After we left the Philippines, I tried to find out what happened to Elpidio and Nick. My main source was Fr. Deon. Like when we first met him, the Oblate gave us a warm welcome when we passed through Bongao. I want to also express our thanks for his help. He helped us catch a boat to Borneo, bypassing Sitangkia altogether, but I don’t want to make it more difficult for him by saying too much about it.
There was already a flood of refugees also risking it. I didn’t expect his help, but he never hesitated. He took our plight personally and helped us catch a boat. He helped us avoid immigration people. Without our asking, he responded as if we were refugees.
Unselfishly, he was helping Christians and Muslims without thinking of himself. Sustained effort would seem too risky without support of the government, which confused me. But maybe the government had a secret program, a secret refugee program. Maybe since they decided they couldn’t invade Sabah (Borneo) one way, they decided to do it with refugees.
Fr. Deon had too much to lose, so why would he risk it? It must’ve been difficult to maintain a relationship with both sides, yet he apparently did. It beats me how he did it, remained credible and worked for peace. I’ve also tried to analyze his influence on Elpidio. It was very complicated. He perhaps knew Elpidio better than anyone else did. So that was why I turned to him to find out what happened.
I remember feeling shocked … shocked, upset, angry … shocked, upset, angry that Nick died at the hands of Elpidio … shocked, upset, angry … that was how I felt after it was explained to me. Yet there couldn’t have been anything more heroic. Considering that Nick never wanted to go to prison again … considering Elpidio and Nick had become close friends … and that they were comrades and loyal … considering all this … it turned out for the best. I don’t think it was an act betrayal, like some people alleged.
The way Nick died makes me shudder when I think about it. When I think about it, I’m apt to shake. I also see how Susan and I could’ve been there, and that makes me shake even more. While I shake, a part of me wishes I had been there. A part me regretted that I wasn’t there … wasn’t there as a reporter and a friend. Then the world would know … would know more about why Elpidio pulled the trigger.
Perhaps I should mention that I’ve never shared my feelings about Nick’s death with Susan, or anyone else, when doing so might ease my burden. I don’t accept it … not completely. I can’t think about Elpidio pulling the trigger, and wouldn’t believe it or know about it had Fr. Deon not written me back.
I still refuse to accept it completely. I ask myself how could Elpidio have pulled the trigger? Elpidio probably died at that moment too. They were surrounded, down to one last bullet. Sadly Nick lost his life before he reached his fortieth birthday.
Nick was born on March 26, 1942. He was conceived before Japanese came ashore in December of 1941. Obviously his father wasn’t around for his birth. The family was very proud of his father’s war experience as a member of the resistance movement. This led to him becoming a HUK. He was a brave warrior, had medals to prove it, and he gave his children (Nick was his middle son) a strong sense of Filipinohood.
In jungle camps, Nick was a favorite of former guerrilla fighters, and, in response, he learned to shimmy up trees and became very strong. Because of the experience, when his family moved into town and his parents opened a sari-sari store, he had a leg up on other boys and quickly became a leader. This carried over in school. It set a pattern that continued the rest of his life. Even people who didn’t agree with him listened to him.
There was an aura about him that he often downplayed, but he never succeeded in downplaying it. He came across as intellectually serious and politically astute and was very much indoctrinated as a Maoist. He enjoyed controversy, while he stood on higher ground. One moment he attacked American imperialism and then turn around and embraced an American girlfriend. And instead of simply adding his voice to demands for the closure of American military bases, he slept with the enemy and in the process converted a daughter of an American naval commander. As a consequence, he was singled out, spent time in prison, and was radicalized even more. Then, if you connect dots, it led to his death. And there was no indication that he ever looked back.
He was also a good friend of mine, and I’m sad that the conflict he died in has escalated and continues to this very day. When I contacted Fr. Deon, I was pleasantly surprised that he remembered me.
By 1972, Elpidio and Nick were leaders of the Moro uprising. They took part in the occupation of the J. S. Alano coconut plantation and were there when the military declared it a no-man’s land. A Maoist, Nick became a follower of another leftist, and former UP professor, Nur Misuari. This seemed ironic since they hadn’t joined forces in Manila.
At the plantation, they ensconced themselves in J. S. Alano’s fortified compound. It was a setting that was in many ways like the gated community of Forbes Park in Makati, where an expatriate owner and managers (mostly Americans) once lived. The plantation, which Mr. Alano established during the Commonwealth Era (1936-1942), was the first Filipino-owned one on the island.
The plantation owner originally came from historical Malolos and served as the first Congressman of Zamboanga Province. It was on the plantation that Elpidio and Nick had their first taste of war. The military bombarded the plantation and left it destroyed.
In a diary Nick bemoaned the destruction and loss of life. He wrote, “War certainly changes the complexion of classroom idealism.” Nick was provided with a Chinese machine gun and Chinese grenades and more ammunition than he could ever use.
During this time China sent arms and automatic weapons to many different places, places such as Botswana and Tanzania, and Laos and Vietnam, so it wasn’t surprising that Chinese weapons ended up in the Sulus. Nick used to hang a Chinese flag on his wall and played Chinese revolutionary songs all day long. And his connection with China paved the way for him. Indeed, he and Nur Misuari had many things in common. They were both intellectuals, both leftist, both patriots, and both were revolutionaries. And for both of them time they spent at UP shaped their politics.
And they both studied Mao. Mao influenced some of the most important, if misguided, decisions they made, tactically and practically. But that was not to say that they were primarily motivated by someone outside of the Philippines. Both of them … and Elpidio … let me repeat … were patriots. And Moros who over the centuries never gave up inspired them more than by anything else.
Yes, we were good friends. During the whole year that I saw Nick at UP I never understood why he put up with me. I was always bugging him. I kept after him for stories and questions he was reluctant to answer. He’d take me to lunch in a lower level of Palma Hall, where we always ate the same thing. A passionate, outspoken Moist eating frequently with an American didn’t ring true. And perhaps it said more about me that it did him. Neither did his relationship with Elaine make sense. He denounced America every chance he had … participated in anti-American demonstrations … yet he dated an American. It didn’t make sense. And he said he loved her, and I believed him.
Their effort bore fruit. American bases were eventually closed, with the naval airbase on Sangley Point, Cavite, being maybe the first one. And Nick was sleeping with the daughter of the commander of the base.
Nick was often so indignant around Elaine that I felt embarrassed for her. He bashed America around her. He had no respect for America, and she knew it. What was she thinking sleeping with someone who hated American? What was I thinking having lunch on a regular basis with a communist?
Maybe Elaine and I had our gripes. We didn’t hate our country, but we had our gripes. And we blamed the US for more sins than you can imagine. For the record, we didn’t hate our country. We weren’t patriots like Nick was, but we didn’t hate our country. My father often quipped that our generation (Elaine’s and mine) had it too easy, and that was why guys like me weren’t willing to fight for our country. He himself, a GI, fought and could’ve died for our country.
There was no record of how Elpidio felt, but I know he was radicalized by the Corregidor Massacre … the Corregidor Massacre during which young men from his hometown were murdered. It called for revenge, and Elpidio was very troubled by it. And as a student of a Christian friar, Elpidio could never reconcile the dreaded ILAGA’s mayhem, or his unchristian reaction to it. It was that instead of ideology that drove him. And while Nick seemed cocksure of himself, he constantly questioned everything, picked things apart, argued with himself, and looked for ways to make sense out of something incomprehensible, and in essence felt he had to shoulder it all. One sign of this maybe was that he increasingly wanted to be by himself.