KASAMA Vol. 10 No. 4 / October-November-December 1996 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Of Pain, Courage and Survival

Book Review by Emere Distor

The life of Maria Rosa Henson or "Lola Rosa" classically depicts the cruelty of poverty and powerlessness. Yet, amidst the sadness of it all, Lola Rosa breaths courage. In her autobiography, Lola Rosa, survivor of Japanese war atrocity, leads the readers to visit her life through the book with her own illustrations and vivid descriptions of people and events long gone. Her story begins as the daughter of the landlord’s illiterate mistress, Julia. Rosa’s mother, Julia, is the eldest of the children who began her ‘working’ life as Don Pepe Henson’s housemaid, despite her protestations. The seeming kindness of the landlord to help Julia’s family was not without motive.

A man whose words were command, a man who frequented the nearby church like his toilet, Don Pepe, promised Julia’s family he would recognise the child as his own provided they take her to Pasay to give birth. Don Pepe gave his name to Rosa and kept his promise. Growing up without a father around confused Rosa about her background which later on was discovered by her classmates and teachers. In a period when children born out of wedlock were extremely isolated, Rosa learned early in life to meet challenges and taunts head on and survive. Her only consolation then was to meet her father, not in the big house where his family lived, but, secretly inside his rice granary.

When war was declared on 5 December 1941, Rosa was 14 years old. Her mother’s family all fled to Bulacan to escape the Japanese troops landing in Manila. While gathering wood, Rosa was snatched by three Japanese soldiers and raped. She survived the incident because a farmer brought her home to recover. Two years after, an even more unfortunate incident happened to Rosa while she was passing a Japanese checkpoint with members of the guerilla movement. Thinking that the ammunition hidden in the sacks of grain would be discovered, Rosa silently returned to the checkpoint guard who by that time waved to her companions to proceed. Rosa was captured and become a comfort woman for nine harrowing months.

In telling details, Rosa describes the brutal and inhumane treatment of comfort women: "At two, the soldiers came. My work began, and I lay down as one by one the soldiers raped me. Everyday, anywhere from 12 to over 20 soldiers assaulted me. There were times when there were as many as 30; they came to the garrison in truckloads." The cruelty towards Rosa and the other girls was unending especially in times when the soldiers were not satisfied after raping them. "Once there was a soldier who was in such a hurry to come that he ejaculated even before he had entered me. He was very angry and he grabbed my hand and forced me to fondle his genitals. Another soldier was waiting for his turn outside the room and started banging on the wall. The man had no choice but to leave, but before going out, he hit my breast and pulled my hair."

However, violence and humiliation were everyday occurrences in the garrison for comfort women. Not even captivity nor bouts of malaria dampened the spirit of Rosa to survive, more so to help the resistance against the Japanese. Overhearing Japanese officers planning to burn her village of Pampang to flush out members and supporters of HUKBALAHAP, Rosa risked her life to inform a passing villager. "I was in luck that day because the guards took us downstairs so we could have some sunshine. The field fronted the street, but the Japanese had fenced it off with barbed wire so no one could escape. I walked close to the street and saw an old man pass by. His face looked familiar to me, and I knew he lived in our barrio." There was not a single soul in the village when the troops arrived. The officer readily suspected Rosa who was in the same room during their planning. She was dragged to the garrison, tied and beaten senselessly.

When the Japanese Imperial Army withdrew its troops from the Philippines, Rosa was freed from the garrison and only regained consciousness after two months. Her recovery was as traumatic as her ordeal. "My mother nursed me back to health, spoon-feeding me as if I were a baby. I could neither stand nor walk. I crawled like an infant. I could not focus my eyes well, and everything I saw was blurred." After a remarkable recovery at the age of 18, Rosa met Domingo who later become her husband and father to two daughters. In another twist of fate, Domingo just disappeared one day without a word. It was not until nearly a year when she discovered her husband’s location — in a jungle with the HMB, an armed group fighting the government’s army for land redistribution. The pain of discovery was made more unbearable for two different reasons — Rosa was abducted while buying medicine for their very ill daughter and kept for days by Domingo’s men, and secondly, Domingo already had a new woman.

If one were an ordinary mortal, there is more probability that you’d loose your sanity halfway if you were in Lola Rosa’s shoes, or wooden clogs for that matter. She started life painfully, with only faith in God and love for her mother in her heart. She was stripped of her dignity as a Japanese comfort woman. She was betrayed by her husband who hid under the shield of the resistance movement. She single-handedly raised her family. She mourned, she struggled, she survived.

Lola Rosa started writing her autobiography in 1995, two years after she came out in public to protest against Japanese war atrocities. Her manuscript has already been translated in Japanese by Yuki Shiga-Fugime, a professor of contemporary history at Kyoto University.

Coming out in public as a comfort woman was a most courageous thing to do. Many people are sympathetic but some are sneering and even suspicious. In April 1993, along with other surviving comfort women from the Philippines and other countries, she filed a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court demanding compensation from the Japanese government. During the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to the Philippines in 1994, Tomiichi Murayama brought out the idea of a Women’s Centre as a form of compensation. Until now, the Japanese government insists that compensation was already given in the form of reparations to the Philippines government after WW II.

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