Saturday, May 25, 2019

Editorial: In place of barbed wires

HOLD THE LINE. As the nation faces the challenges imposed by an authoritarian climate that gags critics and endangers legitimate dissent, reading and studying history, such as Dolores Stephens Feria’s memoir of incarceration under the martial law of Marcos, is crucial. “Project Sea Hawk: The Barbed Wire Journal” was dedicated to political detainees, “desaparecidos,” and “all others who have become refugees in their own country… part of an international culture of barbed wire.” (SunStar file Foto)

THE language of the barbed wire needs no translation.

Arrested in 1974 during the crackdown of dissidents when the country was under martial law, Dolores “Dee” Stephens Feria was imprisoned for two years without charges. Throughout her imprisonment, she kept a diary.

This record represents, “in terms of clock time,” the “two years, two months and 17 days” of her incarceration. Feria smuggled out these accounts in “two-by-eight-inch scraps of folded onion skin” when she was released from a military camp in 1976.

Edited by Feria until her death on Mar. 22, 1992, “Project Sea Hawk: The Barbed Wire Journal” was published in 1993. In his introduction, her colleague Petronilo Bn. Daroy wrote that Feria intentionally angered soldiers to distract them when they raided the detention centers to keep them from thoroughly searching her things and discovering her diary.

Knowing that she would be bodily searched before her release, Feria smuggled out the slips of paper in the “only way anatomically possible,” wrote Daroy.

The book’s significance and continuing relevance to Filipinos and other citizens facing the culture of the barbed wire in its many guises and transmutations is its authenticity and honesty in documenting how people struggled under and resisted state repression.

The costs of witnessing and exercising the freedom of expression without fetters imposed by oneself and others, especially instruments of the state that gag and silence critics, can be gleaned from the sacrifices of Feria in first keeping the journal and later preparing it for publication.

“The prospect of being able to attest to the horrors of Marcos rule, of being able to record the human condition in the detention centers somehow alleviated the dread of being tortured or punished and put in solitary confinement. Writing had become a historical and moral—even genetic—responsibility,” Daroy wrote.

It was only after 1986 that she found the courage to unfold those slips of paper. “There would be no more diaries, no more journals away from the coils of barbed wire. I would not write anything of importance again... I had been pushed against the wall in a special form of inner silence—a breed of humiliation known only to those who work with their heads. They who have learned that rape can also assume many variations, the least of which is physical.”

Sharing the Filipinos’ journey started when Feria supported Filipino workers and joined them at picket lines in the West Coast. After World War II, she joined her Filipino husband Rodrigo when he returned to the Philippines. They first taught at the Silliman University in Dumaguete City and later at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, where she became a faculty member of the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

She became a member of the Academic Freedom Group, which attracted military surveillance. Debunking Marcos’s notion of a “humane martial law” as a “a fatuous deception even at its best,” she wrote that Project Sea Hawk was the code for a covert Philippine military operation that involved keeping thick dossiers for more than 12 years on dissenters, which justified the “lightning strikes after midnight or before dawn” to capture, torture, and extract information from “subversives”.

Feria wrote her diary entries “before sunrise, the only safe time”.

After “facing the void in the dark night,” Feria resolved to write and safeguard the diary. “An even sadder time (than being called liars) will come when this painful period in our history will be forgotten, or piously diluted... Someone has to write these things down.”

Feria was prescient, foreseeing how, some 50 years later, historical revisionism and alternative facts can colonize the past and hostage the truth. Beyond the grave, her witnessing reifies how we should continue to defend and uphold the right to freedom of expression in the face of state repression to silence dissent, criticism, and participation in governance.


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