Excerpts from Shards of Time: A Memoir by Mitos Suson
I was 12 again.
Early December nights always brought good tidings during the holiday season, and everyone was in a benevolent and generous mood. Our tradition involved welcoming a group of carollers, who sang us a litany of Christmas songs.
I was a happy-go-lucky child who cherished Christmas and had a good appetite. An aroma of garlic and coconut vinegar, suka from the adobo, and the mungo soup lingered from our kitchen. I could not resist dipping my finger in the adobo sauce and tasting it, “Yum!”
“When can we eat?” I asked, heading toward the dining room to join Mom and Candy at the dinner table.
Mom looked glamorous with her coiffed beehive hairdo, wearing a loose and colourful traditional batik caftan. I always adored her fair porcelain smooth complexion, dark ebony hair, almond eyes with thick lashes. Her best asset was her smile. She smiled on all occasions whether she was happy or sad and sat at our table poised like a beauty queen. “Patience, my dear.”
I forced a smile wishing, I was as pretty as her. “What time is Dad coming home?”
“Soon,” Mom said.
My brother Paul played ball in the front yard with my cousin Ray while we waited for the meal to be served. “I’m hungry.”
“Paul, dinner is almost ready.” Mom called out to him.
“I’m almost done.” Paul hollered back.
Candy glared at me as I tinkered with the fork and spoon while drumming the plate and glass.
I ignored her and continued producing annoying sounds. With my four older brothers living outside of our island, I was stuck with Candy and Paul.
Paul joined us at the table with a wide beam. “Did you wash your hands, Paul?” Mom asked.
Paul nodded. “I have a joke. Knock, knock, who’s there?” He sat down beside me.
“Tennis,” Candy replied. “Tennis who?” “Tennis is five plus five!”
“Okay, another one…” Candy faced me. “Your turn.”
“No, I can’t.” A queasy knot formed in my tummy. “Why not?” Candy prodded.
I chewed on the adobo which now tasted bland. Tightness gripped my chest triggering nausea.
“Mita, are you okay?” Mom touched my forehead.
Heart racing, I couldn’t comprehend why I was feeling this way. Before I could respond to Mom, incessant barking intruded the Christmas songs playing from the background radio. Loud voices erupted from the shadows while our maid rushed to the front door.
This evening would prove foreboding, and the events of this night would resonate in my memory for the years to come. Even as I write this many decades later, the wounds are still fresh. I continue to tremble; confusion and fear haunts me until today. It was the Christmas season that would change my family’s lives forever.
Mom rose from her seat to check out the commotion. A look of dread crossed her pretty face, as she watched the men saunter toward our living room.
I swallowed hard. Despite their bulging bellies, their guns were visible in their holsters. They informed my mother that they were from the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI). Men in civilian and military uniform stepped inside our home. “Maayo, is anyone home?”
Among them was a familiar face; Tito Barry the Chief of the NBI folded his arms. His receding hairline and glasses did not overshadow his dignified stance and demeanour. “Good evening, Heike, is Mateo around?”
I recognized Tito Barry as Dad’s golf and mah-jong buddy. He was not my biological uncle, but he was a close family friend. But this time, he looked and acted like a different person in his professional uniform―a stricter version compared to the jovial, warm, witty person I knew.
Mom stroked her hair, perhaps looking for some way to warn Dad before he arrived home. “He’s playing golf. Is there something you need from him that way, I can inform him that you are here?” she asked.
Appearing to have sensed Mom’s discomfort, Tito Barry answered her, “Mateo is invited to speak with the Provincial Commander of Cebu.”
Candy, Paul, and I stood there watching the other men from a corner. Something wasn’t right.
With crossed eyebrows, mom’s face contorted into a frown. She informed us before about rumours of these invitations, which was a form of deception because some families had never heard from their loved ones again!
“Mateo should be home soon. Coffee or anything to drink?” She paced around the room and appeared like she was trying to mask her fears.
“Coffee please.” Tito Barry and his entourage settled into the living room couch.
Mom requested that the maid bring snacks as well.
Nobody said a word while the coffee and freshly baked, butter-rich ensaymayda were served. Mom’s fingers trembled as she attempted to make small talk while the officers helped themselves to the sumptuous snacks.
“You have a really beautiful house. How long have you lived here, Ma’am?” one officer asked.
“We moved here in 1965,” Mom said while glancing around like she was anticipating Dad’s arrival any moment.
