Satur Ocampo and the martial law years


MANILA — The year is 1972.

One late afternoon in early September as he was on his way to work, Satur was accosted by an armed man. His bag and all its contents were taken, but he himself was left unharmed. Even then it did not appear to him as an ordinary crime. The then worsening political climate — the bombing of Plaza Miranda the previous August , the roving police patrols — were enough reason to make him suspicious.

Upon the advise of friends, he began to side-step. He filed for a leave from the Manila Times and resigned from his post as assistant business reporter and regular reporter but retained a position as roving correspondent. He and his wife Bobbie Malay began to limit their movements in the city and moved to a house in a location they informed to no one.

Sure enough, on Sept. 21, 1972, then dictator Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081, implementing martial law in the Philippines.
Without warning, police squads walked into Manila’s newspaper offices and broadcast stations, ordered staffers to leave. They posted announcements saying “This building is closed and sealed and placed under military control.”

Local airline flights were cancelled. Overseas telephone operators refused to accept incoming calls. Marcos went on nationwide radio and TV to declare the state of martial law. He said the functions of the civil government would continue, but schools and campuses would be closed. He announced restrictions on travel, the press and communications, and that these would remain in effect until the government dealt with “a conspiracy to overthrow the government.”

When the police raided the Manila Times office, Satur had already gone semi-underground. His name, along with other journalists, columnists and editors such as Alejandro Roces, was in a list released by Malacañang and read by then press secretary Kit Tatad as individuals to be immediately arrested.

Satur changed his appearance. His hair, which he usually wore short, grew long, and he stopped shaving.

The entire time that he was living underground, he sought and was given help by friends and allies, many from the business community and from former government officials. He and his staff in the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) national liaison committee and subsequently the national press bureau maintained very simple work and living quarters, and they continued to do their organizing and other political work under the regime’s tightening noose.

In 1973, on his birthday, April 7, he and Bobbie Malay began producing the Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas (BMP), a bi-weekly publication clandestinely printed on a mimeograph machine. When security problems compelled it and they had to move quarters, they printed it via silk screen and squeegee.

The BMP contained economic reports and political pieces analyzing developments in the country, and its copies — less than 200 — were carefully and secretly sent to former members of Congress, the business community, and members of the international press. Its five pages were all in defiance of the Marcos dictatorship and martial law, and appealed to its readers to resist the regime by supporting the growing revolutionary movement and its efforts.

Lacking sophisticated technology, Satur et al produced the BMP essentially sitting on the floor. Another staff, Julius Fortuna, called the small, squat and wobbly table on which Satur placed his typewriter as their publication’s ‘economics desk.’

In 1974, Satur was assigned to Central Luzon, and was integrated in the NDF’s territorial work in the region. He led efforts to organize nationalist businessmen and political personalities critical of Marcos, among them former Constitutional Convention delegates, former government officials, and local civilian activists involved in the First Quarter Storm of 1970.

As he went out seeking support for the revolution and the anti-dictatorship movement, Satur spoke plainly and simply: it was the cause of democracy he was selling, and his quiet manner all but hid a strong commitment prepared to defy danger even to self. He was never turned away, and many pledged their support both to him and the revolution.

An ally from a big corporation, however, one time felt it right to admit to Satur that previously he had qualms about helping because of the risk that the regime would catch wind of it and punish him and his business. The ally informed his lawyer, a known personality who had ties with Malacañang, that he was helping Satur. To his surprise, his lawyer told him: “Satur may be a communist, but he is a good man. Go ahead and help him.”

For the next two years, Satur continued to write for BMP, and other revolutionary publications like Liberation that sought to counter the lies of the newspapers Marcos allowed to continue such as the Manila Bulletin and the Daily Express.

By 1976, Satur had been elected to an elevated position in the NDFP. It was after the 3rd Plenum in Zambales, however, that the strength of his commitment was tested.

