'The bells toll for my ancestors'

For more than a century, the people of Balangiga could only imagine the ringing of their church’s bells after American soldiers took it as war trophies. Generations of residents have waited all their lives for the bells to toll in their town again.

That day has come.

by Jeff Canoy, ABS-CBN News / Photos and Videos by Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Fe Campanero is 57 years old and she believes in ghosts.

She grew up in a household without television, so when she was young, her family would usually spend idle afternoons by the street, right outside their home.

Fe and her siblings would gather around their father, listening intently to the stories he would tell them. Many of them were ghost stories of spirits burdened with unfinished business and who can’t seem to move on.

Her father, Apolonio, had a knack for telling these stories. He grew up with tales from his own elders, too. And the years of watching how stories are told gave him a natural inclination for theatrics.

The family of Fe Campanero, including her father Apolonio “Equel” Campanero (middle), mother (2nd from right) and siblings. courtesy of Fe Campanero

His large, dark, brown eyes were expressive: his pupils would narrow as the tension rose, the white widening when surprises were revealed. He controlled his big, booming voice with a kind of rhythm that dovetailed nicely with the plot. His volume would begin to crescendo as he reached the climax, pumping adrenaline at the right, exact moment.

Fe’s sister would clutch her arm, digging nails into skin, in suspense.

But by six o’clock in the evening, story time would be over.

Pinapauwi na kaming mga bata ng mga matatanda. ’Yung mga espiritu daw, gagala sa kalsada.

(The elders would send us home saying spirits would begin roaming the streets by night fall.)

It was a warning that Fe and her siblings took seriously. Their father’s ghost stories were gospel.

Fe Campanero reminisces about the stories her father shared while she was growing up. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Like clockwork, they would gather again in the same spot the next day. It became a family tradition.

Fe must have heard dozens of ghost stories from her father, but her favorite one isn’t quite supernatural as it is historical.

It’s the story of their town, Balangiga. A town haunted by its own past.

Locals walk around the town plaza in front of the San Lorenzo de Martir Parish Church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar in this photo taken on December 6, 2018. The residents of Balangiga waited for more than a century for the return of the 3 Balangiga bells, after these were taken by American soldiers as war booty after the bloody Balangiga massacre in 1901. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Balangiga, in the eastern shore of Samar island is a small, quiet town like any other.

Rickety colonial houses with coats of fresh, bright paint. Motorcycles darting in and out of narrow streets. Sari-sari stores with corrugated steel-overhangs that have seen better days. A throng of school girls crossing the street, plaid uniforms flapping in the wind. Pedicab drivers indolently resting their arms on the handle bars, cigarettes pursed in between their stained lips. A flurry of birds chirping and darting through the auburn sky.

The town church, concrete and colored in cream, nestled between the river and the plaza.

Balangiga is a portrait of the ordinary—save for a few oddities.

Next to the church — named San Lorenzo de Martir — lies an empty belfry. An elevated rectangular structure, with arches on all sides, framing a vacant space and nothing else.

At the bottom of the belfry are words that make little sense for visitors, etched in capital letters with questionable kerning: Balangiga. 13 Jun. Edifacado-Ayuda Pueblo 30Oct. S. Lorenzo. Campanario de Pierdra-Cemento.

There’s no explanation inscribed as to why the belfry stands without its bells. There’s no need for one, anyway. Everyone in Balangiga knows exactly why.

Locals walk in front of the San Lorenzo De Martir Parish Church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar in this photo taken on December 6, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

In the town’s brick-paved plaza, there’s a massive monument that overpowers every other sight in the vicinity.

Life-sized, bronze-colored statues sprawled across a section. There are images of Filipinos, fingers tightly gripping knives and machetes, bursting through a door. And about a dozen startled Americans eating breakfast on a long table, their expressions captured and carefully carved into stone.

The 6-million peso installation, built in 2003, was designed and sculpted by one of the country’s most treasured talents— the late national artist Napoleon Abueva — and it commemorates what happened in Balangiga more than a century ago. It also has its own belfry – one adorned by a placeholding, miniature bronze bell.

This tribute to local heroes and the empty church belfry are daily reminders to residents of both the taste of victory and the pang of loss.

Balangiga may be a small, quiet town like any other, but what it has, that many towns cannot claim, is history and unfinished business.

Photo of the Balangiga Encounter Monument and Memorial Library as the sun rises in this photo taken on December 15, 2018, the day of the official turnover of the Balangiga bells to the Municipality and the San Lorenzo De Martir Parish Church. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

The year was 1901.

American soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment-Company C arrived in Balangiga to keep watch and maintain peace with the locals.

