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July 23, 2010 / iselgarcia

Expat Pinoy: Comforting Women

From Expat Travel and Lifestyle magazine, vol. 3 no. 3, August-October 2009 issue

TEXT:

EXPAT PINOY:

COMFORTING WOMEN

By Isel Kintanar Garcia

“I am sitting high up in the center balcony looking down at the black stage. A spotlight shoots out from above and strikes a woman like a gunshot. Her small brown body convulses.  The voice of an elderly Filipina woman echoes throughout the theater and the Pinay below, with her long hair caught in the wind of some kind of hurricane gale, moves to the cadence of this old lola’s voice.  She is walking and then running and the light chases her and the old woman’s voice races and falters and all the while the Pinay’s body reacts to the voice, to that music, a narrative spoken in Tagalog to a winter audience in Minneapolis, Minnesota…”

“…[I]t’s a little unclear to me why I am so moved by the voice… I am in tears.  I am in shock. I have somehow left that theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the dead of that night and I have traveled to someplace I have never been…This is how I begin my search.  This is how I discover my Lolas.”

1997 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; dead of winter. A young woman sits in a dark theater, tears rolling down her cheeks. At this point in time, American-born Filipino, M. Evelina Galang can hardly explain why she is so moved by what was taking place on the stage. But this is where her extraordinary journey begins. A journey that would take her back and forth between two continents, a journey that would send her to comfort the “comfort women” of her native land, the Philippines. In a series of emails, Evelina, who has been named one of the most influential Filipino women in the U.S., opens up to Expat about the cause that has changed her life as well as the lives of countless women and men across the globe.

Tell us how it all began. What made you take an active role in the fight for justice for Filipina “comfort women”?

I have been drawn to the plight of the “comfort women” since I first learned about them [through the play, The Bamboo  Women] in 1997.  That night, Lola Amonita, a surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII washed her testimony on the walls of the auditorium… [She was] taken by the Japanese Imperial Army, thrown into rape camp and made to serve the multitude of soldiers.

Though it was [an actress] Pearl Ubungen and her company… on the stage, it was Lola Amonita calling me.  Though my understanding of the [Filipino] language was weak, I understood with my heart. I was compelled to listen to their stories

How could I not [take an active role]?   I once heard Korean filmmaker and activist say, “Once you hear their stories, they sink into your bones and you cannot sit still.” [In 1998], I took my Fil-Am students to Quezon City to work with LILA Pilipina to research a screenplay (now my novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery). When I was leaving, the women surrounded me to say good-bye, holding on and kissing me and looking up to me. Something inside me lit up.  I told them, “The next time I come back, I’ll write your stories.”

That’s what my Fulbright Senior Scholar Research was about – [I went] back in 2001 to be in the homes of 15 women, to accompany them to their provinces, to the sites where their nipa huts stood during WWII, to the sites of abduction – churches, schools, rice fields, city halls.  I even traveled to Abra, San Juanwhere almost all the families’ young women were kidnapped and held in these military sex slave camps.  I met a 105 year old survivor.  Since then, I’ve gotten grants and funding from the Universityof Miamito complete my research and to write the book of their stories, LOLAS’ HOUSE: Women Living with War.

I [have come] to know the lolas as individuals and they adopted me as their own granddaughter – I’ve grown to love them.  And now I am committed to supporting their need to record their stories, their histories and to fight for their justice.  Their justice is my justice.

So, you were a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in the Philippines back in 2001. Tell us more about that experience.

 

During my Fulbright, I spent weeks being with each of the 13 survivors I had interviewed in 1998 (two had passed away by then).  I went through their days with them, I took trips with them to their home provinces and I visited the sites of abduction and the garrisons where they were held.  Each time a woman told me her story, she relived it.  Each time she came to the part of the story where they scarred her body, she would take my hands to witness the wounds on her body – bumps and scar tissue and deformed limbs. I brought back over thirty hours of interview tapes and I have interviewed most of the women at least twice, if not more than that. I also gathered whatever written testimonies were available – testimonies they had given the Japanese courts and testimonies they had given newspapers and the organizers at LILA Pilipina and I used all those different versions of their testimonies to weigh them against each other for accuracy and for dates and times and places.

You created Laban! Fight for Comfort Women. Tell us about this organization.

On March 1, 2007, then Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe made a statement to the world.  He said there was not enough evidence to prove that the 200,000 “comfort women” of WWII were coerced in their military sex slave camps.  When I read this, I needed to respond because I had met the evidence.  I had been to their homes and to the sites where they had been abducted, I had walked through the spaces that we call school, church, home, but during WWII were the garrisons and “comfort stations” where young girls and women were held.  I was frustrated because I had called and written to reporters from major news papers and radio stations and government officials in the U.S.and Japanand I was not being heard… There IS evidence.  I have kissed the evidence, made mano to the evidence.  I have sat at the kitchen table with the evidence.  They were coerced and their lives have never been the same.  I needed to tell someone.  So, I took a lesson from my own students, started a blog and began my own personal campaign to enlighten Abe and the world.  In doing so, I connected with other activists who were also enraged by Abe’s statement and I began to network and work with other organizations like HR 121 and a few Korean American activists here in the States.  On my blog, LABAN!  Fight for Comfort Women, I began to share not only the women’s stories, but I began to lobby for House Resolution 121, a non-binding resolution from the Congress of the United States of America asking Japan to take full responsibility for these I crimes against humanity and to offer the survivors a formal apology.  I also began an online petition that was addressed to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  It was intended to persuade Congress to pass the resolution, but soon private citizens fromJapan were writing me and asking if they could also sign the petition.  I said, why not?  And we opened up the lines and had over two thousand international signatures.  I am pleased and proud to say that in July of 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed HR 121 with a unanimous voice vote.  And that resolution inspired many other governments to create similar resolutions. Japan has stayed silent.

