Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hidden cameras and Cory’s huge suitcase

If you were one of those who visited Ninoy Aquino during the eight years (1972 to 1980) that he was in military prison, chances are a photograph of yourself was among the hundreds that the military studied and kept in their dossiers for whatever purpose they might have served.

And chances are your photo is now in the archives of Ninoy’s widow, former President Corazon Aquino, who passed away on Aug. 1 and had a massive send-off that could rival Ninoy’s. Hadn’t Cory sent you a copy when she was alive?

During her presidency that started after the 1986 People Power Revolt that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, President Aquino received a stack of photographs from the military. Many of the original copies the military gave her had notes on the back, she told me during an interview some years ago. She had not asked for the photos, she had never seen them before.

“There were hundreds of these photographs,” she said when I showed her an enlarged copy she had sent a nun friend some years ago. Yes, she remembered having sent it, along with a letter, a frame and medicine, and being thanked warmly for it.

Cory recalled then that every person who visited Ninoy in prison had first to be put on a list and go through a process of approval. During visits, visitors had to be thoroughly frisked, groped, if not almost undressed and, of course, photographed without their being aware of it. Ninoy’s family and friends had to endure this demeaning process. The nervous ones could not help wondering what the repercussions of the visits might be on them.

Receiving the photos from the military when she was President was a surprise for Cory, the photos having come from the institution that held Ninoy in custody and was suspected of having had something to do with her husband’s assassination upon his return from exile in 1983. But beholding the black and white images must have been also disconcerting to say the least, if not utterly painful. Among the previously unpublished photos were those of the bloodied and dead Ninoy taken by military photographers when his body arrived in the military camp. These looked utterly raw, so unlike those taken at the tarmac that, by now, most Filipinos have memorized and framed in their memories.

The military photos taken in prison show the Aquino family during regular visits with Ninoy. Friends who came had to contend with flashbulbs and telephoto lenses. And what about cameras, hidden and unhidden, and bugging devices?

Ms Aquino recalled the first time she came for a conjugal visit. Ninoy’s room was about 4 X 5 square yards. “On the first scheduled conjugal visit, I arrived in Fort Bonifacio lugging a new suitcase. Ninoy was surprised and teased me, ‘Why the big suitcase? Cory, you’re staying here only one night, not one week.’

“I said nothing and instead opened my suitcase and took out a dark blue towel and some rubber bands. I then asked Ninoy to cover the camera with the towel and secure it with the rubber bands. Then I brought out a dark blue sheet and a roll of masking tape.

“Ninoy and I then proceeded to cover the entire one-way mirror with the sheet and stuck the sheet to the wall using a lot of masking tape. We knew there were electronic bugs to record all our conversations but unfortunately neither Ninoy nor I knew anything about debugging a room.

“Heaven knows how many hundreds of cassette tapes (were) in the possession of the military, recording all the Ninoy and Cory conversations!”

Some of the photographs Cory Aquino received from the military were used in the coffee-table book “Ninoy: Ideals and Ideologies.” The book contains rare photographs complemented by Ninoy’s own words expressing “the ideals that he fought, lived and died for.”

Many of the photographs remain unpublished. But, after her term was over, Cory went over the photographs and had many of them reproduced so she could send them to friends who were in the photos.

Among these photos was that of Ninoy being greeted by Sr. Christine Tan, RGS with a buss. With her were activist Maria Feria and Amparo Castro, the wife of lawyer Dakila Castro. Cory sent a copy each to the women visitors in the photos.

Sr. Christine Tan, a Good Shepherd nun who lived among the poor and who died in 2003, was a close friend of Ninoy and Cory and stood by them during the dark days of the dictatorship. Cory appointed her as one of the drafters of the 1987 Constitution.

“I was not aware that we were being photographed,” Feria told the Inquirer.

“This was at the amphitheater,” Cory said when shown the photo, “the place where Ninoy received visitors.” How could she forget?

Neither had she forgotten the true friends who visited and stood by them. The photographs that the military had unearthed for her helped her remember.

* * *

There will be a 10 a.m. Mass at St. Scholastica’s College on Friday, the 26th anniversary of Ninoys assassination. This will be followed by lunch and viewing of Cory’s paintings and memorabilia at the SSC Museum and Archives. To be displayed are two dresses Cory wore when she was president.

When her presidency was over, Cory gave away many of her clothes. She sent some to Sr. Christine to give away. I asked Sr. Christine for some and she gave me three. I gave a set to my editor in chief. The ones I kept were a red linen Auggie Cordero skirt and jacket and a two-piece beige Neiman Marcus size 14. I have donated them to the archives-museum.