Let us not begin at the beginning, let us start at the end. For it is the end that gives us context for a journey, regardless of where that journey starts. We begin a little after 4pm on the afternoon of 14 December 2018. The day that follows is the day for politicians and churchmen seeking to put their smell on the day for their own purposes which have little to do with the town or its legendary bells.
Frozen at the moment of slaughter, gleaming bronze figures dominate the northern side of the town plaza. Like the legends, the myths and the stories it encapsulates, the structure instinctively feels too big, out of scale, for this space.
One one side of the monument are the names of those who died and those who survived the battle of 117 years past commemorated by the figures. The Balangiganon names on the marble tablets echo down the streets of this town on iron gates and store signs – Canillas, Duran, Acedillo, Abayan, Bajar and others whose descendants live on in this close-knit community where everybody from the mayor to the storekeeper, farmer, and fishermen are related and known to each other.
It is from that particular day, 28 September 1901, that this day, this special day, of 14 December 2018 draws its reason for being and the Star and Stripes and the Philippine Flag wave together in a gentle breeze from atop the monument.
At either end of the path that splits the plaza into two rectangles are the constructs of influence and order in this town the secular and the sacred: To the east the pastel green-painted, white-detailed Municipal Hall of temporal power, a little like a wedding cake in appearance; to the west, the Church of Saint Lawrence, Martyr, spiritual power, the date 1929 inscribed above its great double doors wihin which two human-sized angels stand mutely, hand cupped to offer holy water to incoming worshippers.
Halfway between the two buildings, the path is straddled by four bow-legs, each one with steps leading up to a plinth supporting a statue of the de facto national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal. Most days the Rizal arch is little more than a shady parking space for a couple of motorcycles but today Doctor Rizal is not alone: Children and teens cluster around his statue, together with a cameraman from a major Philippine television station, and each of the steps on each leg of the arch is packed with more youngsters in twos and threes.
Below them on the path dozens of people wave yellow cardboard placards shaped like bells. Other men and women are pressed against the metal fence around the basketball court, chattering excitedly, smiling with a cautious hope, a certain moderation in their joy.
Every few months for decades either a Philippine politician or well-meaning American would promise they would secure the return of the Balangiga Bells, not understanding the difficulties involved, nor even the real history of the bells or why they mean so much to the people of the town. All efforts fell by the wayside and the Balangiganons learned to smile and nod at every new promise then shrug it away.
Even when it was confirmed that the bells would be returned, they doubted its truth.
Even when a US Airforce C5 Galaxy, its nose painted with the name ‘Douglas McArthur’ together with the phrase ‘I shall return’, landed at Villamor airbase in Manila and unpacked the three bells for the first time on Philippine soil in more than a century, when people from the town could reach out and touch the bells for themselves, they doubted.
Surely, the bells would get no nearer to Balangiga than Manila and there they would stay, maybe in the National Museum, or displayed elsewhere to be used for political puffery, as, in fact, they had been used for decades to win votes on both sides of the Pacific.
But on this particuar day a Philippine Airforce C-130 aircraft landed on the mile-long WW2 era airstrip at Guiuan 71 kilometres along on the coastal highway. It carried two wooden crates which were transferred to a Philippie Army truck ready for the two-hour drive the Balangiga guarded by a dozen armed soldiers – communist New Peoples Army insurgents are active in the area.
The southern half of the plaza is occupied by the open-sided municipal auditorium, some 20 metres high, the same deep, by 30 metres wide, roofed with dark red terracota-coloured galvanised sheets sheltering a full-sized basketball court. Yellow and white banners hang from the iron railings around the area.
No-one plays basketball this day. The concrete stage of the auditorium is laid with red carpet. A trolley, like a large hotel baggage cart, stands on the stage, its bed also laid with red carpet, fitted with a gilded frame topped by a pyramid of golden bars meeting at a white crucifix. For now, the trolley is empty except for a silver-coloured bell-clapper.
Beside the trolley is Father Lentoy Tybaco, a short-haired rotund man wearing a grey barong tagalog with a clerical collar. Next to him. In a dark grey short-sleeved shirt is Randy Graza, the slender, diffident mayor of Balangiga, his intelligent eyes twinkling. Both men smile and chat as the Philippine Army truck backs in beneath the roof of the municipal hall, stopping next to a local government truck with a crane fixed to its bed.
The larger of the two crates is gingerly lowered to the ground where local government workers await with short metal jemmies, ready to remove the top. One of them, an older man, white-haired. wearing a white baseball cap, sporting a yellow Polo shirt with the three bells depicted on the front and “Our Bells, Our Story, Our History” on the back, gives the crate a possessive, appreciative pat.
As the crates are unloaded a chant springs up among the gathered crowd: “Sal-ah-mat… sal-ah-mat”, “thank you, thank you”. A father dances with his eighteen-month old baby. They smile, jump happily, clap their hands. Here and there is a tear, for this moment has been a long time coming.
There is an almost tangible sense of a cleaving of the town’s soul and identity, the renewal of an ancient bond with its people. It is the healing of a wounded psyche.
The three bells are transferred to the red-carpetted trolley, the smaller bronze signal bell is hung from the top of the pyramid and fitted with the silver clapper and hidden by a red curtain with gold trim ready for the official hand-over of the bells and their reconsecration on the morrow.
One thing is missing: a celebration of a battle won, of bravery and courage, of moments of savagery and brutality long ago. And that is as it should be.
For now forgotten are the men symbolised by the vast monument on the other side of the plaza, the men whose now-empty grave lays beneath these bells, and the Filipinos whose grave is under a peace park next to the church, where the bells will stay until a new belfry is built for them.
Tomorrow will be a day of symbol and ritual. There will be national, regional and local government officials, a gaggle of bishops and archbishops in white with wide, red cummerbunds and saucer-shaped caps, and a select group of former American servicemen and diplomats for whom the return of the bells is the completion of a mission that had taken half a decade – more in some cases.
They are the bit players, the spear-carriers, in this final act of theatre.
There will be banners, parades and marching bands with trumpets, drums, xylophones and tubas together with that most American of phenomenae – baton-twirling brigades of cheerleaders, a relic of the Philippine nation’s colonial past, all focussed on the bells – relics of its struggle for independence.
Now a golden Sun sizzles into the waters of San Pedro Bay. The end of the day, the end of a journey for the bells.
A journey that began in terror.
Got To Dawn of the Bells