(Around the time of Ninoy’s arrival, Mrs. Nakpil was attending a lunch meeting regarding the Censors Board, which had been called by Mrs. Marcos at the Gloria Maris in the Cultural Center Complex along Manila Bay.)
We had ordered shark’s fin soup and it was just being ladled into our bowls, when a phone rang in the distance. An aide scurried and brought the phone to Mrs. Marcos. She rose to take the call privately, and we continued to attend to the scrumptious soup before us. When she came back to our table, she spoke quickly and tersely, “We’ll have to leave for Malacañang right away. That was General Ver.” J.V. protested, “But the soup! We haven’t even begun!” Mrs. Marcos had already turned her back and was walking to her car at the entrance. We were asked to pile in and we drove to Malacañang at a high speed. Marita Manuel of the Metro Manila Commission, Veronica Veloso Yap and Zenaida Seva of the Times Journal, perhaps sensing a story about the censors’ board or Ninoy’s expected arrival, had earlier turned up at the Gloria Maris, and were sitting at a nearby table. They followed in the other Malacañang vehicles. The air was heavy with dark premonitions. What had happened? No one said a word. Zenaida, who’s a psychic, afterwards said that the hair on the back of her head stood on end all the way to Malacañang.
I remember the arrival of Danding Cojuangco, of Blas Ople and Adrian Cristobal, in rumpled jackets; generals and other army officers; media cameramen, cabinet members, Palace intimates. Everybody was strangely inarticulate, made meaningless remarks, “I just drove down from Baguio,” “I just heard,” essaying smiles that turned into grimaces, asking questions from one another with their eyes, not daring to frame conjectures or elicit information. Everybody was waiting to be told something we desperately needed to know: what had happened? And, what next?
Only J.V. was doing something constructive. He had snatched a page from Marita’s notebook and was calmly, deliberately scribbling, non-stop, one line after another, with no erasures, a simple presidential statement, using neutral words like “assailant” and not “assassin,” “attacked” and not “shot,” a calm statement of facts, assuring swift action and retribution, expressing sorrow, urging calm. Marcos later released the statement exactly as J.V. wrote it, without changing a word.
Sometime during that macabre night, Jolly Riofrir, a cameraman friend of mine who worked under the Information Minister Greg Cendana, approached me, “I saw the shooting,” he said, “I think I have it on film.” Thinking fast, I asked, “Do you have it, the film?” He was trembling, “It’s been taken away from me.” The next time I heard from Riofrir was years later, after Marcos had fallen and Jolly was in San Francisco. He called several times, at long intervals, and it was always to ask me to find someone who would buy and publish the original photos he took on 21 August 1983 at the airport. I never found anyone. Maybe nobody wanted that film, or what was in it.
It was close to dawn when Maria and I decided to leave, found her car on the Malacañang grounds and went home. We had not spoken to one another since we had left the restaurant at noon. We were usually loquacious, tripping over things to discuss and exchange, refute or make fun of. Now we lacked for words. What was there to say? I recollect telling her at last, “Maria, this is the end.” I knew she agreed, but couldn’t even bring herself to say so. Poor Ninoy, I thought. He has had the last word, after all.
Ninoy’s wake and burial were the beginning of the “deluge” which Louis XIV predicted two centuries earlier would be the aftermath of tyranny. In late 20th-century Manila, at the tail end of the Marcos regime, it was more than a storm and an outpouring of rain and lightning (although those literally took place, too). It was like a tsunami, that terrifying phenomenon that afflicts tropical oceans when, after an underwater earthquake, the sea first recedes creating a sinister vacuum on the beaches and then suddenly hurls itself, wave upon catastrophic wave, inland, creating inexorable havoc and destruction.
The killing of Ninoy, the hero Filipinos had learned to love and had waited for desperately, shook the earth beneath their feet. An eerie silence followed at his wake, as people filed in their mute thousands to look at his poor, bloodied body, and when it was placed on the flatbed truck of flowers and carried through the streets, millions rushed in, pressing forward, carried on peaks of sorrow and anger till they came to his grave. The photos of the funeral procession show, not individual people, but one, huge, engulfing sea of humanity, sweeping everything before it.
