Inside Bicutan in time of worse than cholera | Inquirer News

Inside Bicutan in time of worse than cholera

/ 03:55 AM September 25, 2014


Editor’s Note: Starting Sept. 21, the 42nd anniversary of the proclamation of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos, we have been running a series of articles to remember one of the darkest chapters in Philippine history. The articles are necessarily commemorations and more so a celebration of and a thanksgiving for the courage of the men and women who endured unspeakable pain and loss to overcome the Marcos dictatorship and regain our freedoms. These are some of their stories.


(Editor’s Note 2: After repeated requests from then Panorama editor Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, now Inquirer editor in chief, the military allowed the magazine entry into a camp for political detainees during martial law. The writer wishes to disclose that she wrote this story, which came out in October 1978, mindful of two things: (1) the military would be going over it before publication and (2) the wrong words or quotes could further aggravate the situation for the detainees. This story won the Catholic Mass Media Award for the Best Feature/Special Report in print.)

There’s a definite kind of stirring that accompanies chow time everywhere and you sense it in this very private place even though, for lunch today, they’re only having some old-fashioned bachoy.


They could be any of the stew-happy big families living down your block except that they’re extraordinarily big (104 of them) and they’ve been in the news and they live in Block G of

Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan.

They call themselves “political prisoners” but in the lingo of their guardians they’re “public order violators” [POVs], men and women accused of crimes against national security as differentiated from your local friendly rapists, robbers and rumormongers.

The better billing, however, seems to be “detainees.” Without a qualifier. It’s a term on which they meet eye to eye with the Ministry of National Defense, which has created the Office of Detainee Affairs (ODA) and made it the affair of Undersecretary for Home Defense Jose M. Crisol.

As for being a happy family, what is happiness? It would seem to depend, in this case, on whether these detainees are behind barbed wire for believing in something and doing something about it, which some of them are, or they’re in this just for the mean-spirited hell of it, which some others of them are.

Self-management system

Perhaps none of them will inherit the earth by being here today and they know it, but while they’re here, breakfast is ready by 7 a.m., lunch by 11 a.m., dinner by 5 p.m., and they do the best they can between the high spots.


Meals are served from a communal kitchen manned literally by six guys, two from each of three dormitories for 97 males and separate from the camp’s catering service for some 434 common criminals on the other side of the barbed wire.

The stove stint lasts two weeks before the cooks assume some other housekeeping duties. The detainees have been working out their shifts among themselves quite successfully ever since they demanded, and got, the privilege of living under a self-management system.


Under the system, which they earned after their 45-day hunger strike in July 1976, detainees can see their visitors, who may only be immediate families, for two hours in the morning (9 to 11 a.m.) and another two in the afternoon (2 to 4 p.m.) and the whole of Sunday.

Detainees are also allowed conjugal visits and may apply for a pass to [leave] the camp to join their loved ones on a birthday or when there’s an illness or a death in the family (a pass for below 72 hours may be signed by Crisol; more than 72 hours should be signed by either Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile or President Marcos).

They can also intermingle freely from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and what a detainee does with his day is his business as long as he doesn’t destroy camp property or bust the chops of a fellow inmate or the guard posted at the tower.

Ed Maranan, for example, wrote his Palanca first prize-winning play “Ang Panahon ni Cristy” and his CCP Literary Awards first prize-winning [collection of] poems “Sunog sa Ilang Pook ng Maynila at Iba Pang Tula” inside the center.

Nilo Tayag, Leoncio Co and Hermie Garcia, during this see-in, are reading on the second floor of the male quarters where a pair of love birds chirp in one corner and supplies for the detainees’ handicraft products are stored on the stair landing. The hours after lunch are usually spent reading or napping.

Cooking is man-size job

Because cooking for 104 people is clearly a man-size job, the women don’t get posted in the kitchen. Other than that, this minority of seven, two of whom are nursing mothers, have their own bits to do in the community.

For instance, Vicky Segui, mother of a 3-month-old baby, cleans the bath, tidies up the bedroom and sees to their water supply, which means she has to store up when it rains or when the firetruck delivers. The water tank has a nasty habit of breaking down every now and then.

A report to the ODA … says the camp is using a firetruck from the Taguig fire station to supply the POVs with water, in addition to the camp’s own firetruck, while the tank is being repaired.

Every now and then, too, the price of foodstuff goes up. Just today, Tony Tujan complains, the price of pork per kilo increased by another peso and so has affected their budget. A scholar at the University of the Philippines in the not-so-distant days, Tony is among those on cooking duty this week, and he’s a little apologetic that he smells of the kitchen.