It had been three years since the Americans were welcomed in the Philippines as liberators from Spanish rule. But it soon dawned on Filipino revolutionary forces that they traded one colonizer for another. The promise of independence never came. Instead, the islands became a newly acquired territory for the United States.

Insurgencies soon rose across a number of regions in the archipelago.

Not in Balangiga.

American soldiers with Captain Valeriano Abanador. Courtesy of Arnaldo Dumindin

The townspeople welcomed the Americans with the kind of hospitality one would offer a dear, cherished friend. They would drink tuba together, mingle over meals and trade jokes on the same dining table, and would outwit each other in chess games at the plaza.

But after a month of fraternizing, it appeared that the seemingly harmless guests had other plans in mind. Company C’s unit commander, Captain Thomas E. Connell, ordered the arrest of all the men in town. The locals were gathered near the plaza, imprisoned and then forced into labor.

The people of Balangiga wanted their freedom and dignity back.

On the morning of September 28, the townspeople – armed with knives and machetes – attacked the unsuspecting American soldiers, who were mostly inebriated and were just having breakfast.

Birds fly over the statue of Balangiga hero Capt. Valeriano Abanador at the municipal plaza in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, days before the scheduled return of the Balangiga bells on December 15. Abanador, according to historians, led the fight against the US 9th Infantry on September 28, 1901 after a series of human rights abuses by American forces against the locals of Balangiga. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

As the local police chief Valeriano Abanador raised his weapon – a rattan cane – the fate of the American soldiers had been sealed. The church bells of Balangiga rung to signal that an attack was underway and reinforcements were needed.

At the town church, upon hearing the ringing of the bells, the local men, dressed in women’s church garb to hide their identities, took off their veils and attacked army officers stationed in the convent next door.

Before noon, more than 30 Americans were dead.

Historical accounts would later describe it as the worst defeat of Americans at the hands of Filipinos during wartime.

Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith’s infamous order “KILL EVERYONE OVER TEN” was the caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. Arnaldo Dumindin

USS Vicksburg sailors led by Lt. (later Rear Admiral) Henry V. Butler burning a village church in Samar, October 1901. Arnaldo Dumindin

The US was not about to let what they deemed as betrayal by the locals slip past them. A military general ordered a “kill and burn policy” as retaliation to the “massacre” of Americans in Balangiga.

US troops slaughtered able-bodied local men older than 10 years old, bombarded Samar with cannons, and set it ablaze until there was nothing left but a “howling wilderness.”

The province of Samar was filled with orange and rage until there were only ashes. Thousands of residents died in the violent military campaign.

Days after the attack, the three church bells were taken as war spoils and eventually shipped out of Samar, never to be seen or heard by the generation that last rang them.

Two of the bells ended up enshrined at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming; the other, at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea, where the 9th Infantry Regiment is based.

For Americans, the bells weren’t just trophies of war. They were – and still are – a symbol of honor for their fallen.

For Filipinos, the bells exemplify a rare triumph against oppressors.

One of the Balangiga Bells displayed at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Embassy USA

This is the story that Fe’s father would tell her over and over again, the one that forever ends with a cliffhanger as the plot never draws to a conclusion.

It’s also the story that the town would reenact every year on September 28.

Students, dressed as the Balangiganons and the Americans that fateful day, relive the bittersweet victory that led to the town’s church losing its bells. They stage the drama in an open field in the town’s school, with dozens participating and hundreds watching.

It’s an annual historical digest that over the years has transmuted certain artistic liberties. The actors playing Americans – hair colored in drab blonde – would grab Filipino characters from small nipa huts. Filipinos – in iron-pressed soldier uniforms – would fight back. A lone woman, face hidden under a veil, dressed in saya and with a black kimono draped over her shoulders, would come out of a cardboard diorama of the church’s façade, running and waving rosary beads as the bells ring.

The annual tradition started in 1988. The script remains unchanged. It always ends with a cliffhanger – an appeal to the United States to return their bells.

For Balangiga, and as in most heartbreaks, it’s hard to move on when there’s no sense of closure − like a ghost aimlessly wandering among the living, weighed down by the inability to find the light in a seemingly endless tunnel.

For years, Fe volunteered in the reenactment as the narrator.

In many ways, she inherited her father’s role. She would tell the story with the same gusto as he had – her own voice echoing her father’s words, her own expressions mimicking what she witnessed as a child.

But there’s a part in the dramatization that always leaves Fe in tears.

Every time na darating doon sa patayan, umiiyak talaga ako. Kasi bumabalik sa akin yung ’yung feeling kahit wala naman ako noon doon. ’Yung luha ko tumutulo kasi I see them. Nakikita ko sila. Tao ka lang, maaapektuhan ka. So, sabi ko, how much more noong araw na ’yun? Kung ano ang emotions nila. Ako nga is binabasa ko lang, naninindig yung balahibo ko.