During the wake, I called Lupita Aquino (later Kashihawara), Ninoy’s sister, who had been my friend for years. But now Ninoy was dead, shot by a still unknown gunman as he descended the plane that brought him home, and we were all sunk in the terror and chaos of that terrible moment. I told Lupita that I felt very bad about Ninoy and that I wanted to go to his wake, but that I was afraid it would be taken amiss, and I’d only be causing trouble. She objected to my defensiveness and insisted that I go to pay my respects. I thought it best to stay away, after all. Some of the Marcos officials who had gone to the wake had been attacked, their cars stoned and rocked by an angry crowd of mourners.
The Marcos police stayed away, too, and although the government TV channel televised the ceremonies at the Santo Domingo church, the print media coverage of the endless funeral procession was ridiculously censored. I watched TV, alone in my bedroom, with deepening despair. A few days later, I was with Mrs. Marcos at the opening of one more of the series of commodity stores she had been sponsoring. Apparently, she had decided to continue to do what she had been doing, despite the abyss at her feet. She had summoned her usual support staff, but only I came. We sat together on the sidewalk in front of the store and I imagined a sniper on one of the nearby rooftops taking aim at us. Imelda did not look at all bothered. She was quiet but showed no apprehension.
I asked her whether she and the President had watched Ninoy’s funeral on TV, and she said, yes, they’d done so, together, in his bedroom. And that they’d been crushed, struck dumb by the enormity of what they were seeing on the video screen. She added that they had felt overwhelmingly humiliated because they had little inkling of the public mood, and that Marcos had said, “So, after all these years, all our efforts, our trying and striving, it has come to this?”
I was aghast. Had their isolation misled them so completely that they never even suspected people hated them with such unnerving passion? They simply could not plumb the depths of the people’s rage, could not accept the evidence of their wrath. How was it, I asked myself, that they did not know?
I am sure EDSA began the day Ninoy was killed. The Marcos’ empire crumbled, not in February 1986 when, disfigured and bedraggled, he fled in that American helicopter out of Malacañang. It happened almost three years earlier when Ninoy Aquino fell dead on the tarmac.
The body in that open coffin beneath the catafalque at the church of Sto. Domingo and, later, on the bed of white and yellow flowers on the truck that moved slowly through the mass of mourners was Ninoy’s. But Ninoy did not die on that sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1983 at the Manila International Airport, for that was when he began to live forever in the hearts of his countrymen. It was Ferdinand Marcos who died that day, and he knew it. The yellow-clad street demonstrations that followed, the gruesome campaign for the Snap Election and the joyous, invincible wave of people on the city’s circumferential highway called EDSA in February 1986, were only the post-mortem.
I had not been seeing the forest for the trees for years. I probably knew less about the facts of the Marcos regime than the outsiders who kept up with gossip, and certainly much less than the bold, ingenious reporters of the “mosquito”-turned-dragon press. The massive outside forces gathering outside were not readily apparent to minor insiders like me. But I sensed the inevitable outcome and, with mixed feelings, I watched it approach. I did not know then that it would take almost three years and that it would come in the shape of a startling spectacle: countless unarmed and disorganized civilians, massing instinctively on a highway to protect 200 soldiers in an army camp, and hovering between tears and laughter, with prayers, tanks and street food, would, without a single shot being fired, expel a tyrant they had come to detest. The world hailed it as a marvelous, new, political invention by Filipinos, who called it EDSA, after Epifanio de los Santos, the turn-of-the-century scholar who had lent his name to the radial highway in Metro Manila. But in August 1983, only God knew that.
Excerpted from “Legends and Adventures,” part of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s autobiographical trilogy. Published online by the Presidential Museum and Library with the permission of the author and with the assistance of her daughter Lisa G. Nakpil.