On today’s menu, Tujan announces, are bachoy for lunch and sitaw for dinner. Whenever the detainees have meat for one meal, they have to cut down on the rest of the meals. To make it good for 104 servings, the bachoy is souped up and the entrails and slices of pork reinforced with lots of papaya that, thank God, they didn’t have to buy but only had to pick from their own vegetable strip. Still, the budget is overshot by P40.

Meal allowance

The meal allowance is not that big to start with: P4 per detainee per day. If you subtract the fee for the old woman who does the marketing (a detainee’s mother who is escorted by a soldier to the market; she makes the purchases, he pays), the cost of hiring a jeepney to transport the stuff to the camp, and the bill for cooking gas, you come down to much less.

A dialogue with Crisol last year awarded the detainees an extra P300 a month for cooking gas but even that, the [detainees] say, is insufficient. They have a long-standing request to raise the food budget to at least P6 per detainee, says Satur Ocampo, a news writer for the now departed Manila Times who has been “in” three years.

They’ve been told, he adds, that if their meal allowance is to be increased, it should also be increased for all other detention centers and, for that matter, all penal institutions all over the country. That, of course, is a decision for national appropriations.

In the meantime that there’s nothing doing in the budget area, the detainees are raising their own poultry, vegetables and a pig (they used to have three) to augment their kitchen supply. They even own a cooperative sari-sari store. Detainees, unlike ordinary prisoners, are allowed to keep personal money.

Production line

While some of them are keeping house, the others sit in the production line. G blockmates have blocked off a room in each building for their small-scale handicraft enterprise. They make pendants out of bone and clay; cards for all occasions; macrame; tambo boxes for hankies, jewelry and cigarettes; leather belts, bags and sandals; and ethnic designed clay knickknacks. Families and friends supply their raw materials and sell their finished products.

Detainees also accept silk-screening jobs. “Our uniform, printed here,” says Ocampo, showing off his T-shirt with a design on the left side of a bird in flight and the words “Free the political prisoners.” Most of the guys are wearing a similar shirt over a pair of cutoffs.

If you came here expecting to find a reasonable facsimile of Bohemian U, you’d be disappointed. These people are clean, despite the water problem. They look healthy. “We keep fit,” says Julius Fortuna. “You have to or you’ll get [sick].” They go jogging on clear mornings but the grounds, of course, are not clear of guards. The basketball court is free for their use on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The rest of the time, they’re flexing their muscles over intricately crafted products or making their compound a more livable place. “Nobody [else] will do it for us,” says Ocampo, and he’s right. Nobody else will, not for a man who no longer wields the pen.

‘Student Canteen’

If you thought you were in for a prime-time recital of current social shucks and groans, these are people who don’t flaunt their politics and their anger. If you came watching out for the sad look of heroes wistful for distant hills, these are folks with friendly smiles, firm handshakes and the humor to watch “Student Canteen” on noontime TV.

“If [there’s] a choice between a documentary and sports,” says Fortuna, “we’d rather watch the docu.” Satur doesn’t go for the Lorna Tolentino-Alma Moreno type of entertainment either.

And when a visitor takes note of the glossy pinups of blondes and brunettes on the wall of one apartment, Segui is quick to point out, “Hindi sa amin ’yan, minana lang namin.” For their soirees and despedidas (to send off to the outside world a fellow Bicutano), they have a repertoire of their favorite songs, which certainly are no silly pop songs. The raised consciousness shows rather spontaneously in these areas.

And perhaps the level is raised even [more] whenever a sick inmate has to, says Tujan, first file a request for medical attention, wait for a mission order and wait yet again to be scheduled [for] dispensary services. [The dispensary is] open to detainees on MWF so if you get sick on TThS, you’ll be sorry. There was supposed to be one case of food poisoning that couldn’t be brought to Camp Crame for treatment because the ambulance had no gasoline.

Further this empty tank, two POVs who were scheduled to appear in court for trial reportedly couldn’t go because the military vehicle [also] had no gas. They were thus held in contempt of court.

(Capt. Jorge Posadas, who is officer in charge at Camp Bagong Diwa—formerly Sampaguita Rehabilitation Center—while Maj. Mario Hidalgo Jr. is away in Cebu, says such complaints are empty of truth.)


