PH comfort women remember the horror
On some nights Hilaria Bustamante, 89, would lie awake in bed, consumed by thoughts about the war and the men who destroyed her dreams. Their faces are now a blur in her memory, but certain images linger like old wounds being ripped open.
She was 16 and had dreams of becoming a teacher when life took a cruel turn in 1943. Crossing a muddy rice field in Hermosa, Bataan province, on her way home to help cook lunch, Bustamante was spotted by a trio of Japanese soldiers onboard a passing truck, and dragged into the vehicle.
“I fought them off. They slapped my face and punched me in the stomach until I fainted,” Bustamante recalled in an interview with the Inquirer. “One of them grabbed my hands and the other, my legs, and threw me into the back of the truck like a pig.”
The men dragged her into a hut within a Japanese garrison hidden from view by sawali (nipa) sheets, and raped her. “My body was in such pain. Every time I struggled, they would hit me,” she said.
Her rapists never said a word to her. When they left, she looked around and discovered to her shock that she was not alone. There were three other women in the room, just sitting on a native mat, not looking her in the eye.
“There was no talking among us. A Makapili was guarding us,” she said, referring to Filipino collaborators during the war. At night, barbed wire was unfurled around the hut, effectively locking the women in.
The women stayed for a year in that hut where they spent days and nights in shared terror. During the day, they were forced to wash the soldiers’ clothes and cook the men’s meals. In the afternoon and evening, the men would come for them.
The Makapili named Ramon stood guard at their door, not speaking, until one day when reports about the coming of the Americans swirled around the camp. Approaching the women, he whispered: “Keep quiet. Tonight I will help you escape.”
He led them to the highway, where they went their separate ways. She would not see any of them again. She returned to her uncle’s house, surprising relatives who had thought she was dead. She made up an excuse, saying only that she had gotten lost.
For almost five decades after the war ended, Bustamante kept her shame a secret, telling no one but her mother who cried with her for hours in commiseration. Her father, a laborer who worked at Manila City Hall, died without ever knowing what his daughter had gone through. In time, she got married but later separated from her husband to whom she never spoke about her experiences either. Her second husband never found out as well.
Her children, however, must have guessed, although they did not ask her about it. “Maybe they understood. Or they just didn’t want to know,” said Bustamante, a mother of three and grandmother of 10.
She later joined Lila Pilipina, an advocacy group dedicated to the struggle of Filipino comfort women like her. The group had been swamped with requests for interviews in recent days to coincide with the state visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
Like the other comfort women, Bustamante would have asked the royal couple three things: an official apology, the inclusion of their story in Japan’s history textbooks, and just compensation for her ordeal during World War II.
But “it’s a race against time,” said the group’s executive director, Rechilda Extremadura.
Of the original 174 elderly members of Lila Pilipina, only 70 are still alive, and many of them are in frail health. Some had gone senile, while others are bed-ridden or afflicted with illness.
An estimated 1,000 Filipino women were conscripted into sexual slavery in Japanese-run “comfort stations,” but only a few hundreds had been documented. Many others had never surfaced out of shame.
Estelita Dy, 85, came out only in 1993. She had watched the late Lola (grandma) Rosa Henson go public about her wartime ordeal and initially felt shame. “Why did she have to come out? She should just have stayed quiet,” said Dy, who was forced to become a sex slave for a three-week period in Talisay, Negros Occidental province.
But later, she started thinking, “maybe Lola Rosa was right to reveal everything.” Like Bustamante, she had told no one in her family, including the man she would marry.
“My loved ones only found out when I started joining rallies,” said Dy, who has six children and 22 grandchildren.
A University of the Philippines historian and director of the Third World Studies Center, Ricardo Jose, said almost every major city in the Philippines had a “comfort station,” where the women, some of them only in their teens, were abused.
In a separate interview, Jose said historical documents showed how “extremely organized” Japan’s sex slavery system was, with “office hours,” fees (that were not paid to the women), and doctors who regularly checked the women for venereal disease.
According to the UP historian, “(Japanese) officers were entitled to the evening hours, which were considered the better time. The enlisted personnel could only go during daytime.”
He added: “Each garrison had a comfort station, and ostensibly, this was to prevent the Japanese soldiers from raping the women (in the areas they occupied).”
Despite the historical documents, the comfort women have yet to receive an official apology and compensation from Japan, with Lila Pilipina criticizing President Aquino’s position that the Philippines and Japan had already settled reparations from the war in previous agreements, among them the Reparations Agreement signed in May 1956, that had Japan providing the Philippines with $550 million worth of goods and services.
But Extremadura said comfort women and other victims of war crimes had not been covered by this settlement.
While the lola of Lila Pilipina had received a letter of apology from then Japan Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and “atonement money” of 1.2 million yen (P486,350) from the Asian Women’s Fund set up from private donations, the group said it wanted the apology and compensation to be official, an acknowledgment of the atrocities committed by Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.
Seventy years after the war, Japan has risen to become the Philippines’ top aid donor, and one of its major trading partners.
But Bustamante and other comfort women are unimpressed. For them, Japan’s wartime debt remains unpaid.
In Mendiola, Manila, members of Lila Pilipina joined a rally on Wednesday by the women’s group, Gabriela, to protest a possible Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and Japan, that the group said could drag the country into war against China.
“We are slowly being dragged into the throes of war, and based on history, the abuse of women is always linked to war,” Gabriela secretary general Joms Salvador said at the rally that coincided with the courtesy call of Japan’s imperial couple on President Aquino in Malacañang.
“Does our President not have the political will to demand the justice we deserve?” asked Narcisa Claveria, 85, who was abused by Japanese soldiers when she was still living in the Ilocos region. With a report from Annelle Tayao-Juego
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