Sa Loob by Sandra Nicole Roldan

In our families, children grow up knowing that words can have many different meanings, the same way that a person can be called by many different names at different times by different people. Relatives were not always connected to us by blood or marriage. I thought going underground meant my father’s friends had to dig tunnels or live in caves. Taxes were not always paid to the government. A son can make a conjugal visit to Camp Crame to learn guitar from his father who had been there for the past eight years. For a five-year-old girl, home was a dark squat building surrounded by soldiers. Sa Loob or Inside is a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, fluorescent strips buzzing from a low plywood ceiling, small noisy electric fans and bars on the windows. To people like us, someone being released was the best thing that could ever happen.

In late September 1990, after a month of solitary confinement at Camp Aguinaldo, my father was moved to the Camp Crame Detention Center for Political Offenders, a rather lofty name for the one-story building huddled beside the gargantuan gym that can be seen even from EDSA. It was surrounded by sprawling greens, and we had to pass through several checkpoints as we approached it. Leading to the building, on a long gravel driveway no vehicle was allowed to use, desks and barriers were positioned every few meters. At each one, we had to sign logbooks and unpack our bags for a thorough inspection. Next was a sort of barbed wire maze the size of a basketball court. Then a cubicle where a woman in uniform conducted a body search, then a dark narrow hollow block passage and two padlocked gates. Only then could we pretend we were just visiting Papa at his new house.

More than anything else, it had the feel of a tiny dark dormitory, what with twenty permanent and semi-permanent residents sharing one bathroom, a common living area, and a dining and cooking area. Every available space and surface crammed with old issues of Taliba and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, creased paperback thrillers by Ludlum and the usual suspects, various tools that should be in toolboxes but aren’t, board games ranging from Monopoly to Sorry! to Bible Pictionary, small potted plants in various stages of vitality and decay, children’s storybooks, dog-eared copies of Funny Komiks, high school Physics textbooks, a dartboard, several chess sets abandoned in mid-game, empty baby bottles, year-old news magazines, posters of Mao, Che and a still-nubile Tetchie Agbayani. There were even two XT computers (the height of hi-tech back then) on which we could play Family Feud, Digger or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Anything, really, that could fill the huge gaps between the meals taken together and the weekends, when the kids or wives would visit. On weekends, with everyone stumbling over toddlers and overnight bags, the place seemed even smaller, darker and noisier.

We ate amazingly good chewy-crunchy sisig on our first weekend visit, made right there by the Center’s most famous Pampango resident, Kumander Bilog. He whipped it all together on a scarred rickety cor-ner table in the semi-open-air affair that passed for a kitchen. Perfectly grilled pork ears and cheeks were magically transformed into a smoky mountain of sisig by a wicked-looking cleaver flashing in the afternoon sunlight. Everyone had his own special sisig dressing: chopped labuyo, ketchup-and-mayo, kalamansi-and-soy sauce for the purists, raw egg-and-wasabi for the crazy showoff teenagers.

Even though I didn’t know how to cook back then, I could tell the place had a well-stocked kitchen. Each resident, it seemed, had his own cholesterol-rich specialty: crispy pata, chicharon bulaklak, barbecue, aligue dipping sauce, oxtail karekare (made with real ground peanuts), igado, goat kaldereta. Their diet became a little more balanced, a little less deadly, when my dad introduced his pinakbet and dinengdeng vegetable stews into their daily fare. We were able to sample every to-die-for dish in the many weekends we stayed there, and I can only credit our survival to the lightning metabolism that all teenagers take for granted.

Needless to say, life inside was unlike the slow, sunny afternoons we were used to at home. Weekends in the Center’s common room, there would always be people talking, someone learning to play Nirvana songs on the guitar from a dog-eared copy of Song Hits, kids squabbling over Carmen San Diego trivia questions and babies screaming bloody murder. At any time during the day, someone would be chopping ingredients for a meal or palutan, with sisig, barbecue and chicharon bulakLak as the hands-down favorites. Evenings would find the rowdier men swapping war stories over glasses of gin bulag, about how they and their ainazona wives evaded capture back in ’76 by crouching for two days behind a bamboo thicket somewhere in the Sierra Madres. They would poke each other’s beer guts and wonder how those young soldiers of the revolution ended up where they were now.

I remember being surprised that they could talk so freely there, with the guards within earshot, until I saw a few residents handing over some of the booze to the good men in uniform. With such an arrangement, I guess the residents were free to do pretty much what they wanted, so long as they stayed on the right side of the barrier. But I doubt if they would ever do anything too foolish. Plans of eskapo and rousing sessions of singing “The Internationale” with raised fists were best left to the feverish imaginings of Carlo J. Caparas. These were upstanding middle-aged former revolutionaries—some of them even honest enough to pay their taxes—more worried about the mildly dysfunctional effect that living in jail might have on their growing kids, and trying to remember the right lyrics to “Hotel California” during karaoke sessions. At night, after they’d finished talking to their lawyers, after the last San Miguel bottle had been drained, what came was a symphony of syncopated snoring, punctuated by the snuffling of small children. 