There was more idle chat, but no one talked about the elephant in our living room. An uncomfortable hour passed before Dad returned home from our local country club, Club Filipino. He frequented the golf course as if it was his day job. I thought he worked there because he usually played a round of golf before he went to work. Dad was a civil engineer and operated a construction company in Cebu that had several operating branches on the surrounding islands. He considered the golf course his social business park.
“Million pesos deals are sealed on a round of golf,” Dad had said and encouraged us to play golf as soon as we could grip a club. Golf was a family affair. After church on Sundays, our family frequently played golf. Mom loved hiking the course. She also enjoyed shopping for ladies’ golf accessories from golf ‘skirts’ to designer clubs, shoes, gloves, and accessories. She always provided matching sets of outfits for my sister and me. We were a fashionable tribe back then, trekking the golf course without a care in the world.
Finally, the car screeched into the driveway, Tito Barry rose from his seat and approached the glass door extending to the patio to meet Dad. The rest of the officers stood up and trailed behind him.
Carrying his golf sports bag, Dad strode inside and greeted Tito Barry with a bear hug. “Hey, what brings you here, Bai?” Dad stood just five feet four inches tall with a slender build wearing a sporty mustard jersey shirt and slacks. I watched him glowing in his bronze skin as he smiled with his playful eyes. The smell of his Old Spice cologne lingered in the room.
“Mat, you are officially invited by the Provincial Commander of Cebu for interrogations,” he said.
Dad muttered, “Pesteng yawah,” under his breath.
My siblings and I did not leave the living room, and from the corner of my eye, I witnessed Candy biting her nails while Paul cracked his knuckles.
Earlier this year on September 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. I did not know what it meant. People worried about how it would affect their daily lives. A curfew was instated. Only one newspaper and one TV station was allowed to operate, and propaganda was set up to instill fear in every Filipino household. We heard about a lot of arrests going on, student activists, NPA’s, and politicians from the opposing parties. People were scrutinizing my family and anticipating dad’s arrest too, especially because he was a politician from the opposite party. My family was fully aware that this could happen any moment, yet we never anticipated it would be today.
With a solemn look on Tito Barry’s face, he addressed Dad. “I am sorry Mat, but we need to search your house.”
“Uhm, why?” Dad hesitated.
Before Tito Barry could respond, Dad must have realized it was futile to argue with an officer, so he dared Tito Barry to take him with him. “Go ahead.”
The officers scattered throughout our home, down the hallways, inside our bedrooms, and into our private lives. Tito Barry sipped his coffee with Dad like it was an ordinary day, discussing the golf game and scores.
Loud voices exploded from our parents’ bedroom. The men brought out his collection of firearms and revolvers: Smith and Wesson, Colts, Browning, Ruger, and H&K’s, which were hidden in one of the closets. He had enough to supply a private army.
The blood drained from Dad’s face as if he had seen a ghost.
Candy, Paul, and I held hands while my mother maintained her composure. I wanted to tell these men to leave our house, but I also wondered why Dad needed to have all these weapons?
“What did you expect me to do? I need to protect myself.” Dad reasoned that another member of his family had already been targeted and killed because of their political activities, and he had also been threatened. But the NBI had what they came for, which was to arrest my dad by ASSO, an Arrest and Seizure Order.
I later learned the details of events and the relationships that led up to my family’s tragedy—a tale of political and social intrigue that set the scene for my father becoming a target of the Marcos regime. By the time the NBI arrived at our door, my father had lost a brother to an assassination that many people suspected had been meant for him.
We discovered that much of dad’s family had been targeted. Romeo Borello was a brilliant, promising young lawyer who had helped my dad in his bid for Congress. Romeo also happened to be his half-brother as his father died early and his mother remarried. Romeo was married to Suzette, known to me as Tita Suzy. The murder took place the night they had taken a client to an invitation-only dinner, the soft opening of a new local restaurant owned by a distant relative.
Tito Romeo had informed my family that around Six PM, three uninvited guests appeared, and Tito Romeo recognized one as a relative from a branch of the extended family but was nonetheless wary of him. Shaking the man’s hand, Tito Romeo reportedly laughed and said, “I heard that you were hired to go after me.” The man smiled back and assured Romeo his information was wrong. Sensing foul play, Tito Romeo told his wife to go back to the kitchen for her safety. Tita Suzy was adamant to stay and not leave his side while dinner was served perhaps to seal the peace. Tito Romeo paid the bill for both tables. His relative rose and walked over to Tito Romeo who stood to accept his handshake.
