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  • Gayle Certeza

"Love means nothing in some strange quarters"

Three weeks ago, we woke up to the horrible news that the Russian military bombed a maternity and children's hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. It has been reported that the Ukrainians wrote the word, ‘children’ in Russian on the roof of the hospital so it will be spared. But it was not. Mothers and children were drowned in the rubble. Many were injured and killed. Two days after, a mosque that sheltered more than 80 people in the same city was bombed. As of writing this blog, one month of unrelenting bombing continues. Even if I live thousands of miles away in the Philippines, watching the war unfold is harrowing. With bombings, casualties and death constantly in the news, war is in everyone’s consciousness today.

And this war stirred up stories from the past.

When I was growing up in the province during the late 70s, we had no TV. The only entertainment was a tinny radio blaring night-time programs like Gabi ng Lagim, consisting of ghost stories. Triggered by these tales of terror, my lola told me stories of the Second World War. Sitting in our dark yard, smoking tobacco, she sifted from her memories and told her seven-year-old granddaughter her firsthand experiences of war.

My lola Enca was married and had a young daughter when World War II broke out. Since the Philippines was under American rule at that time, it bore the brunt of the Japanese attacks. She recalled how they had to flee from their home and hide in the mountains of Panay. My lola recounted seeing some mothers with babies that were told to separate from the group as a crying baby would give away the location of the group to the Japanese soldiers pursuing them. She said she was lucky that Auntie Carol was a very quiet child. They ate anything they could get their hands on - camote, gabi, coconuts, stray chickens, and even wild pigs. Some nights she dug deeper and revealed frightening darknesses: how the Japanese soldiers tortured and killed Filipinos both soldiers and civilians. Some were skinned alive. Some were impaled on poles and displayed in strategic places as a warning. Bayoneted. Gunned down. Beheaded. Shot. Starved. All these were in the stories my lola kept recounting.

When I was working in an advertising agency in Cambodia, one of the people I worked with told us how he and his brothers escaped the Khmer Rouge. He was not one to share personal stuff, tight-lipped all the time. But the story spilled out that night. It was an after-office get-together, and all of us had a lot to drink. Alcohol flowed and stories stumbled out. His parents died in the war. Orphaned, he told us how he and his brothers ran from Phnom Penh to the border of Vietnam. Behind them, the Khmer Rouge soldiers were planting landmines. When they reached Vietnam, he and his siblings got separated. Some were sent to Australia, while he was sent to the US as a child refugee. He was barely ten then. After the war, his oldest brother spent his life looking for all of them. After he found all of them, he finally gathered them all together. Shortly after, he died of a heart attack. My officemate said he thought his brother was so traumatized by the war and its aftermath that he just had enough life left to find and gather his siblings before his heart finally gave way.

The last world war is still in the living memory of my people. My mother-in-law told me and my husband of her life as a child during the Japanese Occupation. Food was scarce. They mostly ate coconuts. My father told me how he fortuitously escaped shrapnel when his family was sheltering during the war. One Filipino writer recently wrote a post on her Facebook page recounting the tragic war memory of her family. She wrote that all the male members of her family - grandfather, father, uncles - were all rounded up and killed during the Battle of Manila.

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist who founded analytic psychology, had a vision of a war. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he wrote. “In October [1913], while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.” Less than a year after, on August 1, 1914, World War I broke out.

As a young child who grew up on a fodder of war stories, I share Jung’s trepidation. That in war, an individual’s precious life is swept away, like a twig in a tsunami. My lola was just one of the countless young mothers trying to protect her own child. My father was just one kid spared by indiscriminate shrapnel. My former officemate was just one of the few who were able to scamper to freedom.

In the 90s the British band, Culture Club, was all the rage. One of their most popular songs was The War Song. We sang the saccharine lyrics, “War, war stupid. And people stupid.” And we thoughtlessly danced to the inescapable beat because we believed war was a thing of the past. I listened to this song again as this war broke out. It was the line, Love means nothing in some strange quarters, that brought a chill to my heart. The indiscriminate targeting of areas even if there were children in them brought home the dark meaning of the lyrics hidden behind the danceable beat. The idea that our lives and loves, everyone and everything we hold dear can be bombed away thoughtlessly, resulting in what Jung called, the rubble of civilization.

I have no answers. The only solution I had was to send donations to various organizations helping in the war effort. A tiny drop of help in an ocean of need. And to pray for peace despite being agnostic. Perhaps every bit, material or mysterious, might help.

I once saw an exhibit on poverty in Auckland, New Zealand. I was fascinated by a society that experienced poverty as a case study and not a reality. I grew up in a poor family, and in the Philippines, poverty is still a colossal problem. This is what I want. That poverty and war will become historical concepts and not the current events we nightmarishly wake up to. And that these war stories in our newsfeed will be the last very last ones to be told. Because in our lifetime, a powerful and explosive World Peace, not world war, raged and engulfed the entire world.


gabi ng lagim - nights of terror

lola - grandmother

camote - sweet potatoes

gabi - taro

sunflower image in banner: davidmcl from pixabay

1 Comment

Apr 02, 2022

We are each tasked to do whatever little or much we can, in our own lane, with the resources we have... to take us---collectively---closer to that powerful and explosive World Peace. Powerful musings, Gayle. You show how the times give context and power to our experiences. ~ Cisca

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