MANILA, Philippines – Balangiga town resident Nemesio Duran, 81, craned his neck from his seat at the grandstand at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, for his first glimpse of the Balangiga Bells that he had thought he wasn’t going to see anymore.
Duran said he's a descendant of the Filipino fighter who rang one of the bells on September 28, 1901, to signal the launch of what is now known to be the single defeat of US soldiers during the Philippine-American war.
“It's an indescribable feeling. The bells are heirlooms from our ancestors. It’s great that the Americans returned them,” Duran told Rappler on Tuesday, December 11, on the sidelines of the handover ceremony held at the Philippine Air Force's base.
The return of the bells had been a sensitive issue. They symbolized how Balangiga locals outsmarted Americans at a US garrison in Balangiga, killing 48 US troops. The victory came with a high cost, however. The Americans retaliated by burning the town and killing all male Filipinos aged at least 10 years old.
The Americans took the bells as war spoils to serve as memorial for their fallen men. Two were enshrined at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The other, at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
After 117 years, all the 3 bells are back in the Philippines. Applause and joyous shrieks were heard at the air base when the forklift brought up the bells from the crates. “Mabuhay ang Pilipinas (Long live, Philippines)!,” they cheered.
“In 1901, our two countries were adversaries. That painful conflict soon ended, and our countries became partners and friends,” said US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim.
“It’s time for healing. It’s time for closure. It’s time to look ahead as two nations with shared history as allies should,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler
The Philippines and the US had since fought together during World War II, aided each other in the Korean War and Vietnam War, and helped each other during the Gulf War. They are defense treaty allies.
Duran said he doesn’t feel anger towards the Americans. He just wanted the bells back in his town.
At the ceremony, he celebrated with fellow residents of Balangiga who have made it their duty to hold annual events to remember the town’s history. They mixed with a crowd of politicians, soldiers, war veterans, and other VIPs from Philippine and US governments.
“If it wasn’t for President Duterte, this probably wouldn’t happen,” said Duran.
Duterte demanded the return of the Balangiga Bells during his second State of the Nation Address in 2017. He snubbed the handover ceremony on Tuesday, however.
The work to get the bells back has been longer than Duterte’s efforts – almost 5 decades. Former president Fidel Ramos also asked former US President Bill Clinton for the bells in 1993, but to no avail.
“It seemed impossible but it just came to be. It’s serendipitous,” said Sonny Busa, who had been part of the work to return the bells.
How did it all come together? “The legislation that prohibited the return of the bells expired and we finally got a good legislative team to get the law changed. Before, we couldn’t do that,” said Busa.
Busa said he hopes the return of the bells will inspire Filipinos to start conversations about history.
“With the attention given to the bells, we will jump-start the conversation about patriotism and what it means to be Filipino. We will talk about our heroes,” he added. – Rappler.com
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story used Rabusa as the family name of Sonny Busa. We regret the error.)