KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 3 / July–August–September 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Lola Rosa at home, March 1996 (Photo: PCIJ)

MANILA - Maria Rosa Luna Henson died of a heart attack at the Pasay City hospital on the rain-swept night of August 18, 1997. She was 69.

Mrs. Henson burst into the national consciousness in 1992, when she broke half-a-century's silence to talk about her ordeal as a "comfort woman" in a World War II rape camp. Her example inspired other women to come out with their own stories, belying earlier claims that the Japanese forces did not set up "comfort stations" in the Philippines as they did in Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Lola Rosa was an outspoken, intelligent and courageous woman who overcame great odds to become a champion of justice for the most secret and silent victims of World War II. Her widely read autobiography, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1996, is a touchingly honest account of her life and times and is the only autobiography ever written by any of the over 200,000 sex slaves kept by the Japanese in Asia. Comfort Woman is a finalist in this year's National Book Award for Best Biography.

Lola Rosa wrote Comfort Woman in her own unsteady hand, on ruled pad paper, using the English she had learned in school. The effort took over a year and entailed a great deal of painful recollection of a life that has seen epic suffering. In Comfort Woman, Lola Rosa wrote of her own mother's rape by the wealthy landlord who was to become her father. She recalled growing up as the hidden, illegitimate daughter of a young mother who could barely read or write. But the young Rosa managed to do well in a Catholic school in Pasay City, and was in seventh grade when the war broke out.

Her ordeal began when she was raped by Japanese soldiers while gathering firewood in what is now Fort Bonifacio. Fearful for her safety, her mother brought her to a village in Pampanga, where Lola Rosa joined the Hukbalahap guerrillas, gathering food and medicine for them, and acting as a courier for messages. While transporting a cartload of guns, she was stopped by a Japanese sentry who forcibly took her to a hospital in Angeles City which had been turned into a garrison. There, at the age of 14, her life as a comfort woman began. For nine months until her rescue by Huk guerrillas, scores of Japanese soldiers raped her everyday.

Lola Rosa told no one but her mother of what had been done to her. Not even the man she later married knew; her children found out only after she had come out into the open in 1992. Abandoned by her husband, she raised three children on her own, working as a laundrywoman, and later as a sweeper in a cigarette factory. She did not go mad only through faith and the sheer effort of will, she said. She also vowed to remember. To her dying day, Lola Rosa had a prodigious memory for dates and events. She once said that for her, remembering was the best revenge.

Lola Rosa's story is one of survival rather than victimhood. In the five years since she went public with her secret, she fought hard for justice for comfort women, joining marches, appearing in Congress, even filing a lawsuit in a Tokyo court. She was independent and outspoken. She also had the courage to break away from the NGOs working on her behalf. When she disagreed with their policies and methods of work, she just opted out. She was the first to accept unofficial compensation from the Japanese, although she was adamant in the belief that they owed her official indemnity as well.

Lola Rosa was buried in the saya with autumn-leaf design that she had made herself and wore to her book-launching last year at the historic Fort Santiago. "Autumn leaves, like me," she said then, with the quiet, self-deprecating humor of a woman who had survived so much so bravely, so triumphantly.

—Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny
Publisher: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 905 Horizon Condo, Meralco Avenue, Pasig, Metro Manila. Fax# 0011 632 633 5887

Library Copy: CPCA Brisbane Branch, 84 Park Road, Woolloongabba 4102