Two of the participants to the plenum had been captured, and under torture, gave their military interrogators the names of others who attended. By then, Satur had returned to the NCR, but upon hearing the news, he hastened to the UG house he and his staff kept in Olongapo with the intent of cleaning it from any and all materials that could endanger the unit and other comrades.

Alone and on his own, he arrived at the house. Thinking he had gotten there safely, he proceeded inside and was met by military agents who, it turned out, had been keeping watch for the last few days.

Satur was handcuffed. The arresting official, a major, shoved Satur. The man angrily bared his chest and pointed out numerous scars – bullet wounds, which he said was courtesy of Satur’s comrades in Isabela. Satur quietly retorted: “So why did you use your body to catch the bullets?”

The major grew livid, and again pushed Satur as his men took him into custody.

The next days and months were a series of serious physical, moral and ethical challenges. Satur faced all in relative silence, even as his body was beaten and tortured, and he was viciously verbally abused and threatened with every possible punishment short of a brutal death.

There was seldom a quiet moment except for those spent in sleep. His hours – when he wasn’t being interrogated and tortured — were spent counting cracks on the wall, the ants that traversed its surface. To break the monotony of the activity he would sometimes talk to the ants (he said more to the insects than he ever did to his captors).

Soldiers would mock him, “You are going crazy. Fool”. Satur always ignored them.

Then, every four to six hours he would be taken out of his solitary cell– whether it was in Camp Olivas or Camp Crame– and tortured. He was blindfolded, and handcuffed, he would receive blows from all directions. He was kicked on the chest and back, he was slapped and pummelled. His genitals were electrocuted. All the while he kept his silence, even as he swayed, fell and was dragged back up to be beaten yet again. And again.

Sometimes his torturers would make fun of him by speaking to him in English. “Writer ka pala, ha!” they said, and mocked him in ungrammatical English. He could not stop himself from begging them, “Mag-Tagalog na lang kayo kaysa mahirapan pa sa kaka-Ingles…” (Just speak in Tagalog so you won’t have a difficult time talking in English.)

The moment he was arrested, he immediately resolved that he would not answer even the most seemingly harmless question. Self-hypnosis, he called his method of enforced indifference. He would take his mind somewhere else, and he would not focus on the pain and instead ignore it.

He was certain that if he did not break his silence and refused to speak, he would keep his dignity and more importantly, his loyalty to his comrades and the revolution. He knew that the men who tortured him needed information from him, needed him alive to show to their boss in Malacañang. So he waited, and waited until his captors would let up and, perhaps, give up and just throw him in solitary confinement.

One day, grow tired they did. The man who led his torture was a lieutenant named Rodolfo Aguinaldo.

Aguinaldo was exceptionally vicious even when compared with his fellows. While others — when they took Satur out of his cell to subject him to more torture and abuse — blindfolded him, Aguinaldo ripped off the blindfold and all but foamed at the mouth as he hissed at Satur, “Putangina mo, I want you to look at me as I beat you up!”
And Satur would stare back at him, defiant but still silent.

Aguinaldo was relentless, but Satur refused to even faint. He struggled to get up on his own unassisted as blow after blow fell on his half-naked body under the weak yellow light of the 20-watt bulb.

Aguinaldo did his best to break his spirit, spat at him, pulled his hair, struck his head again and again.

“Walang human rights-human rights sa akin!” (I do not believe in human rights.) Aguinaldo yelled.

Frustrated that Satur would not answer any of his questions, Aguinaldo lifted his foot then clad in a heavy army boot and landed a blow on Satur’s chest. The mark would not fade for the longest time, and Satur never forgot long afterward; but at the time, he refused to give Aguinaldo the satisfaction of seeing him express the slightest pain.

“Putanginang ‘to, ayaw magsalita! Pagod na ako!” (This son of a bitch would not talk! I am already tired!) Aguinaldo yelled to the soldiers who helped him.

It was then that Satur spoke up. It was impossible for him to not to, even as his breath came in gasps.

