Araceli Mallari is now 90 years old. But she tells her stories of a time long ago so vividly and in great detail that, just by listening, you can almost feel the terror that gripped her as though you were actually there with the Filipino guerrillas hiding from Japanese troops.
The first time I met her was a surprise. I was told I would be interviewing a member of the guerrilla movement during World War II. I imagined a warrior wearing dirty, tattered clothes, crouching on the ground hidden by bushes, his rifle ready to shoot and kill any approaching Japanese soldier.
Instead I met an old woman who welcomed me with a smile and talked to me in a soft voice.
Mallari was a technical officer for the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), known for short as the Huks. She did the paper work and intelligence documents for an organization set up by the common people to fight the Japanese.
Mallari was one of the many women who made history serving the country in time of war. The national press once dubbed them the “Amazons.”
So, in front of me that evening was an Amazon, a woman who witnessed the war, a woman transformed by the unspeakable horrors of the war.
How Mallari, an average middle-class woman, got involved with the war and the guerrillas was a story I found most interesting.
I listened silently to her vivid account, making World War II seem like it only happened yesterday.
She was a second year student at the University of Santo Tomas when the war began.
Death in the air
The Japanese occupation changed the world she knew into one of violence and terror. Countless men, women and children suffered in the hands of the invaders. Death was in the air. Fear gripped everyone and the streets were littered with corpses.
She had no thoughts of joining the resistance until she was overcome with anger over her strict father’s refusal to let her leave their house and talk to men.
Years before the war broke out, she had become friends with someone she called Puring, who had connections with the Department for the Defense of Democracy and the organized guerrilla campaign, the Hukbalahap, which was composed of common men and women, workers and peasants who organized themselves into an army with one goal: To fight the Japanese and win back the country.
Aided by Puring and her connections, Mallari packed her bags and left home.
The guerrillas had sent a guide who met her in Tutuban, Manila. She traveled all the way to the Candaba swamp, where she was met by numerous other couriers. They traveled on foot to Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, where the Hukbalahap had its camp in a forested area.
They walked for days, with very little food to eat, until they reached the camp. Mallari proved she was tough, a true amazona.
The day after she disappeared, her father had her photograph published in a national periodical with the head: “Wanted: For 200 Pesos Reward.”
With many people probably looking for her by this time, she decided to remain in the camp with the Huks.
Life for the resistance fighters was not easy. They were considered criminals by the Japanese. Capture meant death.
The Huks had to keep moving. Supplies did not last long and Japanese troops made frequent raids, searching for them. They moved from city to small town, living in the houses of trusted persons or families, returning to their camp every now and then.
One night, however, the Japanese raided one of the houses where the Huks were staying. Mallari was there, along with a male Huk, when the soldiers came knocking. Escape was impossible.
The male Huk lay down on the floor before the Japanese entered.
Mallari told the soldiers, “My husband, sick. He has malaria!” pointing to the man who seemed half-dead as he lay on the floor.
“Give me medicine!” she cried. “My husband is sick!”
In a slight panic, the soldiers quickly left.
Mallari said: “Eh takot ang Hapon sa malaria (the Japanese were scared of malaria).”
She ended the interview with a message to the Filipino youth: “Get involved.”
“Kailangan ma-involve sila sa problema ng bayan, ng bansa. Hindi ’yung puro good time na lang sila (They have to get involved in the problems of the community, the country. They should not focus on just having a good time).”
As I sat in front of her, I realized it was not just the war that made this amazona who she was. It was not just the war that transformed her from an average college student to a Huk. It was her love of country and her vision of a Philippines free from the torments of war that made her join the resistance movement.
(Dominic B. Dayta, the second prize winner this year, was a senior high school student at Caloocan City Science High School when he submitted this story. He was mentored by his teacher Melvin M. Navarro.)