Sunday, May 25, 2014

Surviving the menace of Balangiga: Two stories about community leadership

I visited the coastal town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar to attend the turn-over ceremony of the first set of motorized fishing boats for 150 poor fishermen who lost their boats during the onslaught of super typhoon 'Haiyan' (local name Yolanda). Funded by Metrobank Foundation Inc., the project was implemented by TOPSOLDIERS and the Army's 801st Brigade. Behind me is the historic St. Anthony's Church and the tower where the renown Balangiga bells were once installed. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)

Ooops, the people of Balangiga did it again!  

Unlike the other communities in Samar and Leyte where thousands died during the onslaught of super-typhoon Haiyan, Balangiga suffered only 13 dead out of its 13,000 population. How come? What made the difference?

I would say that it was an extraordinary feat that could be accomplished by strong and respected leaders. I was impressed and began asking questions. What can be learned from them? 

I consider this as a repeat of a historical event that occurred in Samar island 112 years ago. Owing to the excellent leadership provided by the likes of Abanador, most of the Balangigan-ons (local term for residents of Balangiga) survived the gruesome massacre carried out by American forces. Sorry to General Jacob 'Howling' Smith, his real targets, the Balangigan-ons were nowhere to be found! 

Narrative accounts tell us that under the instructions of General Smith, an expedition of American soldiers scoured the different communities and killed everyone above 10 yrs old. It was a punitive expedition aimed to avenge the deaths of at least 46 U.S. Army soldiers at the hands of bolo-wielding Filipino warriors led by Valeriano Abanador in the public plaza of Balangiga. 

American writers put the tally of massacre victims at around 2,500; but, Filipino historians had a higher casualty count based on 'realistic' research. Well, only God knows which is true. What I am quite sure is that the Americans have kept three Balangiga Bells as war trophies up to this day.

The descendants

I had the chance to visit this town during the turnover of motorized fishing boats donated by Metrobank Foundation Inc. on May 22, 2014. 

I stopped for a souvenir photo at the San Juanico Bridge that links the provinces of Samar and Leyte. I was accompanied by Major Lemuel Baduya, the Project Coordinator of the boat project funded by Metrobank Foundation Inc. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)

I had read many stories about the Bells of Balangiga and the tales about the extraordinary courage displayed by our ancestors against the American colonizers.

There were discrepancies in the historical records, depending on who the author (Filipino or American) of the publication is. I decided to find out more untold stories by talking directly to the descendants themselves. 

"Please find me direct relatives of Police Capt Valeriano Abanador, the local hero of Balangiga. I want to have a chat with them about their great grandpa," I told Major Lemuel Baduya, the Coordinator of the 'Bangka ng Buhay, Bunga ng Bayanihan' boat project that I facilitated in Eastern Samar.

Thanks to Lemuel's resourcefulness, he was able to find two surviving relatives of Abanador named Rufina Abanador Nacionales, 74, and Milagros Abanador Cabales, 71. They were the  daughters of Juan Abanador, the nephew of Kapitan Bale (the popular name of Valeriano Abanador). 

They gladly met me upon my arrival in Balangiga town on May 21. Both of them have sharp memories about their uncle despite their old age. 

"My father was the favorite nephew of Kapitan Bale. He was running errands for him as a child and was told about the exploits and adventures of his uncle," revealed Cabales.

I met two of the grand nieces of Capt Valeriano Abanador, the leader of the Balangiga incident. Mrs Rufina Nacionales (left) was accompanied by her younger sister Milagros Cabales. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)

This is the narrative account about the attack on the American forces as told by Abanador's grand nieces: 

She said that only a few people from Balangiga fell victim to the punitive actions carried out by American forces a few days after their humiliating defeat at the hands of Capt Abanador and his men.

They survived the ordeals experienced by countless other Samarenos during the military operations that followed. Practically, the whole Samar island was turned into a 'howling wilderness' when American troops began killing people including children over 10 years old, pillaging and burning houses along the way. 

"The residents of the town were already evacuated hours before the planned attack on the American unit. Kapitan Bale ordered all women and young children to leave the town and stay in the designated areas in the forests," said Nacionales who has no idea if her husband is directly related to the lone female planner of the attack, Casiana "Geronima" Nacionales. 

This photo was taken from the 2nd floor of the town municipal hall. Behind me is the public plaza where most of the American troops were billeted. Farther behind is St. Lawrence the Martyr Church where some American officers stayed since their arrival in August 1901. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)

Balangiga Town Council Secretary Marciano Deladia Jr. said that only a few residents around the peripheries of the town were killed by the responding elements of Golf Company, 9th US Infantry led by Cpt Edwin Bookmiller, who came by boats from their base in Basey town about 40 kilometers away. 

"On September 29, 1901, American troops burned all houses here and stole all three  bells from St. Lawrence the Martyr Church in retaliation for the worst defeat that they experienced in their conquests during that time,"said Deladia.