But rather than a gesture of gratitude, the handshake was a signal for his two companions who marched to the table, pulled their guns, and shot Tito Romeo three times point blank with a .46 calibre pistol. Romeo fell to the ground. One of the companions, a notorious police character, pumped three additional bullets into his prostrate body making sure Romeo was dead. Tito Romeo died after being struck with six deadly bullets.
Dad was on the neighbouring island of Davao when he received the tragic news about his brother.
He immediately took the first flight to Cebu. At the funeral, he did his best to console and comfort my aunt, Tita Suzy, promising her that for the rest of his life he’d protect her and her children. Inconsolable, Tita Suzy was reeling with anger and cried out, “Where were you, can you bring him back to life?”
True to his word, Dad took personal responsibility for Tito Romeo’s death and his family. He provided for their subsistence until they were mature and independent adults.
Tito Axel, my other uncle, had himself narrowly escaped death. He was the mayor of Comey Island, as well as being a medical doctor. Shortly after the last election in 1965, Axel was ambushed while walking down a quiet road in his town and left for dead. Thanks to an alert bodyguard who sensed trouble and shouted a warning, Axel ducked, and the assassin’s bullet missed its deadly mark. The bullet shattered Tito Axel’s leg and left him disabled for life. Even though he was shot forcing him to walk with a cane, Tito Axel carried on with town business.
Later, fourteen political leaders under him were kidnapped and brought to Davos city. While six of them managed to escape, there was no trace as to what happened to the eight politicians. Among those who had escaped was Allan. He was crucified and tortured but lived to tell the tale.
Two weeks later, the son of Congressman Raymond Davide and his henchmen came to Comey Island, looking for my Tito Axel. When they could not find him, they riddled his house with bullets as well as shooting the surrounding houses at the población. Finally, his home was bombed. Congressman Raymond Davide was rumoured to be a warlord in the district. Davide owned vast portions of land, sugar plantations, cement factories, and manufactured his arsenal of weapons. At the same time, Davide also developed infrastructures such as roads, bridges, and schools for the benefit of his town. He was feared and loved at the same time; Davide had a reputation for eliminating his political enemies and people who got in the way of his ambitions.
Tito Axel secretly fled to Cebu with his family, seeking temporary sanctuary with us and with other relatives. They later, migrated to the United States, there he sought asylum, abandoning politics altogether pursuing a successful career in the medical field.
This was the political climate in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. In the 1960s, widespread corruption existed, polls were bought, ballots rigged, and voters were threatened and suppressed at gunpoint. It was with this backdrop that Dad decided to run for Congress in 1965 and again in 1969 against incumbent Congressman Raymond Davide.
After the assassination of Tito Romeo, and the attempt on the life of Tito Axel, Mama Lingling my grandmother, who was a renowned matriarch and socialite, became a voice in this struggle.
“Justice for my sons,” she’d plead with the public. The culmination of the assassination and attempted shootings of our family members was big news and had scored her the cover of The Free Press, a political magazine. Every line on her pained face was etched on the cover. Her mascara-smeared eyes, drenched in tears screamed for justice.
After all that had transpired, Dad never again left the house without wearing his heavy bulletproof vest. Everywhere he went bodyguards routinely escorted him, he was conscious that anytime it could be his turn.
On the day of my father’s arrest, as Tito Barry exposed the extent of my father’s arsenal, my mom’s strength waned and exposed her pale cheeks. I still believe she had not been aware that firearms were stashed in a corner of her walk-in dressing room.
Dad headed to his bedroom while Mom ambled behind him with shoulders slumped.
Candy, Paul, and I exchanged glances then I dashed to my bedroom as tears lagged down my cheeks. I picked up Nancy, my talking doll, and held her close to my chest and then went to my parent’s bedroom.
The door was left ajar, so I witnessed everything. “Mat, what is this all about?” Mom asked. “Nothing.” Dad shrugged like he was expecting Mom to understand the depth of his silence more than his words.
Trembling, Mom packed his clothes in a small Samsonite suitcase as if Dad was leaving for just another business trip.
“How many days will you be gone?” she asked. But Dad just stared at her with blank eyes.
Night had fallen and the blazing equatorial moon illuminated the front of the house like the sun, exposing everything that was happening inside. Dad walked to the military car parked outside our house while the neighbours watched and whispered.
`Peering through my bedroom window, I held my breath clinging to Nancy. With tiny hands, I opened the window hoping to tell him that I love him but could only catch a glimpse of his silhouette. “Bye, Dad.” I whispered.
He bowed his head and the car sped away, while my heart deflated like a balloon.