Cory in Cebu at start of EDSA uprising
MANILA, Philippines—The memory of those four days in EDSA burns in my mind as vividly today as it did 23 years ago.
I was then a political reporter for the black and white Mr. & Ms. magazine that the intrepid Eugenia Duran-Apostol had converted from a women’s magazine rich with advice on parenting, human sexuality and kitchen recipes, into the vanguard of the Philippine “mosquito press” right after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in August 1983.
That week in February 1986 had been choked with events.
On Feb. 11, opposition leader and former Antique Gov. Evelio Javier was brutally murdered in the plaza of San Jose, Antique, while guarding the votes of Corazon Aquino in the snap presidential election. Clasped in his hand was a blood-soaked rosary.
His remains were met by huge throngs in Manila. At his wake in the Baclaran Church, many European ambassadors showed up. On the way to Ateneo de Manila University, where the remains would lie in state, crowds wept in the streets, a reprise of Ninoy’s funeral two and a half years earlier.
Earlier, the canvassing of election votes at the Batasan Pambansa had been skewered by Marcos allies, and Cory Aquino took to the Luneta to launch the first of an intended series of boycott rallies against products of Marcos cronies. It broke attendance records.
Through the days, rumors swept the city of the impending arrests of opposition leaders, the media, militant church, business and the left, under “Oplan Mad Dog” of Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver. Rumors had it that they would all be dumped into Caraballo Island off Corregidor.
My particular narrative about EDSA I properly begins on the evening of Monday, Feb. 17, at the Loyola House of Studies chapel. It was the last day of the wake and Evelio was to be flown for burial in Antique the next morning.
Cory came to the wake. Seeing Eggie and me, she told Eggie she should send me to Cebu City on Saturday, Feb. 22, as she would be bringing the boycott campaign there.
At 5 a.m. the following day, Tuesday, I was aboard a small single-engine plane bound for Antique for Evelio’s funeral. It was piloted by the late humanities professor Fr. James Donelan, S.J., with Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., as copilot.
Our plane flew very low, hugging little islands. I was dreadfully afraid but my fear was subsumed into my desire to bid farewell to my friend, Evelio.
Fr. Donelan, bless his Irish humor, joked that should the plane go down, either he or Fr. Nebres (now Ateneo de Manila University president) should be able to give me a quick absolution. It was not comforting.
Saturday seemed like another typical opposition day I would cover for Mr. & Ms.
Arriving in Cebu that afternoon, I checked into Magellan Hotel. Then the phone rang and Mike Suarez of The Associated Press, whom I had run into at the lobby, said: “Bel, have you heard? Enrile and Ramos just broke away from Marcos and are holed up at Camp Aguinaldo.”
My heart pounded. Where would this lead to? I wondered where my husband (then Col. Thelmo Cunanan), who had been serving at the defense department under Juan Ponce Enrile for more than a decade, was. I tried to reach him by phone at his Camp Aguinaldo office, but couldn’t.
How to tell Cory
I ran to Fuente Osmeña, the rally site, pondering how I could share this very sensitive information with Cory and the other leaders. A huge crowd blocked the streets and the stage filled up fast. Cory and Doy Laurel arrived with the other big guns of the opposition.
When the rally began, I realized from the speeches that no one had any idea what was going on in Manila. I agonized over how best to approach Cory during the rally.
I saw former Rep. John Osmeña and told him about the news from Manila. Quickly, he tied it to the rumor of arrests and Caraballo Island.
“Eto na ang ‘Operation Mad Dog’, eto na (This is ‘Operation Mad Dog’ this is it’),” he kept saying, adding, ‘Tell Cory now.’ But before I could do so, the rally had ended and she was hustled off stage.
I verified that Cory was staying at the residence of Norberto Quisumbing of Norkis. I found her in the living room alone, looking relaxed.
But before I could report on the Manila happening, she queried me about how the wedding reception for Judy Roxas’ daughter, Ria, held a few days earlier at the gardens of Bahay na Puti in Cubao, had gone.
