Filipinos want US to return a cultural treasure looted on September 28
A memorial marking the Balangiga massacre 112 years ago. Picture by JR Espejo
Over 100 years have passed since they lost their church bells, but residents of a small town on the central Philippine island of Samar have never given up hope that one day they will get them back.
Every year, on September 28, the townsfolk of Balangiga mark the day in 1901 when American troops turned their town, and the whole of Samar into what was later called a "howling wilderness" and carried off three church bells as war booty.
Dr Rolando Borrinaga, a professor at the School of Health Sciences at the University of the Philippines, said it is time to forget the past and return the bells.
“[There is] no apology needed for what happened. That was war,’’ he said. He expressed dismay over the repeated failure by the Philippine government and the Church to reclaim the bells.
“All of our big time institutions and personalities have tried and failed,’’ Borrinaga said, adding that the "issue is now beyond the government."
“This is something that [should be] sorted out of political circles," Borrinaga said, adding that the call for the return of the bells should be something that is "educational and based on consensus, not open media war.”
The taking of the bells and the American sacking of Samar came one month after Filipino freedom fighters ambushed and killed at least 40 American soldiers sitting down to breakfast. They were part of a 75-man American garrison stationed in town. It is said the church bells were used to signal the attack. Rebels disguised as women had smuggled weapons in small coffins into the church to attack Americans.
At least 28 Filipinos were also killed in what historians say was the "single worst defeat" of American forces during 1899-1902 Philippine-American War.
In reprisal, Captain Thomas W Connell, commander of Company C of 9th US Infantry Regiment, rounded up and killed some 5,000 Balangiga villagers, upon the order of General Jacob H Smith.
All male residents over 10 years old were killed.
"I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me…. The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness," Smith was quoted as saying.
The incident became known as the Balangiga Massacre.
The church bells were taken to the United States and never returned despite several petitions by the Catholic Church and the Philippine government.
The attack and the subsequent reprisal remains one of the longest running and most contentious issues between the Philippines and the United States.
Two of the bells are at F. E. Warren Air Force Base outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, while the third is kept by the 9th US Infantry Regiment in South Korea.
Filipino legislators earlier called for the return of the bell "to correct a historical wrong" committed during the Philippine-American War.
"Filipinos don't regard the bells as war trophies. They're deemed as Samar's local historical and religious treasures and a significant part of Philippine heritage," a resolution submitted before Congress in 2010 said.
The Catholic bishops’ conference also says the bells are inappropriate as war trophies.
"The bells were the property of the Roman Catholic Church in Balangiga when they were taken by the US forces. The bells should be returned to the place where they belong and for the purpose for which they were cast and blessed," according to former congressman Teodoro Casino.
The bells "rightly belong" to Balangiga, Congressman Ben Evardone says. "We will not stop until the bells are returned to us," he added. Both lawmakers unsuccessfully petitioned the US Congress for their return in October 2010.
Returning the bells would be a gesture of respect and goodwill on the part of the US, Evardone says.
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