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106 years of fervor, and still burning

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By Vicente Labro Inquirer dance-drama.jpgBALANGIGA, Eastern Samar--With fervor and pride, they again paid tribute to their forebears who left behind a legacy of love for freedom. People of the century-old coastal town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar commemorated the 106th anniversary of the victory of their forefathers against American invaders on Sept. 28, hoping anew that the historic Balangiga Bells taken as war booty by US soldiers will eventually be returned. A festive mood pervaded the town as the historic event was marked, albeit with less pomp as before. Photo shows a dance drama depicting American soldiers taking away the church bells of Balangiga. The reenactment of the 1901 Balangiga Encounter participated by hundreds of residents-cum-actors -- the crowd drawer for several years -- was “temporarily cancelled” for lack of funds, Mayor Viscuso de Lira said. It was replaced by a dance drama of high school students. Despite the scaled-down festivities, De Lira said the occasion was still meant “to pay tribute to our great men and women who fought and died in asserting their priceless freedom from foreign domination.” The Balangiga Encounter Day retained the other activities in previous celebrations -- the civic-military parade, thanksgiving Mass, wreath-laying ceremony and commemorative program. It remains a holiday in the province. The attack The dance drama showed what happened during those fateful days in Balangiga. It peaked with the depiction of the successful attack staged by bolo-wielding Samareños on the US garrison and capped by American soldiers taking away the church bells. Historians recount that the ringing of church bells on Sept. 28, 1901, signaled the attack on the garrison of the US Army’s Company C near the church and municipal hall. Relations between the natives and the Americans had soured because of alleged abuses, including the molestation of several women and forced labor. A few days before the attack, Maj. Eugenio Daza, district leader of the Philippine Revolutionary Movement in Samar, secretly met with Capt. Valeriano Abanador, Balangiga police chief, and other revolutionary leaders in Sitio Amanlara to finalize their plan. The revolutionaries were from Balangiga and nearby Lawaan, Giporlos and Quinapondan towns, which were then barrios of Balangiga. On the eve of the attack, some guerrillas entered the church dressed as women, while others carried a coffin purportedly containing the remains of a cholera victim but which actually concealed sundang (long bladed weapons). When Abanador raised his cane to signal the raid, the bells started ringing. Some 500 natives with sundang and spears attacked the American soldiers, most of them having breakfast. Fifty of the 74 soldiers were killed while 22 were reported wounded. Others escaped by boat to nearby Basey town where another US detachment was located. A handful of soldiers were able to get hold of their Krags and shoot dead some of the natives. Howling wilderness Some historians considered the event the “worst single defeat” of the US Army during the Philippine-American War. In retaliation, the US Army sent Gen. Jake Smith to Samar. According to some accounts, he ordered his men to kill all Samareños aged 10 years old and above, burn houses, shoot working animals and seize crops, making Samar a “howling wilderness.” When the soldiers left, they took away, among others, the church bells as war trophies. Two of the bells are still mounted at the Fort Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, while another is kept by the US Army in a warehouse in South Korea. Many efforts have been made by local and national leaders for the return of the “Bells of Freedom” but to no avail. The former bishop of the Diocese of Borongan, Leonardo Medroso, went to the United States a few years ago to seek the return of the bells, but veterans’ groups in Wyoming were adamant in their decision not to send them back. Medroso had even cited an order issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 that defined specific articles that should be respected and not taken as trophies of war, and these included church property. “Nagpapabilin it aton hingyap, it aton mga inop nga hibalik ine nga aton Balangiga Bells (Our hope, our dream that the Balangiga Bells will be returned still remains),” Eastern Samar Gov. Ben Evardone said in a message during the commemorative program on Sept. 28. “We don’t know when these will be returned. Many have already worked together for the bells’ return because these are symbolic to us but up to now these were not returned. If these are not returned yet, let us just not forget the reason why the event took place,” Evardone said in Waray. “The reason? It’s simple -- a struggle for our rights that was trampled upon during that time,” he added. Sen. Loren Legarda, the guest speaker, vowed to continue working for the return of the bells, citing Senate Resolution No. 155, which she recently filed, that urged the Philippine government “to exhaust all efforts to persuade the government of the United States to, as an act of goodwill and solidarity between these two nations, immediately return” the bells to Eastern Samar. “While the church bells were taken in an atmosphere of divisiveness, perhaps hatred and revenge, what is essential is that we, the Filipino people, now strive for peace and reconciliation,” she said. Castor Gamalo, 41, a legal researcher assigned to the regional trial court in Balangiga, a former college professor and whose great grandfather was one of those who died in that historic battle, said he owed it to his slain forebears to continue the efforts to reclaim the bells. Joy Campanero of the Balangiga Tourism and Information Office stressed the need to continue remembering the event, if only “to remind the younger generation this is the best legacy of our forebears.” Campanero is a descendant of Vicente Candeluces, the man who rang the bell that preceded the attack. The belfry of the renovated church still shows that one of its four windows is still vacant, signifying a space reserved for at least one of the original bells. But a replica could be seen at the belfry in the P6-million Balangiga Encounter Monument that was sculpted by national artist Napoleon Abueva. The monument depicts local revolutionaries who are about to attack, with Captain Abanador raising his cane to signal the raid and the ringing of the bells. Photo by Vicente S. Labro

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