Berto remained in Ifugao province for a few days before returning to Manila. He stayed in his family’s hamlet, sleeping in the male agamang. The mountain weather was pleasantly cool, and while there, Berto donned a traditional costume, a striped black and white hand-woven scarf, wrapped around the shoulders. Otherwise, he wore shorts and a cotton shirt and like everyone else went around barefoot. The uncallused soles of his tender feet were unused to the rough terrain and two or three of his toes sported small bandages.
The bus ride back to the city was 340 kilometres long and bumpy. The roads were bad and the bus was old. Berto was tired from the constant eight-hour bracing against sudden lurches due to the uneven road surface and the avoidance of potholes. But arriving in Manila, he still had to take a jeepney to go home. It was the middle of the afternoon by now and he was on a road perpendicular to Mendiola Avenue. Traffic was at a standstill. It was very warm and humid, and Berto fanned himself with the newspaper he’d bought from a roving boy on the road. There were quite a number of pedestrians going to their destination on foot, the traffic being what it was.
On Mendiola Avenue, a student demonstration was taking place. Berto watched them go by as they passed at the intersection. He observed that they were organised in columns of about thirty students, with someone carrying the banner of the group in front of each column. Many of the flags were red with white letter markings in the middle. Berto could discern two scripted letters, a K and a M. There were many columns of students, all running at a slow pace. They were shouting phrases, their raised clenched fists beating the air in unison. Several students were running alongside handing out manifestos to passers-by. At one point they sang, ‘My country wake up.’
In contrast to the meticulous organisation of the march, at another intersection further down, the jeepney encountered some youths putting up a barricade across the street. The transport vehicle had to stop.
“What are you doing?” Berto yelled, as he got off to question one of the youths at the middle of the thoroughfare. Berto was upset because he wanted to get home soon. They were busy putting in place litterbins and large cinema poster boards torn from advertising walls.
“I don’t exactly know what the issues are,” the young man said, “but here, read this leaflet. We’re too busy to talk to you now.”
Berto took the sheet of paper handed to him and quickly read the first paragraph: Policies dictated by the imperialist are followed unquestioningly by their local running dogs. Down with American imperialism! To hell with Marcos! Damn the reactionaries! Condemn fascism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism! People of the world unite and crush imperialism and their local puppets! Join the anti-imperialist march rally! Fight! Don’t be afraid!
Berto folded the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He started dismantling the barricade. “You will not accomplish anything by doing this!” he said.
“Go to Plaza Miranda! There you will be told how indifferent the government is to the plight of the masses!” a student running by told him.
All of a sudden, a military jeep swerved from the opposite road and came to a screeching halt at the barricade. They fired rifle shots at the fleeing youth, some of whom fell to the ground. One of the soldiers grabbed Berto and hit him in the lower midriff with the butt of his rifle.
“You’re making a mistake!” Berto shouted, as he fell on his knees in pain. The soldier grabbed his briefcase, pulled him up and pushed him in a waiting military van. They left quickly as they arrived. Berto looked out of the thickly wired windows and saw that witnesses to the scene, immobilised by the shock of the moment, immediately went to the aid of the fallen youths. The other passengers on the jeepney descended to remove the barricade, while others carried the injured into the vehicle that would take them to the nearest hospital.
Berto sat back in pain. He overheard students running from a nearby alley, shouting to the people in the street, “Don’t go to Plaza Miranda! They threw combat grenades at the platform! It’s a bloody mess there! They threw pillbox bombs in the midst of the demonstrators! Go home! Go home!”
Berto turned his head. The demonstrating students had broken column and run for their lives when the bombs exploded. The van sped on along the blood-covered avenue, cleared of voices asking the government for reforms. The streets were emptied, and all that remained were placards, flags and manifestos strewn and blown about by the wind.
The military police moved swiftly, disrupting thousands of peacefully marching students who were only armed with an idealistic will along their march. Berto watched some students pick up stones, but this was no match for the weaponry on the other side.
Berto passed out in the van. When he came to, he found himself in a cramped cell with students, some of them groaning. He moved to get up on his feet, but felt a stab of pain in his side and lay back quickly on the floor.