“Sige, Gen. Aguinaldo, magpahinga muna kayo.”(Ok Gen. Aguinaldo, take your rest.)

For the next nine years, Satur Ocampo was an inmate in various prison camps. He suffered torture in various forms, but he not once wavered. Though tried by a military court for rebellion, he was never found guilty.

Unbreakable spirit


Having failed to break Satur’s spirit with torture, the US-Marcos regime and its henchmen tried to use other, more peaceable means to get him to speak. They tried convincing him with the help of former friends and acquaintances.

Gen. Romeo Gatan, then provincial commander of Rizal, ‘borrowed’ Satur from his detention in Central Luzon and took him to Mount Banahaw to see one of Satur’s friends back in his student days, a former UP ROTC Corp Commander. Together, they ate roasted goat and drank whiskey. They sat around a table and talked as if it was an ordinary visit, as if Satur was an ordinary visitor.

Then Gatan revealed his true agenda: he said he wanted Satur to visit one of the ‘ispiritistas’ who lived on the mountain and get an amulet that would make him bulletproof. Apparently, he said, the mystic had powers that enabled him to resist physical harm, and if Satur wanted, these powers would be transferred to him. He would become invulnerable to even high-powered bullets, they said. Satur could then return to the underground and replace Jose Ma. Sison. In exchange for his freedom and his superpowers, all Satur would do is give, from-time-to-time, updates on important developments in the revolutionary movement’s plans.

Gatan also made a prediction that Jose Ma. Sison would either get sick or die in the immediate future, and Satur would be his successor. All of them, except Satur, raised their glasses and made a toast to these future-tellings.

Satur struggled hard to keep a poker face. In his head, the word “surreal’ kept flickering like a glow worm. To his captors, he remained polite as he refused. He was taken back to Central Luzon, without the amulet.

After a period of torture and nine months in solitary isolation where he was allowed neither visitors nor any reading or writing materials (the real torture to a mind like his), Satur was taken to Bicutan and then to Camp Crame.

In Crame, he was still placed in isolation. A man used to solitude, Satur did not find it difficult to bear the almost permanent silence that surrounded him more closely than the wall of his cell. He found ways to entertain his brain and keep it active.

As a young boy he had had an interest in meditation, in finding inner calm through concentration. In prison, he returned to things he had read about Indian mystics and how they came about their skills and how they honed them.

In the endless afternoons that seamed into long nights, he began to to practice meditation. His efforts soon enough became productive:he sat down or lay back and directed his mind inward, prodding it to think back to his earliest memory. He was surprised at all the things he managed to remember– his childhood, his early youth. He thought back on things he had done, things that had happened to him. He recalled past hurts, small victories, moments of bliss, the events that led him to where he was and his place in his country’s unfolding history.

In the silence of his solitary cell, Satur smiled in gratitude. He found that all the difficulties he had faced, even the most brutal ones in his most recent hours, had not been enough to cause him regret.

He examined his heart, and it remained whole.

He examined his conscience, and found that it, too, was pristine. All that enabled him to withstand torture and resist everything else that could have led him to betray the noble and human cause he believed or others who shared it was still there, and there was nothing in his early life that he would have changed.

This was how Satur began his nine years in prison.

Satur Ocampo, political prisoner


Satur was elected as the first president of the Samahan ng mga Bilanggong Pulitikal sa Bicutan (Organization of Political Prisoners in Bicutan).

In Bicutan, there were many other national democrats who had been arrested and like Satur, had been tortured. Unlike Satur, however, many were discouraged and demoralized. Denied their freedom and unable to immediately accept what they experienced, some were silent, refusing to speak. There were others, too, who were ashamed: under torture, they were forced into betraying friends and comrades.

Satur saw his new political task, the new ideological work he must undertake. He and other comrades such as Fidel V. Agcaoili and Ed Villegas sought to rally the others.

