally, former detainees get together now and, invariably, they wonder, “Most of us were writers and student journalists, members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. How come not one of us has written personal accounts of our detention? So a group of us is now thinking of making a movie about it.”
A little while back, Lee went with Lumbera to Fort Bonifacio, where they traced the “ghost” of Ipil to a totally unrecognizable stretch of commerial property. “We were jut curious,” he says. “We found that S&R (a high-end supermarket) and Home Depot now stand where the barracks used to be. We were amazed. We went around and checked out all the costy merchandise, like chandeliers we can never afford, all the while joking about it.”
He concludes, quite happily, “I think I’m pretty intact.”
(This article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2014.)