Papa’s room back then was just a little bigger than the queen-sized bed I use now. He and his roommate, Tito Nitz, had just enough space for a double bunk bed, a chair, and a small table piled with paperback thrillers and yellow pads. A small electric fan whirred noisily from one corner, trying vainly to stir the muggy air trapped in that 2.5-meter by 3-meter space. Their towels hung from nails on the wall, their clothing in suitcases and overnight bags. Nights before a court hearing, Papa would iron his slacks and shirt in the communal palantsahan and fold these carefully over a wire hanger. If they ran out of places to hang stuff from, they’d just hammer a new nail into the plywood dividers. During the weekends when we would have our conjugal visit, Tito Nitz would bunk with someone else and Papa would spread a banig on the floor for himself so that my sister and I could sleep comfortably.

It’s been almost fifteen years now since our last visit to Crarne. Papa and most of his friends were released in early 1991. Kumander Bilog’s kids are now married, the prison babies are now entering university. The old warriors have traded rock and roll for lullabies sung to their grandchildren. I bump into them sometimes at the mall proudly pushing baby carriages. One wife who visited her husband every single weekend for eight years succumbed to cancer just last year. But of all the people I met inside, it’s Tito Nitz that I most wonder about. I remember he was short, with poufy curly hair, tiny hands and feet. Like a muscular dwarf with a beer gut. Wasn’t much of a talker, at least not with us kids. He wore a thin scraggly mustache and smiled shyly because he didn’t like showing his crooked teeth. I don’t even remember his real name.

He was one of those convicted of killing Col. James Rowe, chief of the army division of the Joint U.S. Military Adviso
ry Group (JUSMAG), in Quezon City in late April 1989. Rowe was shot by NPA assassins who pulled up in a white car beside his limousine. Few people remember that incident now, but it was big news back then. I can’t say if Tim Nita really killed those men, but everyone knew he never stood a chance in court. Rowe was a Vietnam War hero, a Green Beret. There was pressure from Washington: someone had to be convicted of the murder. And sure enough, sometime after Papa was released in January 1991, we heard from other ex-detainees that Tito Nitz had been transferred to the Maximum Security section of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa.

I saw him again when I visited the New Bilibid in late 1992, It was a few months before high school graduation and the nuns in my school had us do a final exposure-immersion trip before releasing us good Catholic girls into the big bad secular world. Though I was there for only one afternoon, I could tell that Bilibid was very different from Crame. Even now, I can’t seem to put it into words. I just knew that in there, I had reason to feel afraid. When we entered the big low concrete box that served as a rough multipurpose hall, I saw a short skinny man with a buzz cut waving in my direction. At first, I didn’t recognize him, but it was the crooked smile that gave him away. I can’t remember what we talked about that afternoon and now, more than a decade since I last saw him, I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

But once in a while, I’m reminded that there was this person I once called Tito Nitz, who for a few months became a friend of my father. That day in Muntinlupa, he proudly showed me what he did to kill time and to earn cigarette money. He took out a shoebox full of bookmarks made from thin slivers of balsa wood and wisps of braided abaca. I said I could only buy two because I barely had an allowance, but he waved away my apologies. When I asked him for an autograph, he laughed at first but then quietly scrawled a message on the back of each bookmark. I gave one to Papa and kept the other for myself. Right now, it’s between the pages of Chari Lucero’s Feast and Famine.

On the face of the bookmark, Tito Nitz had carefully stenciled a candle surrounded by barbed wire using purple, black and orange poster paint. Above that, inked neatly in black: Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true. But it’s his message at the back, in shaky handwriting, that today I find almost painful to read: Sana ipagpatuloy n’yo ang pakikibaka para sa sambayanan. Aritz. Yes, we’ve all heard that before, words rendered meaning-less from being used in each and every left-leaning welga staged in the past forty years. Quite often these days, I need to remind myself that for some people, or for that one person, the words still mean something.

 I like to think of him now as I saw him on the Christmas Eve of 1990. The residents had hung yards and yards of flashing musical lights that made the usually drab Center as lurid as the beer houses that line the darker side streets of Cubao. A long formica table stood at one end of the common area, groaning under the combined weight of sweet hotdog spaghetti, fried chicken, barbecue, macaroni salad, three kinds of pansit, grilled seafood, various kakanin and the usual high cholesterol super combos. In the middle of that cramped space, Kumander Bilog’s teenaged daughter, wearing a Pucci-inspired tent dress, was teaching the preschoolers how to dance to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the original New Wave version.

Sometime before midnight, I parked myself by the drinks table and taught myself to mix huge batches of Screw Driver and Shandy. It was a trial and error process that involved an orange plastic pitcher with pink gumamelas. I may have mixed all those drinks wrong, but as the night wore on, we all became too drunk to notice. The other high school kids would line up in front of me, asking me to fill their chipped Nescafe glasses with the good stuff. Every few minutes, someone would shout an incoherent toast and everyone would join in, even the toddlers squirting each other with their Zesto foil packs.

I was fourteen, in prison, and having the time of my life. It was the first time I had ever gotten drunk and it was under the watchful eye of my father, the alleged Propaganda Chief of the NPA, I honestly don’t remember much about that night but before I passed out, I saw some-thing I know never forget: Tito Nitz cheek to cheek with his wife under the tiny chipped mirror ball hanging from the plywood ceiling. Swaying to the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Slow dancing as if it was the most normal thing in the world.