THREE church bells taken as war trophies by American soldiers 117 years ago from Balangiga town, Eastern Samar arrived in the country yesterday.
The arrival of the Balangiga bells, among the most famous symbols of resistance to US colonialism, is seen to end a dark chapter in relations between the US and the Philippines.
The bells will be turned over on Saturday to Church and local officials in Balangiga where US troops in 1901 massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Filipinos to avenge an ambush that killed 48 of their comrades.
A US C-130 plane carrying the bells touched down at around 10:30 a.m. at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, where government officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana waited for the formal transfer of the bells.
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and other officials witnessed the formal turnover by US Ambassador Sung Kim to Lorenzana. President Duterte is expected to attend the turnover in Eastern Samar.
A handful of people from Balangiga town were present. They cheered as the bells — two came from Wyoming and one from South Korea — were being unloaded from the plane and unboxed.
“I’m a little bit excited and a little bit emotional. At last we have seen the bells,” said Fr. Lentoy Tybaco, parish priest of Balangiga, as the bells were lifted from boxes and displayed on a runway.
Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said, “It is with great joy and deepest gratitude that we, in the CBCP, receive the good news that, after 117 years, the three Bells of Balangiga shall now be returned to their rightful place in the Parish of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, of the Diocese of Borongan, in the town of Balangiga, Eastern Samar.”
The bells were taken to the Air Force museum where they will be opened for public viewing for two days.
Kim said the return of the bells reflect on the “iron clad” relationship and the “strong bonds and mutual respect” between the two countries.
“On behalf of the United States, it is my great honor to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history,” said Kim.
“The bells of Balangiga are now in the Philippines, where they belong. Secretary Lorenzana, please take them to the people of Balangiga and to the church of San Lorenzo (in Balangiga),” added Kim.
Kim said the US decision to return the bells “was the “right thing to do.”
“We all believe very strongly that we should return the bells to the Philippines where they belong,” he added.
He said the decision was not mainly due to the demand of President Duterte in 2017 for the US to return the bells. “It’s really much more than just one president, because of one demand. This is something that many people brought out for very long time. Other presidents have also raised this history and many Americans have tried to resolve the issue.”
“We all know that (war) that was a painful chapter in the relations of our countries and hopefully, the return of the bells today closes that chapter,” Kim said.
Lorenzana said the return of the bells signals the healing of the “painful chapter” in the history of the Philippines and the US.
“They are home, and they are going back to where they belong. It’s time for healing. It is time for closure. It is time to look ahead as two nations should with shared history as allies,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana said the defense department joins the people of Eastern Samar in “rejoicing the return of the bells.”
He said the return of the bells mark the renewed friendship and strong bonds between the Philippines and US which he said surmounted past challenges together and ready to face the future.
“Let the bells toll, strong and loud, for our countries,” he added.
The return of the bells follows years of lobbying by former presidents, priests and historians, and challenges from Wyoming veterans and lawmakers opposed to dismantling a war memorial, resulting in legislation that barred their removal.
The battles in Balangiga that took place towards the end of the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War marked one of the darkest chapters of US colonialism.
Historians say the bells were rung to signal the start of a surprise attack on American soldiers who retaliated with a massacre in which women and children were killed.
Last year US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis promised President Duterte that he would push hard for their return, which Duterte had demanded during his annual state of the nation address.
The move could help to appease Duterte, who has made a point of lashing out regularly at Washington, despite a tight US-Philippines defense alliance.
He has condemned what he sees as the United States’ history of hypocrisy, arrogance and political interference.
Duterte has yet to visit the United States as president, calling it “lousy,” although his foreign minister last month hinted the bells’ return might prompt a change of heart.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the return of the bells puts closure to a “tragic chapter in the shared history of the Philippines and United States.”
“As we recall this dark page of our history, let the world know that our race will not allow itself to be subjugated by any foreign power and we Filipinos will always assert our sovereignty against those who will attempt to subvert it,” he said.
Panelo attributed the return of the bells to the efforts of stakeholders both from the Philippines and the US. –(V. Reyes with J. Montemayor, . Naval, Malaya)