Benigno Aquino assassination: Emotion doesn’t wane with each retelling

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(First of two parts)

FATHER AND SON President Aquino gestures during an exclusive interview with the Inquirer on Monday, two days before the 30th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. The iconic pointillist portrait of Ninoy at left was a labor of love of Inquirer art director Lynett Villariba. ALANAH TORRALBA

It was 1983, past midnight in Boston. He sat before the television, watching CNN.

“I can’t even remember the face of the announcer who mispronounced my father’s name. He said, opposition leader ‘Benigno Akwino was seen lying in a pool of blood, shots were fired.’ If I don’t recall exactly how it was (said) then, it wasn’t because nag-blur. Para talagang huminto everything (It was as if everything stopped)…I was neither in time nor space. I guess that was shock…”

Thirty years ago, to this day, President Aquino, then 23 years old, wouldn’t have thought that he would be retelling the story of that fateful night in Boston right in Malacañang Palace, inside a room that was only a few steps away from what was the bedroom of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, under whose watch Aquino’s father was assassinated.

The ghosts of the past must have been in the room on Monday afternoon during our exclusive interview. But these ghosts proved helpless against the force of destiny.

We sat and talked in the room adjoining Aquino’s office, behind us a big 1921 Fabian de la Rosa painting of a bucolic scene of farm folk planting rice. A glance away through the window was the Pasig River, incessantly in motion due to the constant downpour.

Ironic turn

This setting drove home the ironic turn Philippine contemporary history has taken. The son of Marcos’ archrival now presides from the seat of power.

President Aquino continued: “I was brought out of (the shock) because the phone rang…I tried to reach the phone right beside my dad’s bed. But it was Ate [Ballsy] who was with my mom who got the call… The Filipinos in LA (Los Angeles) got wind of it earlier than those in the East Coast.”

These friends broke the news that the older Aquino had been shot upon his arrival at Manila International Airport. The family he left behind in Boston—his wife Cory, daughters Ballsy, Pinky, Viel, Kris, and only son Noynoy—were confused.

“They said something like huwag muna nating isipin, wala pang confirmed (Let’s not think about it yet. Nothing is confirmed). Medyo confusing pa ang report…They started praying the rosary,” Aquino continued his recollection.

Promise to dad

“Ako naman (what crossed my mind was) I promised my dad na pangangalagaan ko (looked after) my mother and my sisters. I was trying to find out what I could do to reinforce their security.”

This must have been the nth time Aquino was recalling his father’s assassination and its aftermath. And yet, still evident was a stirring of emotion in him. Even now that he is President, there’s still that indescribable expression in his eyes that always comes with the recollection of the day his father was killed. That look in his eyes was there in 1984, as he, the only son of Ninoy and Cory, retold the episode to us for the martial law newspaper that I was then working for. It is still there now—a very vulnerable expression that is a mix of sadness and helplessness.

Why doesn’t the emotion wane with each retelling?

“Uhh…there was a time I couldn’t watch the video of him being taken down from the plane. Up to now I can’t even say I’m not affected by it anymore.”

Then he gestured, “Yung point na one of the guards touched his back to see if he was wearing a bulletproof vest…na memorize ko na yata yung (I’ve memorized) facial expressions ng lahat na sumalubong sa kaniya (of those who came to get him)… knowing there was a conspiracy…”

He then turned technical—his trademark penchant for details evident.  “Maceda (former Marcos executive secretary-turned-senator Ernesto Maceda) told my dad, huwag kang sasama kung mga enlisted (men) lang pinasusundo sa ’yo may masamang balak ’yan (don’t go if only enlisted men came to pick you up. That shows a sinister plan)…True enough…Yung technical kasi dyan may officer, pinaka close-in directly responsible … the concept of fidelity in the custody of a prisoner…In this case the officer commanding the detail stayed on the plane, or on top of the stairway, preventing people, or blocked (the way)… Why distance yourself from your detail, unless you knew there was a plan that you wanted somehow distanced from.”

Have you resolved within yourself who had him killed?

“I may sound like a broken record—we had a dictator….everything/anything about my dad had to be cleared with ‘Apo’ (Ilocano term of respect for elders, as Marcos was called by his close circle). He set up a system where such a thing could happen. People involved were connected to him.”

He then focused on a very crucial, and what to him, was a very telling detail contained in the Sandiganbayan report, which he had his aide brought out from his office. This voluminous sheaf of documents must have been one of his frequent readings; that was obvious in how some lines were highlighted in yellow.

6 a.m. Ver’s Palace meeting

“This Sandiganbayan report is very thorough. (It detailed) there were supposed to be two plans—whether he would be allowed into the country… kung dadaan ba sa tube or sa stairs (if he would be made to take the tube or stairs).…(Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian) Ver had (Aviation Security Command Chief Luther) Custodio called here to Malacañang Park that day, Aug. 21, at 6 a.m. (obviously to discuss that.) Ang point nun puwede naman tinawag sa telepono pero pinapunta pa sa Malacañang Park early morning. (He could have phoned but he called for him to go the Palace.) It showed that they really were on top of the situation, (that this task was) not assigned to low-level functionary. They discussed something in very minute detail…Custodio was actually Marcos pilot, not part of PSG (Presidential Security Group), ordered to report to Malacañang Park…the lieutenant of the Avsecom van was Ver’s pilot also.”

Statute of limitations

When he became President, why didn’t he pursue those he believed were responsible for his dad’s assassination?

“There’s a statute of limitations, 20 years… And those convicted were pardoned by GMA….”

Has he forgiven those responsible for his father’s assassination?

“People have never even admitted guilt, none of them has asked for forgiveness, and may I add, none of them has said that they suffered financial hardship at the loss of the solitary breadwinner.”

The rest of our interview:

The day your father was killed, was that when you felt you had to step up to the plate, as protector of the family?

“Earlier than that. I was 13. At Fort Magsaysay, nagpaalam nang daddy nun. (Daddy said goodbye.) Remember he wrote an article that was published I think in Thailand. As punishment for that, he, Senator Diokno were brought to Fort Magsaysay, loaded on separate helicopters, blindfolded, handcuffed to their escorts. Their escorts had .45 pistols pointed at the midsection of both my dad and Senator Diokno…my dad didn’t know exactly where they were being brought. He assumed it was Rizal…

“This was in 1973….all visiting privileges had been suspended. They were giving us back his stuff, including toothbrush. My mom asked the WAC (Women’s Auxiliary Corps), why? Hindi na ho niya kailangan ’yan (He wouldn’t need that anymore).

“As a 13-year-old I wondered, paanong hindi na niya kakailanganin (why wouldn’t my dad need that anymore)…

“Until we got to visit him at Magsaysay. When we got there—and this is very important—I admire the Dioknos, they’re tougher than us. As tough as us, at the very least… But I saw them step out of the building, they were in tears. What induced them to shed tears?

“Then when we saw our dad. (As you know he was) roly poly….he had no glasses, he was unshaven, no watch, no ring. He was holding on to his pants because they kept falling down. (He lost weight.) He was so pleased to see us, very emotional…

“That was when he first told me, Wala naman akong ibang pagbibilinan—ikaw na bahala sa mommy mo, sa mga kapatid mo (There’s no one I could entrust. You take care of your mom, your sisters)…I was just listening the whole time. Talagang shock na shock… Ako nang bahala, Dad (I will take care of them).

(To be continued Thursday)

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