The Art of Mourning: Or, an Autoethnography on the Manila Massacre

The other day I had the unfortunate experience of seeing a dead person sprawled on the street. He was gunned down while riding a motorcycle. The bullet holes were clearly visible on his left side, and blood flowed from these wounds. Understandably – and given that things like this rarely happen in our part of the neighbourhood – people flocked around. It was inevitable for me to pass by the dead person, because the cafe that I was headed to was on the other end of the street, and it was simply impossible for me to go around the other street because it was too far away. So I had to pass by the dead person. Naturally, I was one to ask around to know what exactly happened. And of course, different stories abounded. The official story was that the person was a policeman, and someone riding another motorcycle caught up to him and shot him. Different people filled in different gaps in the story. Some people who were able to identify the wife – the woman who was sobbing on the side – speculated that it might be because of the wife, that someone was jealous. Some even made the lewd remark that “because the wife is fair-skinned and therefore she was the object of envy.” Still, others stuck to the more “neutral” explanations: drug deal gone wrong, police butting heads with a syndicate, and assassination, among others. I was not spared of this tendency, and also thought of different scenarios myself. One thing was certain: it was planned, and it was so well planned that it made sure that there was little to no chance of any witness coming forward.

Something analogous happens when we approach particular events in history whose gravity demands our attention, and yet provides little or no way of verifying the details. This year will be the 70th anniversary of the Manila Massacre, or, if you want to be more “politically correct,” the Battle of the Liberation of Manila. It lasted from the 3rd of February up until the 3rd of March of 1945. More than a hundred thousand unarmed civilians were killed in and around the city of Manila, with the highest concentration of deaths occurring within the walled city. It is from this massacre that we get stories of babies getting thrown up in the air to have them land on the waiting bayonets below, or the stories of women getting shot in their private parts after being raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers, or the stories of men forcibly being made to fit in a small comfort room to wait for the Japanese soldier to lob a grenade into the comfort room. The Japanese weren’t the only perpetrators in this massacre; the Americans were also complicit in their indiscriminate artillery barrage, and the shells that fell on the city that day reduced Manila into the second most-damaged urban center in the whole war, after Warsaw. Not only that, Filipino collaborators – the Makapili – were also complicit in the identification of “safehouses” where Japanese soldiers would perform their orgies.

A particular difficulty that arises for researchers such as me is the utter lack of resources on the massacre, most obviously because those that were able to write have died, either directly because of the massacre itself, and for those that survived, because old age had caught up to them. Luckily, some have survived the horrors of that war and made it in archives. Most of the resources are archival materials, and to a certain extent, these are “raw data” that, in the hands of an untrained researcher attempting to go into historical studies, can become dangerous weapons. I say “dangerous weapons” because it is all too easy to interpret these particular events with specific agenda in mind, and without proper hermeneutic lenses, one risks the danger of misrepresenting what happened. I am convinced that I am not the best person to go into these archives precisely because I have not been trained in the methods of historical studies. I do not have, so to speak, eyes that are keen enough to point out nuances.

But what really did happen? We will never know, apart from the archival accounts that are present now through the efforts of Memorare Manila, the organization – composed of survivors, and relatives of victims, among others – that takes upon itself the responsibility of keeping the story alive through various means. we know what happened macroscopically, but we are left in the dark with the details and the specifics of the event. And we are left to fill in the gaps of that story, much like the people who filled in the gaps in the story of the murdered policeman. When something of unimaginable proportion and scope happens, we are usually stripped of the categories that have always given us the comfort of meaning and sense, and we are left to fashion for ourselves a story that provides us with sense.

But most of the time stories and events that escape comprehension are just that: they escape comprehension. Think of the years that it took before it was generally accepted in Europe that the Holocaust did happen, that people were too afraid or too traumatized to talk about things such as the Holocaust. Perhaps these instances of “filling in the gaps” are reflections of the myths that we live by: our insecurities in relation to our experiences of foreignness, our projections of what we desire to have really happened, and so on.