Revolutionary discipline, he thought to himself. It is what will keep us from deteriorating within the confines of this prison. It will help us to remember that we are revolutionaries, and the reason why we were imprisoned is because of the cause we have embraced. It is far greater than anything the enemy can ever hope to achieve.

So Satur embarked on a campaign of discipline. He exhorted comrades to show the enemy that they were no ordinary prisoners. He and the others kept their quarters clean, maintained good hygiene, did all other work like washing dishes, doing the laundry and cooking meals collectively.

They also studied collectively and discussed issues and developments as they found out about them from the outside world. As a guide, they read and reread books like William Hinton’s Fanshen as their own guide to living in their new ‘community.’

They practiced fanshen, which Hinton defined as “to throw off superstition and study science, to abolish the word blindness and learn to read, to cease considering women as chattels, and establish equality of the sexes, to do away with village magistrates and replace them with elected councils. It meant to enter a new world.” –

Everyday became busy for Satur. He helped establish and supervise income generating activities for the detainees (pendant-making, t-shirt printing, basket weaving. They saved beef shank and carved them; and eventually they were also making trinkets from plaster and polymer clay); lobbied with the prison authorities for better living conditions (better ventilation, for one; and they won their campaign to be allowed to prepare their own meals instead of having the prison prepare the food which was often execrable: roots were still attached to sweet potato or kangkong (water spinach) in the sinigang; pebbles and even rocks in the boiled rice, etc); wrote secret letters to his wife Bobbie who was still working underground (letters which were also secretly and most creatively smuggled out by his mother-in-law Mrs. Carolina Malay); and met with foreign journalists and a few local reporters who quietly dared to defy the regime by seeking interviews with political prisoners like Satur.

Sundays, however, were busiest. It was the one day in the entire week when families were allowed to visit the political detainees, and the whole compound was alive with love and reunion.

Satur’s two youngest children Silahis and Antonio, often came with their lola to visit; but because Satur was president of the organization of detainees, he was often busy in consultations with the families of other detainees who sought his help, his advice, his comfort. They called him by turns ‘SC’ (for ‘Supreme Court’), ‘tatay,’ ‘guidance counselor.’

They brought to him their problems and those of their detained loved ones (poverty, sickness, homesickness), their dilemmas (marital woes, plans for courtship) and legal difficulties (the organization frequently lobbied for the release of prisoners on humanitarian grounds such as age and illness, and they had a standing list of names to be prioritized for release. Sometimes the prison authorities would comply and support the release of a detainee, sometimes they would be recalcitrant). Satur and other senior detainees and organization officials always had a busy time consulting with the families.

His two children, being children, whiled the time away running around the compound, playing with other children or their cousins who came with them. Sometimes Satur would excuse himself to attend to Silahis and Anto and lift them shrieking as they played ‘helicopter’ (he swung them around and around in his arms), ‘flyover’ (he bent over in the shape of the infrastructure then newly-built along EDSA and let his boy and girl climb over or crawl under him) and ‘pyramid’ (from a standing position, he bent his knees, and Silahis would climb on one knee and Anto on the other, each rushing to reach their father’s head first).

There were Sundays, however, when Satur would be too busy to even play with his children. The sun would set and Silahis and Anto would kiss him goodbye and he had been unable to even spare them 30 minutes straight to ask them about their schoolwork, their health, the small details of their childhood which was swiftly leaving them.

At night on such Sundays, Satur’s usual reserve would break, and he would be unable to stop his tears.

By 1978, there was already international campaign initiated by allies in the foreign press and human rights organizations calling on Marcos to immediately release Satur and all other political prisoners. Satur had written an open letter to foreign delegates of an international conference titled ‘World Through Justice’ held in the country, and it was published by the international press. He also wrote to various associations of journalists, and his letters were also published. He also received the support of the International P.E.N. and the International Federation of Journalists. In his missives, Satur denounced the regime and its top executive. He exposed the torture and other human rights violations perpetrated by the military, and gave full detail regarding the abominable conditions faced by political detainees in the various prisons.

