Taking cues from each other, Elpidio and Nick continued their academic pursuits while they were guerrillas. Nick looked further into the trial and execution of Andres Bonifacio and began working on a book about the Philippine revolution. He wanted to write it from the perspective of a Moro. He also tried his hand at fiction, completing a few shortstories. Finally, he kept a detailed record of daily events. Fr. Deon sent me a copy of this record. From it I was able to piece together events that led up to Nick’s death. He was never published.
He produced quite a volume under the harshest conditions. Often, as he wrote, “working all night with a blackout and minimal light.” I wondered how he did it. He had access to J. S. Alano’s library, which in spite of a bombing remained in tact. In it, he found a copy of Bonifacio’s Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa (Love of Fatherland), a poem filled with patriotism. Within a short time, he could recite it verbatim and used it in daily speech.
Inspired by Bonifacio, Nick argued that his group of guerrillas should acquire a small press and publish their own Kalayaan or newspaper, but didn’t find any enthusiasm for it. He didn’t think that it was impractical, like others did. (Even a small press was bulky and heavy.) Of course he believed in the power of the printed word and believed in the teachings of the Katipunan as spelled out by Bonifacio and his followers. He was especially fond of Bonifacio’s Tagalog translation of Rizal’s farewell poem Mi Ultimo adios.
Revolutionary guerrillas were required to fight. Nick signed on, so he had to fight. But after a few raids he discovered that he preferred sentry duty, so he assigned himself to sentry duty instead of leading men into battle. Sentry duty, however, proved difficult for him because he rarely slept. He couldn’t sleep on sentry duty. Given that he rarely slept; imagine what he was doing to his health.
For a while, Elpidio collected folk songs. And he sung songs, performed them for the group. There were battle songs that could’ve well been composed by them. They were also portrayals of love, and critics of Elpidio’s singing mainly complained about his timidity. Perhaps his singing was his way of getting over that. Nick described his friend’s singing as a “hoot”, as in Hootenanny, even though he sang songs in Spanish, songs such as “Ave Maria No Morro.” Understandably, Elpidio’s songs were often fatalistic, and had about them strains of Woody Guthrie. Imagine Bob Dylan under the coconut palms of Basilan, “A Hard Rain’A Gonna Fall” in Bahasa Sama. He also sung songs in Persian, though I can’t imagine he got the sounds right. I remember the first time I heard Dylan. I didn’t think he could sing, so I don’t think Elpidio had to stay on pitch. Everyone needed amusement, and it was enough to launch Elpidio’s short singing career. I remember Nick sang the national anthem as loud as he could.
As a fighter, like Nick, Elpido was handicapped. “When he was a student of mine, I saw Elpidio stand his ground without using his kris,” Fr. Deon recalled (For a Moro maratabat was about honor, “face”, dignity, sense of shame, sense of pride, ethics, etc.) “As I approached, I saw Elpidio stand up to a bully and saw him get pummeled. I can still see blood running down his face. This wasn’t the first time a bully beat him up. Most Moros would’ve considered Elpidio’s reaction reprehensible. It was damning, dishonorable the way he stood there and took it.”
“From when his mother first brought him to Norte Dame and he was introduced to Christanity (he never converted), Elpidio took his studies seriously. Of all my students he was the most impressionable. I remember having many conversations with him about Jesus … about Jesus and what He would’ve done in various circumstances. (Remember Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.) Elpido listened; more than listened he took it all to heart. I taught him to turn the other cheek, and it shattered him because of maratabat … shattered him because maratabat was so engrained in his psychic … so engrained in Moro psychic. You see, because of me, he didn’t know what to do when bullying started. Because of me he never learned to fight. So I waited for him to run amok. I waited for it to build up inside him until he ran amok.” Elpidio’s mother shared Fr. Deon’s concern, but Elpidio contained himself. I believe he was strong enough to contain himself, which handicapped him as a guerrilla fighter.