Surviving Yolanda

Deladia said that the recent actions of the Balangigan-ons during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was comparable to their great escape in September 1901.

"We received warnings from the national government about the coming of a super typhoon in Samar island. Mayor Viscuso 'Viscoy' De Lira directed the Municipal Disaster Management Office to plan and coordinate the evacuation of people to designated areas where they can take shelter," he said. 

"As early as November 6, Wednesday, we had a 'bandillo' (mobile public announcements) using several vehicles including our ambulance. We roamed around town to remind people to pack their essential things and head towards safer places in the interior, away from the coastal communities."

Deladia said that the spirit of Bayanihan was alive in his town in the same manner that almost all families took part in attacking the American soldiers who committed abuses in their peaceful community over a century had passed.

"The people who hosted the evacuees actively helped in preparing food provisions for those who came to take shelter in their community. We are very proud about this practice during emergencies in our town," he said.

Ernesto Delantar, 43, was among the fishermen who followed the orders from the local authorities. He tied his boat on a tree at the back of his house and took the engine with him as he brought all 7 of his children towards an evacuation center a day before the typhoon arrived.

"We brought only a few clothes and kitchen utensils with us. I carried the boat engine because it might be stolen while I am away," said Delantar, a widower, whose main income source is fishing.

Arthur Sabadlab, 36, is also one of the fishermen who deserted their coastal community in Bgy Singko in order to escape from the howling winds and high waters. Like Delantar, he also carried his boat engine with him as he led his wife Precy, 25, and 4 young daughters towards an evacuation area. 

"I heard from our leaders that the wind brought by the typhoon was too strong and that our kubo (nipa hut) might be torn to pieces. Though we only had enough food to eat that day, I decided to leave with my whole family," said Sabadlab who left his boat that was bought out of his 2-year savings as a fisherman.

No one among the family members of both Delantar and Sabadlab were harmed when the typhoon struck in the morning on November 8, 2013. 
I met the survivors of super typhoon Haiyan, some of whom are relatives of the Balangigan-ons who survived the punitive expeditions carried out by American forces after their 'terrible defeat' at the hands of Filipinos. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)

Thirteen people who refused to leave their homes in danger areas along the coast lines, did not survive the strong winds that brought flying debris and surging waters.

Returning to their sea side community the following day, Delantar and Sabadlab found out that they had no houses to return to. Both of them also lost their boats which were carried by raging floodwater. 

"I felt like it was the end of the world for me. I had no idea how to feed my big family during that day,"said Delantar, one of the 50 beneficiaries of the boat project implemented by the TOPSOLDIERS and the Army's 801st Brigade. 

Healing session

Nacionales said that despite the clamor by Balangigan-ons for the return of the church bells, they had welcomed some descendants of the American soldiers who came to make friends with them. 

"It was in September 2001 when I received a visitor named Jean Wall, the daughter of Pvt Adolf Gamlin, a survivor of the Balangiga encounter," said Nacionales. 

"Ms. Wall said that Adolf Gamlin, her father, was having nightmares for many years. Her father revealed later his harrowing experience during the attack on his unit by the people of Balangiga during the Filipino-American war," said Nacionales.

Nacionales said that Gamlin was knocked unconscious by Kapitan Bale himself before the latter raised his 'baston' (cane) to signal the multi-pronged attack by hundreds of his followers. 

"Ms Wall was told that the hack wound suffered by his father was inflicted by a Filipino. She decided to visit Balangiga despite the negative remarks made by her friends and relatives," said Nacionales.

"She was told that the people in Balangiga are fearsome individuals who could not be trusted at all. She insisted to come and found out that even we, Kapitan Bale's descendants, were very warm and hospitable towards her," added Cabales. 

Both Cabales and Nacionales said that the visit was like a healing session for all of them. They said that Ms Wall returned a year later with his brother. 

"They were always excited to see Balangiga, the place where their grandfather once served. We don't have any bitter feelings towards the each other because of this event in the past," said Nacionales.

For the survivors of supertyphoon Yolanda, we had our own 'healing session' when I facilitated an exchange of experiences among them. 

All of them are ready to rise and face the upcoming challenges in life because they are the proud children of Balangiga. However, they have a simple wish that is still unfulfilled after more than a century of waiting:

"Return the Bells of Balangiga!" 

Photo collage of the 'Bells of Balangiga' that are put in display in two military camps in Wyoming, USA and South Korea. This framed photo is now hanging at the little museum in Balangiga town that is dedicated for the local heroes like Abanador. (Photo by Mikhail Harvey Cabunoc)


  1. Hi, I just want to correct what you have written. The church in Balangiga isn't St. Anthony's church, it is the St. Lawrence church.

    1. Thank you Hannah! I don't know if I heard it wrong or the lady mentioned the wrong name for the Church. I stand corrected anyway! Cheers!