In retaliation, the dictator Marcos released a statement denying the existence of political prisoners, saying all there were in the prisons were criminals against the Republic. Neither did his government condone torture, and that no one was tortured.

Satur, Marcos said, was a criminal, and his crime was rebellion. Marcos said that there was no way under his rule that Satur would ever go free.

Escape to freedom

The year is 1984. Ninoy Aquino was assassinated the year before and the masterminds were the same ones who insisted that Satur Ocampo and other political prisoners remain behind bars.

Time passed both slowly and quickly for Satur. His days were spent working with and for his fellow prisoners, in meetings with lawyers and supporters in the campaign for his release. He began to write about his life from his childhood up to the point when he saw himself as part of the Movement and the Movement had become a part of him, his life’s choices and his decisions.

In all that time, he had not seen his wife and comrade Carolina ‘Bobbie’ Malay, but he had exchanged letters with her — letters of love and commitment expressed both to each other and the Revolution, letters that spoke of their unbreakable bond. These letters that grew in number as the months and years went by, were written on the thinnest paper available, easily hidden, easily destroyed when necessary:cigarette rolling paper. Mrs. Malay smuggled them in and out, a secret employee of an unofficial but effective postal service.

In that time, the international newsmagazine Newsweek named Satur as one of the Ten Outstanding Political Prisoners in the World. The distinction made him busier than ever, even in prison, as foreign journalists came to interview him. More support came from various quarters, and Satur spent hours daily at the typewriter he was allowed to have writing letters thanking supporters, writing statements and speeches to be read at events to which he ad been invited but obviously could not attend.

As the international campaign demanding his release continued to grow, the dictator Marcos remained stiff-necked in refusing.

Marcos’ own defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile had already made the recommendation that Satur be set free because he was a model political prisoner. Marcos ignored the recommendation, saying that Satur remained defiant — “a viciously militant detainee,” Marcos called him.

(writer’s note: In the course of the interview, Ka Satur grew more than a little indignant when Marcos was mentioned. I asked him how, beyond the politics and the issues of accountability, he felt about Marcos and his son Ferdinand Jr. who was also running for the senate and in the slate of presidential candidate Sen. Manny Villar. “Bongbong has reportedly said that he can work with Satur Ocampo. But the question is, does Satur Ocampo want to work with him? I would much rather not. He takes a position of absolving his father, of denying the crimes his father and his government committed under the veil of martial law. Can I work with him? How can I when I represent people whose rights his father violated? People who still wait for justice? He’s a guest candidate in the Villar slate, and so am I. It ends there. It would be naive to expect more.”)

Like any other prisoner, Satur had an important goal: to regain his freedom. He missed his children, he missed his wife, it was true; but what also ate at him was the awareness that he could do so much more for the Revolution if he was beyond the walls of prison and free.

From time to time, there would be supporters who would whisper to him that they had plans to set him free. They hinted at military operations that would allow Satur to end his stint as a prisoner, and he could rejoin the Movement. Satur smiled and thanked them even as he refused. A jail breakout would mean violent confrontation, and he did not want anyone to die at his expense, not even his police and military guards.

What he wanted, what he began to plan for, however, was an escape that would not make it necessary for a gun to be drawn or a single bullet to be fired.

After Enrile made his recommendation for Satur’s release, the National Press Club adopted a resolution recognizing Satur’s continued practice of journalism even as he had left the formal journalism profession. It was a tribute, the NPC said, to his commitment as a reporter and a writer, a true journalist who wielded his pen even in the most difficult personal circumstances so he could write about the truth.

It was a special recognition that the NPC had awarded to only one other individual, Carlos P. Romulo.

Sometime in August 1984, the NPC under the presidency of fellow activist writer Antonio Ma. Nieva, sponsored a forum on press freedom. Marcos, not wanting to appear that he was an enemy of the press but an ally in defending its freedom, granted Satur a furlough.