What other groups are you affiliated with?

I have started an informal chapter of Friends of Lolas, an extension of LILA Pilipina, in the U.S.  and mostly my students at the University of Miami have begun to support the lolas by educating others of the women’s experiences during WWII through workshops and public readings and by raising whatever funding we can raise to support the sustenance of Lolas’ Center (formerly Lolas’ House) and their campaign for justice,  In addition to their outreach, they connect with the women in letters, photos and cards – so they know we care about them and we are actively fighting for justice through the dissemination of their experiences and histories.

Share with us the most memorable experience you’ve had with the lolas.

I have so many, it’s hard to choose.  What I want to say about the lolas is that despite their tragic experiences, despite the fact that many were never able to finish their education, or go back to their families, or establish themselves in the world because of the war, they are not victims.  They are not even survivors anymore.  I think they are superheroes.  I have watched them in my one dozen years with them transform themselves from being victims to survivors, to wise women and counselors and now superheroes.  Many of the students that go to Lolas’ Center and volunteer to fight for justice confide in the lolas – they too are victims of abuse – and now, after all this time, the lolas are giving them love and support and examples of how to stand up for yourself, how to push away those feelings of guilt or shame, how to understand what has happened to you is not your fault.  It is amazing, this gift they are giving the world. How to stand up for yourself.  [It’s] Beautiful.

Last summer, I made adobo, rice and pancit for the lolas and invited a few Filipino American college students who were doing a summer seminar in Quezon City to join us at Lolas’ Center.  While I was getting the food on the table, the group of thirty or so people entertained each other, singing songs to one another through a microphone.  They took turns sharing – first a lola then a student.  At one point, they asked me to sing and I looked up from the table and grabbed the mic and without thinking I began to sing “You Are My Sunshine” our family song – we sing it to the kids and my dad sings it to my mom and you know, our family song.  Well, there I was singing acapella and they were clapping along and before I knew it, the lolas had grabbed the students by the hands and they were up and dancing to my little version of “You Are My Sunshine,” twirling around the room arm in arm, smiling at one another, stomping their feet.  I must have sung three rounds of that song.

What ongoing events or activities does your organization have? Any future plans?

As our semester at the Universityof Miamibegins this September 2009, I’m hoping to invite more student organizations to work with Friends of Lolas as we create forums and testimonial readings and raise funding for the lolas.  Perhaps we can create a template of activities for other universities so they may begin their own chapters of Friends of Lolas.  They are dying fast and the time is now.

There are a lot of people who would like to see the “comfort women” get the justice they deserve. How can an ordinary person help?  

 

Anyone can be a Friend of the Lolas.  I’d write to Rechilda Extremadura, the executive coordinator of LILA Pilipina and Friends of Lolas and the most devoted and fair advocate for the women and ask her what their needs are – the need is there and it changes depending on the lolas and she can tell you what they need.  You can write letters to the lolas or to government officials or sign petitions, or financially support the women; you can help educate others and can personally connect with the women and their families.

It is [our] duty to share their experiences so we might learn from them, so nations can come to understand the sacrifice women and children have made during wartime. More than anything else, the lolas do not want these experiences to repeat themselves.  By telling their stories, by being aware, we are hoping to stop the violence and sexual abuse to women and children during times of war.

Blurb: About LILA Pilipina

Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina was born of the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) of 1992 and is an arm of Gabriela.  It was originally called the Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women and was supported by women’s groups like Gabriela and Bayan Women’s Desk.  In 1994 they transformed themselves into LILA Pilipina and had over 100 active surviving “comfort women.”  They are among the first survivors to charge the Japanese government and fight for justice on their own behalf.   Since then, there have been many rallies, many letters toJapan, many statements and testimonies made in the Japanese courts, many appeals.  There have been international resolutions coming from theU.S.,Europeand other nations, and not a single formal apology from the Japanese government.  Since then, many of the 173 survivors have passed away.

For more information or to join Friends of the LOLAS contact LILA Pilipina Executive, Director Rechilda Extremadura (kuyangateng@yahoo.com) or U.S. Friends of LOLAS coordinator M. Evelina Galang (labanmgalola@yahoo.com).

SEND DONATIONS FOR LOLAS’ CENTER or WRITE THE LOLAS:

Make checks out to LILA PILIPINA LOLAS CENTER 120 Narra Street, Brgy. Amihan Quezon City, MetroManila,Philippines. Tel: 4354623/ 09155379579

Check out Evelina’s blog at: www.labanforthelolas.blogspot.com

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