Bittersweet homecoming

Her painful journey took 35 years before she was able to accept what happened to her husband and she vowed not to let people forget about the atrocities of the Marcos dictatorship.

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MANILA – Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough’s homecoming was not ordinary.

On June 10, Carol led students of the University of South California (USC) School of Social Work to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a memorial for Filipino heroes who fought the Marcos dictatorship. On the black granite Wall of Remembrance is a list of names, including Rolando Federis.

Despite having spent decades in the United States, Carol’s memories flowed like a river.

In 1971, Carol was a student at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman; she was a member of the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan Molabe.

“I went to two radical schools, the PCC [Philippine College of Commerce, now Polytechnic University of the Philippines] Laboratory School and then UP,” Carol told in an interview. When martial law was declared, she left college.

“For three months, UP was closed. When classes resumed, there were barbed wires and guards at every entrance,” Carol recalled. She eventually became a fulltime organizer of Kabataang Makabayan in Project 4, Quezon City.

Within a month after the declaration of martial law, she received word that a protest action would be staged in Sta. Cruz Church in Manila. “I rode a JD bus from Cubao. Inside the bus, I saw other young men and women, all dressed up. I noticed one young man who appeared confident but not arrogant. I surmised he was an activist. He was handsome,” Carol said.

Carol and many of the young passengers got off at Quiapo Church and walked toward Sta. Cruz Church. “We did not know one another but it turned out that all of us were activists. During the sermon, we shouted ‘Down with martial law!’ and other anti-Marcos slogans.”

Months later, when Carol decided to join the underground movement in the city, she again met the young man at the bus. His name was Rolando Federis or Lando. “Eventually, I stayed at our UG [underground] house. It was there that our love for each other developed.”

In 1974, she became pregnant. “By then I decided to go home. My father accepted me. My mother cried when she learned about my condition. She was blaming herself for what had happened to me. She was already in the US then.”

Carol’s family, particularly her grandmother, did not approve of Lando. “He would pass by the house regularly, looking at us from a distance. All our neighbors got to know him,” she said.

Months later, Carol noticed military surveillance on her. “Metrocom soldiers were roaming around the house. I knew that they were after me,” she said.

Thinking about her daughter and their safety, Carol accepted her mother’s offer. She went to the U.S. in 1975.

Carol and Lando exchanged letters. “I sent him pictures of our daughter wearing overalls and a Mao cap,” she recalled.

In October 1976, the letters stopped coming. She wrote to one of their comrades. She was told that Lando was last seen in Tutuban, Manila with two women comrades. They were supposed to go to Bicol but they did not reach their destination. “Jun, our comrade, said I should not worry because they would try to locate Lando through the help of the clergy,” she said.

Carol waited. In January 1977, Jun wrote again. “He said that what we feared happened – Lando and two other comrades were arrested by state agents. He said they had no information on their exact whereabouts, and whether the three were still alive.”

Throughout the years that followed, Carol said that in her mind, she painted a reality that was acceptable. “So that it would not be painful, I made myself believe that Lando just had amnesia, that he was just somewhere, that he is alive,” she said. “In my heart, I did not want him to die. In my mind, I knew he was gone.”

Carol has maintained contact with Lando’s sisters in the Philippines. Since the time he was reportedly disappeared, Lando did not visit his family.

It was only in 1986 when Carol learned about what happened to Lando. After the fall of Marcos, she went back to the Philippines and looked for Adora Faye De Vera, one of the two women who was with Lando on that trip.

“It took a month before I finally spoke with Dong [de Vera]. She was my former classmate in college. Dong was laughing as she narrated the incidents. I found that weird because everything she said was very horrific. I asked her why. She told me she wanted to pretend that what happened to them were scenes from a movie, and not a personal experience. She said that if she would not do that, she would go insane,” Carol said.

Based on Dong’s testimony, which she later divulged before the Hawaii court, the three activists were arrested in Quezon and tortured in a safehouse. “They were ordered to sit on blocks of ice naked. Dong said Lando was forced to masturbate in front of them. Dong and Flora, their companion, were also stripped naked,” Carol said.

“One day, Flora and Lando were taken out of the safehouse. Later that night, a military officer told Dong in Filipino, ‘Your friends have not escaped but you could no longer see them.’ Still on chains, Dong heard soldiers talking that night. One soldier said in Filipino, ‘The woman appeared so brave so I burned her.’ The other soldier seemed afraid of what they did. What Dong did was to create noises every night, using her chains, so soldiers would think they were being haunted by Lando and Flora,” Carol said.

“Dong was made a sex slave for nine months. When she was set free, the soldiers warned her not to talk about her experiences or else she would suffer the fate of her comrades,” Carol said. “Dong’s testimony was a big help to the case.”

On April 7, 1986, former political prisoners led by Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda) filed a class suit against Marcos before the Federal District Court of Pennsylvania. The case was eventually remanded to the Federal District Court of Honolulu in Hawaii. De Vera was one of the ten original plaintiffs to the case.

Even after that conversation, Carol said she could not accept what Lando, Flora and Dong had endured. “I would still think that Lando was alive,” Carol said.

Sometime in 2011, Carol received a letter from the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, asking her about the case of Lando. She wrote the narrative and that year, Lando’s name, was etched in the Wall of Remembrance. Carol went to the Philippines to attend the ceremony. “It was the first time that I cried. Only then was I able to accept Lando’s death,” she said.

On the same year, Carol received $1,000 compensation from the $10-million settlement agreement by Marcos crony Jose Campos.

“It was insulting,” Carol said. “’Is this the price of my husband’s life, of other Filipinos who died fighting the dictatorship?”

To give meaning to the measly amount, Carol said she deposited it and she would replenish the fund from time to time. “I am still thinking of what to do with it but definitely, it would be for human rights,” she said.

On this particular homecoming, Carol deemed important for American students and the public in general to know about the atrocities of Marcos.

“Bantayog [ng mga Bayani] was our jumping-off point. It is important for the students to learn that martial law set into motion the continuous human rights violations today,” Carol said. “The wholesale violation of human rights is a Marcos legacy, including violations to rights to a living, to jobs, to decent housing.”

For two weeks, the USC School of Social Work students visited slum areas in Vitas, Tondo and learned about human rights and human trafficking. “What they saw are the continuing legacy of martial law,” Carol said.

After the program, Carol chose to stay for a week to interview fellow martial law activists. “We need to document more stories,” Carol said. “If you look at the articles about martial law, many of them were about popular people. Stories such as Lando’s are not widely known.”

“The Marcoses are still powerful. They can buy media time. They buy people’s votes. We need to counter lies about martial law,” she said.

Carol said interviewing fellow martial law activists reminded her of so many fond memories. “I realized how creative we were then,” she said. “In the absence of social media, how would you do propaganda work? Amelia (one of those she interviewed) recalled how we caught stray cats and put slogans on their bodies. During Mass at St. Joseph’s, we would release balloons with slogans written on them,” she said, smiling.

They sometimes went inside one of the movie houses in Cubao, armed with leaflets. “I would shout, Nora’s picture, and people would come. I gave them anti-Marcos statements instead. We were always in a hurry. You could not afford to stay long in one place.”

“The lessons are very rich because the conditions in the country have not changed,” Carol said. “The gap between the rich and the poor has become even wider.” (

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