Satur delievered a speech, “The Press is Nothing if It’s Not for the People”, and the NPC’s main hall on the top floor was full to the rafters.

It was then that Satur first put together his plan for escape.

May 1985. The NPC announced that it was conferring lifetime membership to Satur. Marcos allowed it, and Enrile gave his assent. Satur would once more go to the NPC building in Manila.As the NPC gave Satur lifetime membership, it also gave him the right to participate in the election of its officers which it was holding on that same day.
Satur arrived accompanied by a dozen guards all in civilian uniform, but armed all the same.

As president of the organization of political detainees, Satur was also well-respected and liked by the prison guards and the prison staff. They called him ‘Sir Satur,’ like he was a knight instead of a criminal in the eyes of the dictatorship. Satur, in turn, had always been generous to the guards, and treated the younger men like younger siblings. He had even helped a number of them with their financial difficulties, going so far as to lend one of the guards P2,000 so the guard’s, wife could open a small canteen inside the prison grounds. At the time, P2,000 was no paltry sum.

So that day of the NPC election, quite a number had actually volunteered to escort Satur, but only 12 were allowed to go.They had heard that the last time Satur went to the NPC, there were food and drinks, and the guards who had escorted him did not go hungry because ‘Sir Satur’ made sure that they were not neglected.

As was the system, six guards went up to the NPC building with Satur and six remained downstairs.

Upstairs, beer and wine flowed like water, and the tables were spread with different viands and various kinds of food. It was an informal gathering of journalists, and Satur was in his element greeting and being greeted by former colleagues and sympathizers among the newspapermen and women. His children and Mrs. Malay, and brother Lito also arrived, taking advantage of the opportunity to see Satur in a different physical context.

As the minutes ticked and Satur made the rounds in the NPC’s environs, the guards began to, well, let down their guard. They saw Satur shift from one conversation to another with different people. They saw him relax and laugh. They saw him eat and drink. They kept an eye on him, but more and more their focus shifted on the food and the beer, both blissfully free.

They, too began to relax and laugh.

Then Satur reminded them that their colleagues were still downstairs, that they were probably hungry. No, they didn’t have to trade places — all 12 of them could come up and eat. It was a humid day, the heat was suffocating. It would be better if all 12 stayed upstairs in the NPC’s airconditioned halls. After all, it would still be a few hours before the election results would be read, and Satur had yet to cast his vote.

The guards agreed.

Satur had already whispered to Mrs. Malay and Lito his plans, and instructed them to leave early. Satur’s little boy, Anto, cried when he was told. He wanted to see his father vote, he said. But in the end, and without fanfare, he obeyed Satur and left.

Around 2 p.m., Satur talked to his guards and explained the situation.

The voting was done one more floor up, and only NPC members were allowed. Could the guards wait for him to come back instead of accompanying him? The area was cramped with election paraphernalia and the tables of various candidates, there would be no space for all 13 of them.

“It’s okay, Sir Satur,” they told him. “We will stay here.” And the guards made him a toast.

So Satur climbed the short flight of stairs to the next and top floor, alone and unaccompanied. He wrote on his ballot and walked, not back to his guards downstairs but to the exit at the back of the NPC.

With all 12 guards upstairs, there was no one left to watch that other doorway or the stairs that led downstairs.

With all 12 guards upstairs, Satur went his way down quietly, unhurriedly, but he almost walked into a reporter from the Manila Bulletin whose eyes grew large when he realized who he was facing. Satur smiled, put a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, and continued his way down. He got into a waiting car in the parking lot right across the NPC.

Four hours passed before the guards noticed that none of them had seen Satur in the past hour. It was not until four hours later that the alarm was rang and the doors and gates of the NPC was suddenly closed and everyone in it questioned regarding Satur’s whereabouts.

By then, Satur had shaved off his mustache, had his hair trimmed and breathed air as a free man for the first time in nine years. a href=””>(

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