Bells of Balangiga: Why they matter

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 13 2018 03:36 PM | Updated as of Nov 13 2018 04:12 PM

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MANILA - After over a century, the church bells taken by the US Army from Balangiga, Eastern Samar in 1901 may soon find their way home to the Philippines. 

But what do the bells symbolize and why did the Philippine government seek their return for decades? 

In the midst of the Filipino-American War, the tolling of the bells on the morning of September 28, 1901 signaled the start of a sneak attack by dozens of Balangiga villagers against US soldiers. 

Some 50 Americans, many of them eating breakfast or just waking up, were killed in the incident that handed Filipinos one of their greatest victories in the war. 

The church bells, in turn, became a "source of pride" symbolizing the Filipinos' ability to resist foreign invaders, Dr. Rolando Borrinaga of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) said Tuesday. 

But in retaliation for the American defeat, US General Jacob Smith ordered the killing and burning of all men above the age of 10, leaving some 2,000 Samareños killed. 

US forces also took 3 Balangiga church bells as war booty, displaying 2 of them in a museum in Fort Russell, Wyoming and another at a museum in South Korea. 

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In a visit to the US in 1998, then President Fidel V. Ramos sought the return of the bells from US President Bill Clinton. 

Clinton failed to grant the request due to the National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits "the return of veterans' memorial objects to foreign nations without specific authorization in law." 

In the 14th and 15th Philippine Congress, 4 Senate resolutions were filed urging the US government to return the bells to the country. The resolutions reached only the committee level.

President Rodrigo Duterte, during his State of the Nation Address last year, asked the US to return the bells, saying: "They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage." 

"Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit yun sa amin," he added.
 
(Return it. It is painful for us.) 

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Last August, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed documents favoring the return of the war booty. 

A ceremony will be held on Nov. 15 (Manila time) at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming for the repatriation of the Balangiga bells, NCCA's Borrinaga said. 

"This will mark the beginning of the journey of the 2 Wyoming bells back to the church from which they were taken. The Wyoming bells will now be able to begin their journey home," the prominent Eastern Visayas historian said. 

The third Balangiga bell at a US Army museum in South Korea, he said, had also been crated and is ready for repatriation. 

The 3 bells may arrive in the country by mid-December, he told radio DZMM.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the Palace welcomes the repatriation of the historical icons, but declined to comment further until the bells are delivered.

"In the words of the President himself: 'It ain’t here until it’s here,'" he said in a statement. 

Sources: Senate website, Ramos Peace and Development Foundation