I recounted how Gretchen Cojuangco, wife of Eduardo Cojuangco, had asked for a Coke at the reception, but since the Roxas household was on boycott, there was no Coke. Gretchen asked an aide to buy a big bottle from the corner store and displayed it on the table.
Since Cory got engrossed with the Coke story, I forgot all about the Manila happening—until then Assemblyman Ramon Mitra walked in. I told him what was happening in Manila and his first query was: Did you tell Cory? I said, not yet, and he barked, “Ano pa ang hiniintay mo (What are you waiting for)?”
Cory finally told
I told Cory about the breakaway and she listened intently, saying, ‘A, ganoon’ (So that’s it). But the full import apparently did not sink in yet, as she returned to the Coke episode.
The other leaders arrived and went into a caucus with Cory. Aside from Mitra, they included Assemblymen Antonio Cuenco, Raul del Mar, Homobono Adaza, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Aquilino Pimentel and John Osmeña.
About 6 p.m., Cory called Enrile and assured him and his group of her prayers.
If the import of the news from Manila didn’t sink into Cory right away, the other leaders were equally tentative in their assessment. Nobody could tell how that mutiny would play out.
Besides, most of them probably had zero trust in the enforcers of martial law. Ninoy had been incarcerated by the military for over seven years, while Mitra, Pimentel and Adaza had their own taste of Marcos prisons.
Other opposition leaders in Davao, like Chito Ayala and Lito Lorenzana, were seriously studying the idea of setting up a revolutionary government there. Mitra raised the possibility of the opposition staking it out with the Davaoenos.
As a journalist, I was intrigued—and frightened—by the prospect of a revolutionary government. It sounded romantic, but it also could spell all-out war.
As the night wore on, there was need for more news in Manila. I volunteered to go with Cebu educator Manny Go and Adaza to the former’s residence so we could link up with Aguinaldo.
That meant crossing Camp Lapu-Lapu, which made Adaza nervous about not making it back to the Quisumbing house. I suggested he lie on the floor of the car.
We picked up news about tens of thousands of people massing on EDSA.
In the bosom of nuns
The immediate concern of the opposition in Cebu that night was how to secure Cory from Ver’s attack dogs. It was whispered around that a US warship had anchored in the bay, ready to spirit her out, but ultimately it was decided that the safest place in the city was the Carmelite Convent downtown. I was thrilled: It was just like in the Sound of Music.
At about 10 o’clock, under cover of darkness, Cory rode out in a car with daughter Ballsy, her brother Peping, and Cuenco and his wife Nancy, to a warm welcome from the nuns.
Unknown to the nuns, Jaime Cardinal Sin had ordered their Manila sisters to pray before the Blessed Sacrament all night on their knees, with their arms outstretched, until told to stop.
To thwart any possibility of Ver’s soldiers trailing Cory’s group, Miguel Perez Rubio, Manny Go and others, including myself, sat in the open terrace taking wine as though we were in a party and not in a revolution!
Cory into the clouds
It was also decided that the major opposition leaders be secured so that soldiers couldn’t capture them in one sweep. It fell on John Osmeña to hide them one by one in different homes, while we the media trooped back to Magellan Hotel, where we gathered in the lobby to await developments.
After some time, the horde of foreign media began to complain that they had no stories as there were no leaders to talk to.
In the middle of the night, Osmeña was forced to fetch Mitra and Pimentel from their hideaways to brief the media.
For the media in Magellan, it was a long vigil full of tension but also a lot of humor and camaraderie. All of us were aware that history was unfolding and it was a great time to be eyewitnesses!
The next morning Cory held a press conference, reiterating her support for the embattled group of Enrile and Fidel Ramos and urging the people to protect them.
Then she boarded a small Ayala plane for Manila. As it disappeared into the clouds, there was a flurry of questions on everyone’s mind, and prayers sprang from our hearts. Would it be shot out of the skies by Marcos planes? Would Cory be able to land? Would she be arrested?
The next two days provided fortuitous answers, and the Marcos regime was over.