Outside his cell, Berto could just make out the shadowy form of a man playing cards on the table. In the distance, he could hear the screams of some poor fellow. Berto was thirsty. It was dark outside the window of the prison. He heard a door being opened and someone walking along the corridor shouting a question into each cell he passed.
“Who owns this briefcase?” the man asked loudly. Nobody answered. The tap-tapping of his shoes on the cement floor grew louder and louder as he approached Berto’s cell.
“Who owns this briefcase?” Berto heard him say. He looked up and recognised the broken latch. He tried to rise, but could not. Instead, he raised his hand, like a student who knows the answer to a teacher’s question.
“That’s mine!” he said.
Two jailers accompanied the man, one of whom unlocked the cell and kicked Berto up on his feet. They shoved him out into the corridor, made him walk some way, and then pushed him into a room with some kind of metallic table in the middle. There seemed to be blood everywhere, and white specks that Berto did not recognise littered the floor. Berto trembled with fear.
“You’re making a mistake!” he said.
The man with the jailers leaned on the table, with one leg extended and the other crossed over it. The two jailers pushed Berto onto a chair.
“What were you carrying in your briefcase?” the man asked Berto, in the clipped manner of speech that interrogators employ to strike terror into their victims.
“I had nothing in my briefcase! I had some plastic jewellery but I gave them away!”
“You mean you were walking around Mendiola Avenue with an empty briefcase? Were you not in fact carrying manifestos and distributing them in the street?”
The man did not wait for an answer to his question. He motioned the jailers to strap Berto onto the table. They removed his shirt. A piece of paper fell out of the pocket. The man picked it up and read the first line, “Policies dictated by the imperialist are followed unquestioningly by their local running dogs…”
The man opened a large drawer under the metal table. Berto lifted his head and strained to see its contents. In it was a wide array of tools: ice picks, batons, carving knives, crushers, water hoses, rows of metal spikes on a rod. There were also heavy whipping chains for breaking bones, electrically-wired rug hoods, which would be dampened and placed over the head, eyeball pluckers, electric prods for the female area, a masher for crushing extremities and male body parts… He chose a pair of pliers.
“Who are you and what were you doing on Mendiola Avenue?” he asked.
Berto became hysterical when he saw the contents of the drawer. “I’m a photographer for a magazine! I just came back from my hometown! I was on my way home! Please don’t hurt me!”
“So! You’re a photographer! This is getting very interesting! Where’s your camera? Search him and find the microfilm! No one must know the existence of this room!”
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about! What microfilm? You are making a mistake!” They searched Berto and found nothing.
“Who were the leaders of the demonstration?”
Berto took deep breaths to try to calm the panic within. “I am telling you, I do not know anything. Even if I did, I would not tell you. I am not a student, but if I were, I would also cry out against the injustices inflicted on our society by our government.”
The man picked up Berto’s right hand and was admiring the nails on his fingers. “Who were the leaders of the demonstration?” he asked again.
Berto then realised what the madman was about to do. “I know nothing! You must believe me!”
“That’s what they all say…”
The man placed one of Berto’s fingernails between the clips of the pliers and pulled. He threw the fingernail on the floor, adding to the number of white specks on the stained cement. Berto screamed.
“Who were the ringleaders?” the man asked again.
Berto became incoherent. The man pulled out a second fingernail…then a third. Berto screamed.
Meanwhile, in the cells along the corridor, the students shuddered. They knew their turn would come eventually. Some of them checked the strength of the stout steel bars covering the windows. Some female students started to weep. Still Berto screamed.
The streets of Manila were dark and gloomy. It was a chilly evening. Drunkards swayed erratically on pavements lighted by blinking neon signs from discotheques still open in the early hours of the morning. The pounding music reverberated outside on the street.
But in the stillness of a corridor, someone playing solitaire got up from his chair and placed a card, the ace of spades, into the twisted mouth of a man lying on the cold cement. The man sprawled on the floor wore unusual patent boots, whose soles appeared to be made of cardboard.