this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on August 27, 2002.
She was born Benjaline Hernandez. A poet and creative writing student at the Ateneo de Davao University, Beng went into campus journalism and eventually became features editor of Atenews.
I didn’t have the privilege of knowing her very well. We almost ran into each other when we were delegates to the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) National Press Convention in Infanta, Quezon, in 1999. On one occasion when we had to wear our best clothes in a procession, she wore black high boots.
That was exactly what she was, they said: feisty, kikay and friendly, a typical kolehiyala despite being a resolute fighter for genuine campus press freedom.
The fire within her was inextinguishable. She believed that writers should not stop being persons, writing only to satisfy their own selfish drives. Like the frog that jumped outside the well to see the real world, campus journalists should rise above traditional journalism. Campus journalists should not isolate themselves from the broad masses. They live with them, suffer with them, and should therefore fight at their side.
Advancing her political consciousness, Beng became the vice president for Mindanao of CEGP and secretary general of Karapatan-Davao, a network carrying out fact-finding missions on cases of human rights violations.
She went to Barangay Caridad, Arakan Valley, South Cotabato, last March to lead a team conducting research on the massacre of three peasants believed to be the work of military groups deployed in the community of Tababa.
Beng did not finish her research. At around midday on April 5, elements of the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) raided a shack in Sitio Bukatol, Barangay Kinawayan, three kilometers from Arakan, and killed the four people they found there.
The victims were all members of the New People’s Army, their killers said. Beng was among those killed. She was 22.
Beng was about to have lunch with three members of the Arakan Progressive Peasant Organization-Crisanto Amora, 23; Vivian Andrade, 18; and Labaon Sinunday, 30-when the 12th Special Forces Company of the 7th Airborne Battalion of the Philippine Army and the Cafgus headed Sgt. Antonio Torella opened fire at Sinunday’s hut. According to witnesses, Beng and Andrade were crying and begging for their lives and asking the armed men to take them to the hospital, when they were summarily executed.
One of the executioners would later say, “Perting hilak sa mga babaye (The women were weeping a lot).”
Residents found Beng with her arms on her chest, as if to shield herself from the bullets. Which only goes to show that she was unarmed and did not resist arrest.
There were wounds in her neck, upper-right chest and left palm. A bullet went through her mouth, shattering her face. There were powder burns on her chest, indicating that she had been shot at close range. Her skull was crushed. Her eyes were wide open. She was wearing a cream Giordano shirt and an Ateneo de Davao physical education jogging pants when she died.
To justify the brutal killing and prove she was a communist rebel, the military distributed copies of a diary allegedly belonging to Beng. One entry read, “Long live the revolution!”
But whether she was a revolutionary or not, Beng had a right to hold her own political beliefs. That’s what the Constitution guarantees. She and her companions were unarmed and they had no criminal record. The Commission on Human Rights which investigated the incident concluded that what happened that day was a massacre, not an encounter.
Beng was the 28th victim of human rights violation under the “strong republic” of President Macapagal-Arroyo. The despotic character of this government, which has the propensity to trample upon the basic freedom of every individual to speak out and express his views, has become a threat to the lives of citizens, be they involved in the progressive movement or not.
When I first heard the news about Beng, I felt as if I myself had been hit by the same bullets that ripped through her body. Justice for Beng became my personal battle cry. I pledged to fight for my fellow Guilder and poet who gave up her life in the struggle for people’s rights and welfare.
Ordinary people were led to a different truth about Beng’s death and the death of others like her by the mainstream media. They were told by the government that those who were against President Macapagal’s use of brutal force against the people were communists or even “terrorists.” This is worse than the communist scare during the Cold War, when revolutionaries were pictured as aswangs and manananggals.
The fact, however, is that those whom the government condemn as terrorists are among the most peace-loving and gentlest people around. Fidel Agcaoili, a leader of the National Democractic Front and the first true real revolutionary I met when he talked before campus journalists a few years back about the status of the peace process between the NDF and the government, was more like a father, smiling often as he explained certain points.
Warriors like Beng are the real allies of the masses. Unfortunately, our enemies think they can crush the struggle for their emancipation by killing people like Being. But all they will achieve is to swell our ranks with members like Beng who will stand up and fight until truth and justice see light in our country.
When we were young, we believed everything we were told. Now that we’ve grown up, we are given a chance to see the real face of our society. We are able to learn the truth, and if we see injustice, our conscience tells us to respond.
Beng was not at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was able to bring out the truth about the Tababa massacre to her primary readers, the students, and then to the people. It was a truth that the mainstream media were unable to report, for business or political reasons.
Remembering Beng’s life and death is not just becoming conscious that Beng was here with us months ago. It also requires that we look inside and find in ourselves a part of Beng struggling to awaken, wanting to act.