Books for the detainees’ small corner of a library, mostly donations, have to be cleared by the authorities as being fit for detainees’ eyes. Newspapers and magazines of general circulation are, however, easily allowable. That’s how detainees get to watch out for all the presidential pronouncements touching on human rights and amnesty.

Because while detainees may complain about water, food and other needs in their daily living, their big problem, when you come right down to it, according to Ocampo, may be summed up in one word: When?

“Since President Marcos started talking about amnesty, the latest of which [talk occurred] last Independence Day, not one of us here has been released because of amnesty,” Ocampo points out.

Tujan adds that his application for amnesty had been denied officially even before Sept. 30, which was the deadline for submission of applications. “The dreaded word around here is ‘hardcore,’” says Tujan, “and it seems I’m hardcore and so I’ve been denied amnesty.”

PD 1429

Under [Presidential Decree No.] 1429, said to be the most liberal decree, even “hardcore” detainees (those who allegedly actively participated in armed rebellion) are eligible for

Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City, INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City,

amnesty. Applications for amnesty, numbering 400, are still being processed by the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO). The President/PM, according to the ODA, has a standing order to speed up the processing of all amnesty applications.

Ocampo notes a conflict between the political considerations of President Marcos on the policy of normalization and the hard line position of some quarters. He thinks that once the intelligence objects, political considerations are set aside.

He recalls having read that, in his speech before the UP Law Alumni Association, the President/PM ordered the release of detainees who haven’t been charged in court. Their problem, according to the detainees, is that though legally a person is not charged unless tried in court, the military seems to believe that a person is charged the moment he’s booked.

But as specified in [Letter of Instruction No.] 621, the Defense Minister will not sign an arrest, search and seizure order without sufficient evidence.

Humanitarian grounds

The detainees have collectively written letters of appeal for release, says Satur, citing as priority cases those who have been detained for a long time without being charged and those who have been charged without trial.

Through LOI 601, Ocampo adds, the President has also authorized the release of any detainee on humanitarian grounds, whether there’s a case against him or not. Qualified in this instance is a detainee who’s pregnant, a nursing mother, one of a couple who are both detained, or the breadwinner of a destitute family. On humanitarian grounds was ex-beauty queen Nelia Sancho released, for example. She was one of a couple held captive and she was also pregnant.

As of this visit, however, two nursing mothers, Segui and Isabelita Guillermo have not been set out. Segui, in fact, was arrested over a month ago by a Metrocom officer who was supposed to be under technical arrest himself on charges of maltreatment. Segui says she’s made a verbal complaint about this.


Ocampo filed a complaint of torture—during interrogation by five intelligence units where, he says, he suffered electric shock treatment, burning of his genitals with a lighted cigarette, beatings for a week and isolation for nine months—with Crisol’s office in August 1977. Ocampo says, so far no action. According to the ODA, however, Ocampo’s com plaint is currently under investigation by military authorities.

Crisol says: “We spare no effort in getting to the bottom of a report of maltreatment. The difficult thing about this is that it’s the word of the officer against the detainee’s and there are no witnesses. It’s very hard to reconstruct something that happened, say, six months ago.”

The ODA is charged, among other things, “to initiate and/or supervise the conduct of investigations on reports or complaints of abuses or irregularities in the different stages of detainee administration and/or conduct such investigations as directed by competent authorities, seeing to it that the appropriate safeguards are undertaken to insulate the innocent from malicious, fabricated, whimsical, and/or unfounded charges.”


Ocampo and company willingly concede that the ODA is an open channel for their grievances. Coinciding with this visit, spokespersons for the detainees, among them former UP faculty member [Temy] Rivera, [are sitting] down with ODA’s Col. Luis Mendiola and camp officers regarding some requests.

“It doesn’t automatically follow that they act on our requests,” explains Ocampo. “We really have to raise the issue. Maybe you’ve heard that this camp is the show window of detention centers. Bicutan is definitely better. In Fort Bonifacio, we could only see a speck of the sky. But, essentially, it’s still a relationship between jailee and jailor.”

Amidst the rolling hills of Bicutan, where jailees can see so much more of the sky than just a speck, Segui is saying that what she misses most is the fresh air. “Mas fresh pa nga ang hangin dito kaysa Maynila,” says Rivera.

“But I know of other places where they have fresher air,” says Segui.

(Rights reserved, courtesy of the Manila Bulletin Publishing Corp., Manila, Philippines.)



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TAGS: Bicutan, Camp Bagong Diwa, Detainees, detention, life in detention, Martial law, Military, Philipines, Satur Ocampo, Tony Tujan, Vicky Segui
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