By 1972, Elpidio was drawn into the Moro War, thinking that perhaps war exempted him from the teachings of Jesus. After all he was a Muslim, a Moro from Bongao, where maratabat was normal. But so far he hadn’t been able to kill anyone, a problem for sure. So far he represented an anomaly.
By then the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine government were slugging it out on Basilan and elsewhere. The government, in response to Moro raids, reactivated the 14th Infantry (Avenger) Battalion and integrated it into the 1st Infantry Division and sent it to Mindanao to engage in a pacification campaign. By 1974, when Elpidio and Nick were still on Basilan, nearby Jolo fell to the 1st Infantry Division and then was retaken by the MNLF. The escalation of conflict by then attracted international attention…”because,” Nick explained, “of our determination we have become an inspiration for Muslims everywhere.” One sign of it was that the MNLF gained Observers Status in the Organization of Islamic Conference. (That year the conference met in Kuala Lumpur.) Another sign was President’s Marcos’ violent reaction.
By then it was an all out war, and it wasn’t clear which side would give in first. But not withstanding bombing and an increased deployment of infantrymen, very little of this directly affected Elpidio and Nick because the government concentrated on Jolo.
Bangsmoro freedom and liberation! Freedom and liberation! Bangsmoro freedom and liberation was what they were fighting for. Elpido and Nick carried out their raids under the banner of Bangsamoro freedom and liberation when freedom and liberation still seemed possible.
Nick wrote a proposal to the Organization of Islamic Conference, asking for recognition and support for their cause. On the basis of his proposal MNLF was granted Observers Status. Nick could’ve then left the front and traveled with Nur Misuari, but instead chose to stay and fight with his friends on Basilan. This decision, Fr. Deon wrote, cost Nick his life.
As far as Elpidio, Nick’s decision turned out to be ironic and painful … an ironic, painful twists of fate. Fr. Deon wrote me extensively about it. “Here was Elpidio, who would never kill, much less hurt anyone. He was handed a .45 and was ordered to kill his friend. Nick encouraged him to shoot. Can you imagine the extent of Elpidio’s agony?”
A PC-CHDF team captured them. They poked guns in their ribs and shouted ‘get going.’ They were dragged from their beds, after Nick had fallen asleep on sentry duty. It soon became clear that a sergeant decided not to bring them back alive.”
Up until then, Epidio’s belief system remained in tact. He had assumed the role of a medic and learned lifesaving skills, which he continued to practice and refine. Elpidio practiced how to control hemorrhaging, maintain airways, assist breathing, and how to use a tourniquet. He dealt with his conscience and his objection to killing in this way. How he avoided combat before he became proficient as a medic we can only guess. We can only imagine the extent of his anxiety each time his comrades staged a raid. He was willing to expose himself to their criticism, which continued until he saved a life or two. That was why giving him a .45 was so cruel.
Memorial services for Elpidio and Nick were never held. It fell on a sergeant to report their deaths, while neither he nor any of his men initially did it. Their task was clear: if possible, capture the enemy but not murder them. It was very much a crime to kill unarmed POWs … in Sulu and Mindanao, or anywhere else.
The soldier who eventual ended the silence was never identified. He broke rank and spoke up but wasn’t identified. He found himself in the same boat as the sole survivor of the Corregidor Massacre, except he was never identified by name. He triggered an investigation because somehow The Free Press got a hold of the story. He told on his sergeant and other men in his unit. He told of Elpidio and Nick’s gruesome fates. He made the military sound like a hit squad … not an unusual view.
Elpidio was one of the few Moro fighters who in combat looked to Christ. Yet he did as much as could to support the Bangsamoro cause. He may have been only a minor player in a war that lasted so long. He may have been a player in war that’s still going on. He faced Allah before he died, but had courage enough to kill a friend, even though it went against his beliefs. “Against his conscious, he took a life; this made his own death merciful.”