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Church bells turn Philippine town into tourist attraction

Return of war trophies looted from Balangiga has become a tourism opportunity for poor town

Church bells turn Philippine town into tourist attraction

Priests touch one of the historic Balangiga bells on its arrival in the town last December. The bells, which were taken as war booty by American troops in 1901, were returned to the Philippines in December 2018. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

Published: April 02, 2019 03:28 AM GMT

Updated: April 02, 2019 03:31 AM GMT

Schoolteacher Isolde Mangyao traveled about three hours with her two children to the town of Balangiga in the central Philippine province of Eastern Samar just to see three church bells.

Mangyao admitted that she made the trip to satisfy her curiosity after hearing news reports about the place. It ended up being a very interesting history lesson

"When we finally arrived, we looked at our journey as being as very meaningful, particularly when we saw the monument fronting the church where the three bells are placed," said the teacher.

In December last year, the United States returned three church bells swiped by American forces as war booty from the central Philippine town of Balangiga in 1901.

The taking of the bells and the American sacking of Samar came after Filipino freedom fighters ambushed and killed at least 40 American soldiers sitting down to breakfast on Sept. 28, 1901.

They were part of a 75-man American garrison stationed in town. It is said the bells were used to signal the attack. Rebels disguised as women had smuggled weapons in small coffins into the church to attack the Americans.

At least 28 Filipinos were also killed in what historians say was the "single worst defeat" inflicted on American forces during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War.

In reprisal, the Americans rounded up and killed some 5,000 Balangiga villagers. All were male residents over 10 years old. The incident became known as the Balangiga Massacre

Teacher Mangyao said she realized that the visit to Balangiga was "very important ... to understand the historical and religious contributions of the bells to our country."

The historic Catholic church in the town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)


The return of the bells has also become a tourism boon to the poor town, which has already played host to about 22,000 visitors since December.

"It has placed Balangiga on the tourism map," said Karen Tiopes, tourism director for the Eastern Visayas.

She said the publicity generated by the return of the bells has helped boost people's awareness of history.

A documentary film titled Balangiga: Honor and Sacrifice is currently being shot in the town to "provide a definitive explanation of how and why things went horribly wrong in Balangiga."

Written and directed by local historian Rolando Borrinaga and British author Bob Couttie, the film aims to shed light on what really happened in the small town more than a century ago.

American filmmaker Michael Sellers, who is involved in the production, said the film "will foster a new level of understanding and acceptance of a painful moment in history."

"We will tell the true, complete story of what happened in 1901, why it happened, and why the return of the Balangiga Bells to Eastern Samar has created a unique opportunity for a moment of healing and renewal," said the filmmaker.

Tour operators are expecting at least 50,000 tourists in the coming months with "concerted efforts" not only by the government but also various sectors in the community to bring in visitors.

Franklin Robedizo, provincial tourism officer of Eastern Samar, hopes the tours will help ease poverty in the province.


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