No monument has been built in his honor and not even a footnote mentions him in most Philippine books on martial law.
Yet, the invaluable contribution of Jorge Lentejas Cabardo, a former student activist and political prisoner, to the campaign to win the country’s freedom from the deadly grip of martial law cannot be denied.
Finally, 24 years after he died on May 17, 1988, Filipinos will know more about what he and other freedom fighters sacrificed for their country with the launch of the Martial Law Files Project of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The launching is part of Monday’s celebration of International Human Rights Day.
The project involves uploading to a website the many “stories of resistance” lived by those who fought against repression, said project manager Myrna Jimenez.
Cabardo, a native of Catbalogan, Samar, and born on Feb. 1, 1950, was one of the many young men and women who did their part in resisting the Marcos regime.
He got involved in the struggle during his student days at the University of the Philippines, where he took up engineering and joined Kabataang Makabayan (KM), according to a profile written by his wife and fellow student activist, Charo Nabong.
Described as eloquent and articulate, Cabardo was tapped to speak at many rallies in 1969 against such issues as the Vietnam war, US imperialism and the increasingly oppressive Marcos administration.
When he transferred to the Cebu Institute of Technology (CIT) in Cebu City in 1970, because UP was taking a long time validating his credits from Feati University and the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), he carried on and led student demonstrations against the growing militarization. (He was in the same PMA class as Senators Gregorio Honasan and Panfilo Lacson.)
Cabardo was expelled by CIT, prompting him to work full-time for KM. In 1971, he was elected to the KM national council during the group’s third congress, organized by KM and other groups in the Visayas and Mindanao.
His underground work did not go unnoticed for long. Cabardo, who was 22 at the time, with a wife and daughter, Kalayaan, was among the 51 youth activists who were arrested in simultaneous raids in Metro Manila on Sept. 18, 1972.
Fortunately, Cabardo and two of his women colleagues were able to post bail the day before martial law was declared on Sept. 21.
Two months later, he was arrested in Mandaue City on Nov. 9, 1972, and brought to Camp Osmeña. While being processed for fingerprinting, he requested to go to the bathroom. Left alone, he climbed out a window and escaped.
Cabardo went back to organizing students and professionals. Partly through his efforts, the antidictatorship movement gained strength in Samar, Leyte, Negros provinces, Cebu and Bohol.
The movement was able to publish a bimonthly newspaper called Peoples’ Resistance that became the only source of news in Cebu as media outlets were shut down by the regime, according to Charo.
Cabardo was again arrested on Oct. 4, 1973, and so was his wife. They were brought separately to the Military Security Detachment at Camp Lapu-Lapu.
After two weeks of torture, Cabardo fell ill and was confined at a hospital, from which he again escaped.
But he surrendered just a week later because he could not bear to leave his wife in detention. The Cabardos were moved from Cebu to Manila and brought to the Military Security Unit (MSU) at Fort Bonifacio.
The detention center housed high-profile political prisoners such as Senators Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose W. Diokno; Liberal Party secretary general Terry Adevoso and Lopez Group heir Eugenio Lopez Jr. and Serge Osmeña III, son of Sen. Sergio Osmeña.
Jorge and Charo were separated and placed in solitary confinement. Two months after their families’ frantic search, the Philippine Army admitted that it had the couple in custody.
Cabardo would recall those days of solitary confinement that lasted for years as “tests of sometimes unbearable storms of mental agony.” The confinement helped him cope with the days that passed at a glacial pace and allowed him to plan yet another escape, according to Charo.
Escape from Fort Bonifacio
That escape came one rainy and stormy night in June 1974, according to Charo. He crawled out of the window of his cell, the bars of which he had slowly pried open over many days, crawled under the barbed wires, waded through the rice fields of Pateros and got out of Fort Bonifacio.
He surrendered yet again to the military because of his wife. Charo, pregnant with their third child when they were thrown in jail, had given birth in July 1974 at a military hospital.
Cabardo had thought that the military would be humane enough to free his wife and child. He was wrong. Instead, mother and son, Michael, were locked up in a windowless room.
Cabardo surrendered to stay with them in solitary confinement until March 1977 when, finally, Charo and 3-year-old Michael were released after three years and five months in jail, practically the entire time in solitary confinement. Cabardo was released the year after.
But before he was released, Charo said her husband helped his fellow detainees Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña plan their elaborate escape from the maximum-security prison using the same route he took in 1974.
Geny and Serge escaped in 1977 and Cabardo’s role was brought to life in the big screen in the 1995 movie “Eskapo.” Joel Torre portrayed him in the movie, detailing the escape of Geny and Serge from Fort Bonifacio.
After his release, Cabardo went back to school and finished his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering. And only then were he and his wife able to get the entire family together under one roof.
According to his eldest son, Nicolas, the adjustment to family life was not easy. “I was such a brat because my grandparents doted on me. And then suddenly with Tatay, I could no longer get away with a lot of things. We had to get to know each other all over again,” Nicolas said.
Cabardo passed away 10 years after his release from prison, succumbing to liver cancer. He died on the day the family was busy preparing for the second birthday of the sixth and youngest child, Leah. Jorge, who was 38 at the time, died in Nicolas’ arms.
The younger Cabardo said that even though the family did not have a lot of time together, his father’s impact on their lives had been considerable.
“One of the last things he told me was ‘Ihuli mo ang porma (Handle form last),’ which for him meant that I should put more value on substance, not the fluff. That has served me well in my profession,” said Nicolas, a one-time keyboard player of Freestyle and now with groups such as Sinosikat?, Hard Hat Area and Wilderness.
As for Charo, who has continued to work in civil society and is now doing historical research and writing books on local history, environment and culture, she said that the sacrifice that they made had been worth it.
“When we left our studies, families and comfortable lives, we firmly believed it was for the country, saving our nation from political and military dictatorship to reclaim our freedom,” Charo said, “We were ready to offer our young lives for the cause.”
In his unfinished autobiography written just before he died, Jorge said, “I would live it [life] again as I have lived my previous life until the end of my retracing.”