Deep within the dungeons unseen grates opened and water rushed in. The tide was high then. I looked up and then down fearing my fate. Was it really too late? Then in the depths of my confused mind I saw a faint ray of hope. If I could only climb up and find a pocket of air, maybe… I was weak, but I used the wall. I knew that some things were irreversible (such as death) or that even if the water stopped coming in the chances were slim that all of it would drain out. Thus the river and the Japs would win.
Manila was then in our hands (the Americans) except for the dungeons and the tunnels where I was held. A few snipers were still stubbornly firing from the ruins of the fort. Without knowing any of this, I hoped I hadn’t been forgotten. By then I was held prisoner more by my own fear than anything else, and I was certain that I’d be killed either by the Japs or inveterately by my liberators. The certainty of my death (though it was less certain than I thought) seemed in keeping with what I was sure the Japs wanted to do to me. (Later I learned that the few Japs that were left refused an offer to surrender made in their own language by a Japanese/American, but thankfully a few of them were taken prisoner anyway.) “This hell was a fabrication of the theirs,” I thought. I had explored the exterior and interior of it (this hell) and hadn’t found a way to escape. “The Japs who created it were killed, and I lived.” I noted the irony and said, “The Japs who created it were mad men.” I said it and meant it after I found out that more than 3,000 men, women, and children were burned to death after they were enticed into the fort with an offer of protection. It was impossible to justify the horror while I knew the palpable fear that they must’ve felt. I could go on. Others could fill in the blanks and verify the interminable, the atrocious, and the senseless. At first cautiously, later indifferently, and finally desperately, I crawled toward the grate hoping that I could open it. To the grate! To freedom or death! My dungeon was a structure that also served as a bomb shelter; its was solidly built of earth and stone and as solid as a vault. In the dungeon I crawled, knowing about the tide and the grate. It was dark and dank, as I felt my way to the end of the corridor and passed other cells or pits, incredibly open like mine was. I became a blinded centipede while large numbers were being murdered in other parts of the city. Other prisoners, who had clung to life for so long, died without making the effort I did. I wanted to live. But I don’t know how much of it was real. I know that for many years it got mixed up in my mind, and I’m no longer able to separate truth from fiction or sleep through the night. It has kept me from being strong or happy. It was so horrible that it contaminated my future and jeopardized everything. I don’t want to talk about the cries of tortured souls, the bleeding children and women hanging naked from bars of cells, the crimes committed by Lieut-Colonel Seichi Ohta.
I emerged after having tasted the ravages of war and more bitterly after having experienced the torture chamber known as Fort Santiago. I don’t remember the stages I went through, or the time I had to give up to regain my sanity. I only know that the affects never left me. Often I wake up with cold sweats, and I can think of nothing else. This nightmare, now so much a part of me, could’ve been avoided had I given up. My imprisonment in Fort Santiago was so horrible that I feel that I won’t be fazed by anything in future. Let’s hope that’s true.
Those who saw the devastation of Malate know how it has risen from the embers of war. When I walked along the Dakota estero, which usually flooded after a heavy rain, I was reminded that the area used to be a swamp. Of course, I had to rely on the accounts of others and what I have read to learn about how my neighborhood has been rebuilt many times after earthquakes, fires, floods, and wars. Malate’s people as a whole have always been God-fearing…a trait that helped them remain hopeful and courageous and rebuild after each catastrophe. At first, I thought it had something to do with a devout faith in their saint, Nuestra Senora de los Romedios of Our Lady of the Healing Powers; then I saw that there was more to it than that. You can never remove the human factor. It takes more than ceremony. Attesting to this fact was how hard people worked. Or the sacrifices people made. Take the pain mothers suffered for their sick children when they walked on their knees from the front of Malate church to the altar while reciting the rosary. Suddenly, expecting a miracle, they felt better and often their children got better. Regardless whether they experienced a miracle or not, so great was the relief which overwhelmed them (and so great was their worry) that I suppose they had every reason to believe that God cared. The swamp dried out, and streets were laid out, later avenues and boulevards appeared, Herran to the north, Taft to the east, Vito Cruz to the south and Roxas to the west.