But perhaps it is not that bad; perhaps it is our normal response, to want to search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless hole in our historical narrative. Perhaps we naturally fill in the gaps, not because of some insecurity, but because the story matters. It matters not because we want a complete sketch of our heritage, nor does it matter because we want the perpetrators to be accountable (although it is desirable that they become accountable); no, what I think is that it matters because I am also part of that story, because I am, no matter how time separates me from the event, also implicated in the story. It is also my story.

What story is this? I am only beginning to realize that I am, after all, implicated in the story: the story of the fallenness of humanity, etched on the bullet holes that pockmark the walls of Intramuros, a story of how Filipinos have been usually forgotten, how our story isn’t articulated, because other accounts have more currency. Think, for example, of the rather comical “Battle of Manila” during the Spanish-American war, where Filipinos were forbidden to go in the walled city, because the Spanish and the American forces were waging a mock battle. This event should reflect how Filipinos have always been treated in terms of articulating their own histories: always from the outside, never really involved.

I have always shied away from the tones that chime to the rhythm of nationalism, and events such as the Manila Massacre should give us pause: more than wholesale subscription to a story of an imagined community, we should also give space for the parts in this narrative that we would rather leave in the dark. We should be able to ask the difficult questions about our identities, questions that dismantle our long-held assumptions on what it “means” to be Filipino: about our perceived forgetfulness with history, of our happy-go-lucky (“bahala na“) attitudes to events such as this. I think this uncritical turn to cultural essentialism is the most violent thing we can do to the already violated story of our shared experience. It is a shared experience – the Manila Massacre – not because we are Filipino, but because we are human persons who have the capacity to share the burden of history.

What, then, should the story look like? I think that we can start by telling the story of mourning, how the Manila Massacre should call us to reconsider our assumptions on our identities, and identify events in our shared experience that call us to mourn. We have always prided ourselves with the Philippines being the “pearl of the Orient” even before the Spaniards came, or that we have always found our happy disposition and hospitality as reasons to be proud of. The Manila Massacre – or more specifically, the memory of it – should remind us that there are things in our shared experience that we have yet to understand as being a constitutive part of us. And the silence of these events should encourage us to give voice to this hole, precisely because it matters, and it matters because it is also my story. Perhaps we have been focusing too much on the nostalgia of the past that we forget the faces we have buried simply by telling a story that does not include them.

Which is why I think the interpretation of history cannot be held solely as the responsibility of historians; more than anything, the starting point of any historical inquiry is to locate oneself in the midst of the story one is about to tell. And one has the right to tell the story, simply because I recognize that I also share in the suffering of the strangers that will forever stay as they are: strangers. Any hope of disclosing what really happened belongs to the historians, ours is a more modest form of hope: to be able to tell a story, both of fallenness and of resolve. For there is one thing that separates melancholia from mourning: accepting that things can never be the same again, and precisely because things can never be the same again, something new can rise up. There is then but one reason for refusing to back down from telling the story of the Manila Massacre: the resolve to be part of the story.

If one loses this resolve to be part of the story, then surely we are doomed as a nation. It is not a matter of inclusivity, as it is a matter of being included. It is not me that includes, but rather me that asks for inclusion. But in telling the story, I introduce myself, I am included, and in my retelling of the story, I am able to shape the story. This of course can be an occasion for revisionism. That is not the point. It is therefore important to emphasize the mourning aspect of any attempt to research on events such as the Manila Massacre: only in mourning can we get the sense of otherness that will never give us the satisfaction of finality and complete sense, and that this sense of otherness tempers and reins in the stories we have to tell. Much like someone who pays her respect to the graves that he passes by even if these graves are unknown to her, we too should have the same sense of respect.

Perhaps only then can we begin to talk about forgiveness, not only to those that have committed these unspeakable atrocities, but also to ourselves, for our communal failures to have resolve, and to our failures to remember those who have been buried.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: