CORREGIDOR ISLAND, Philippines -- The atrocity that happened here 40 years ago had long receded from Jibin Arula?s consciousness.
But when he set foot again on this island Tuesday to lead a caravan from Mindanao in commemorating the infamous "Jabidah Massacre," memories of how his fellow Muslim youth were killed by military officers came rushing back to him like it all happened just Tuesday.
Even the rough waves that punctuated the 30-minute boat ride from the shores of Mariveles, Bataan, to the island reminded him so much of the currents he fought against for four hours to swim to safety, Arula said.
Out of the roughly 60 Muslim youth summarily executed, only Arula, then 27, survived to tell the story -- which played a pivotal role in the war in Mindanao, giving birth to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Arula recalled he and the other recruits were brought to the island on January 3, 1968 for training on guerrilla tactics in preparation for "Operation Merdeka," then a top-secret plan of the Marcos administration to invade the east Malaysian state of Sabah which the Philippine claimed as part of its territory.
Their training officers fired at them before dawn on March 18, 1968 after an attempt by the trainees to air their grievances against the officers to Malacañang. Arula, who was hit by a bullet on the left knee, swam for his life across Manila Bay.
Looking back, the 67-year-old survivor admitted that his revelations, which triggered a full-blown Senate inquiry but led to nothing, ruined not only his future but also his children's.
His four children by his first wife did not finish their schooling while his three children by his second wife managed to get some although this was insufficient, he said.
At one point, he became consultant to MNLF leader Nur Misuari, which allowed him to take home P7,000 monthly -- enough to put food on the table and sustain some of the needs of his children in school.
But the rest of his life, he said, was spent in fear and in hiding -- mostly in Antique. For two years now, he has been living with his youngest child in Binondo, Manila for support.
"So now, all I am asking is for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to help me and Mindanao as well. Though it wasn't her fault, it is still the same Philippine government we are talking about," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in an interview.
If the Mindanao Peace Caucus (MPC), an organization that spearheaded the five-day peace caravan, had not sought him out, he would have not minded the occasion at all, he admitted.
About 60 members of the MPC and other groups advocating peace came to Corregidor on Tuesday to end the five-day caravan that began in Mindanao, with calls for the government to immediately sign the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
"We are already in the crucial stage of the negotiations, with 90 percent of the points concerning the ancestral domain finished. So we are calling on the government to exercise its political will to sign the accord," said Mary Ann Arnado, MPC secretary general.
She added that the government should not wait for the centennial of the Jabidah Massacre to provide solution to the conflicts in Mindanao.
The group's peace journey culminated with the unveiling of a marker remembering the massacre, with Arula on hand.
The emblem, donated by Anak Mindanao Representative Mujiv Hataman, was fixed on a partition of the World War II ammunition bank overlooking the grassy Kindley airfield, the site of the massacre.
A portion of the marker read: "...this controversial incident sparked the Bangsamoro struggle for national self-determination which cause is sanctified by hundreds and thousands of lives of Moro men, women and children.... This marker serves as a remembrance and a beacon for us living to continue the struggle for justice that their deaths would not be lost in vain."
Upon reaching the airfield, Arula immediately climbed a small hill beside the old storage bank, which offered a view of Manila Bay and Cavite at a distance.
There, he gave the group snippets of his ordeal that began with small grievances aired by his fellow Muslim recruits. At first he was hesitant, saying that it was his first time in years to talk to a large crowd about the tragedy.
But he recounted the whole event in about 40 minutes, not sparing any detail and conversation he heard during the fusillade.
He said among the complaints which they articulated in a letter to Malacañang were the kind of food they ate (mostly dried fish) and the women that their officers brought to the camp.
However, the letter most likely was intercepted by the military officers, which led to the tragedy, he recalled.
Going back for the first time in 40 years to the site where he lost his friends and relatives, Arula remained stoic.
His face, now wrinkled by time, was devoid of any emotion as he identified the places and buildings on the island that were memorable to him -- some of which had been given a facelift.
But he did not regret accompanying the group to the site. Arula said he was happy because he was able to share a piece of history in Mindanao's struggle, which the younger generation was not familiar with.
"I am glad that somehow I was able to tell the history of the Bangsamoro. What I am asking for is help from the government and for the MNLF and MILF and the Christians and Muslims to unite," he told the crowd.
"We may pray differently, but we have the same God. We are brothers and sisters," he said.
Though he has remained silent for years and stopped working for Misuari in 2000, he said he still supported the call of the Moro rebels for a separate state.
For a lasting peace in Mindanao, he said.