(I would weep every time I get to the part where they start killing each other. I see them. I guess it’s because I’m human and get carried away. So how much more if I actually witness it? Reading their story already gives me goosebumps.)

“Parang (as if) you are in a time machine.”

Nobody in Balangiga forgets. Not with the yearly reenactment. Not with the empty belfry.

Para sa tatay ko, ang bells dapat ma-isauli. Dapat ma-isauli because sa amin ’yun. Sabi ng tatay ko, kung saan masakit para sa amin, doon kami nila kami tinira. The bells represent our faith. So every time na siguro titingala ka, ’yung bellfry namin, walang bells. ’Yun ang nakaka-irita, nakaka-paggalit sa tao.

(My father has always believed the bells should be returned to us. He also said the Americans hit us where it really hurt. The bells represent our faith. It’s appalling every time one looks up and sees an empty belfry.)

Through her father’s stories, Fe would come to discover that she wasn’t just connected to the bells by way of circumstance. It wasn’t just because she was born and raised in Balangiga. It was because she was born.

She is a descendant of Casiana Nacionales – the lone woman in the Balangiga encounter.

Professor Rolando Borrinaga shares how the massacre happened based on the findings of the Balangiga Research Group. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Historian Rolando Borrinaga lives in the in-between of reality and imagination.

Since 1994, he has studied the conflict that happened in Balangiga – tracking down old documents, talking to descendants and tracing the steps of the fighters on that fateful morning. Borrinaga says that it’s difficult to sort out what really happened during the encounter, as certain details from the written accounts from both Filipinos and Americans are conflicting.

But in the last 24 years, Borrinaga has sifted through fact, fiction and folklore. His study was done with the help of British historian Bob Couttie and Jean Wall, the daughter of Adolph Gamlin, the first American soldier attacked in Balangiga and one of the few who survived the bloodbath.

For his research, Borrinaga has spoken to numerous descendants of those who fought in Balangiga. He has formed an attachment to many in the community who yearn for the return of the bells. Like him, they too are in the in-between.

Borrinaga says, the reason the community feels the loss to this day is more spiritual than anything.

The bells represent the soul of a community. ’Yung tao sa community, sinilang at bininyagan ‘nang pinapa-tunog ang bells. Kapag may kinakasal, pinapatunog. Kung may namamatay, pinapapatunog. Kapag may paparating na peligro, maririnig mo ’yun.

(The bells toll for babies who get baptized, couples who marry, and even for the departed on their funeral. They are also rung to warn others of an oncoming danger.)

Kapag kinuha mo ’yung bells, kinuha mo na rin ang kaluluwa.

(Take away those bells away from us and you take away our soul.)

There have been many failed attempts to return the bells, but Borrinaga believes the bells will be returned eventually. The long wait has made the historian cautious, but belief is a powerful force.

Souls, after all, have a way of finding their way back home.

Professor Rolando Borrinaga listens to Jean Wall, the daughter of Adolph Gamlin, the first American soldier attacked in the Balangiga massacre, during the ritual-reconciliation meeting with Engr. Ted Amano at a Balangiga Symposium in Tacloban in 1998. Prof. ROLANDO BORRINAGA

The journey of bringing the bells back to Balangiga wasn’t easy. The battle between the US and Philippine forces has been over for a century but it hasn’t really reached a proper conclusion. Asking for the bells back felt like a séance was in order: a summoning of ghosts tethered to their past, hoping they would finally move on.

One of the officers of the Filipino resistance then, Capt. Eugenio Daza, wrote an account in 1935 of what happened in Balangiga with the hopes of getting the bells back.

In 1957, historian and Jesuit priest Fr. Horacio dela Costa wrote a letter to Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California, with the same goal in mind.

“’Nung 1958, ’yung Franciscan Father sa Guihulngan sumulat din pero walang nangyari,” Borrinaga said.

(In 1958, a Franciscan priest from Guihulngan also wrote a letter but nothing happened.)

A petition in 1989 by the Balangiga Historical Society for the bells’ return went for naught, even with the help of the National Historical Institute and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In 1993, there was a flash of hope – however fleeting it turned out to be.

US President Bill Clinton (right) shakes hands with President Fidel Ramos (left) after meetings on April 10, 1998 at the White House in Washington, DC. Among the issues discussed were the Asian financial crisis, securing benefits for thousands of Filipino World War II veterans who fought for the US, and the return of the Bells of Balangiga which were captured by US soldiers after a battle in the Philippines over 100 years ago. Joyce Naltchayan, AFP

Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos asked then US President Bill Clinton for the bells’ return during the latter’s state visit to the Philippines. But the decision wasn't solely up to Clinton.

A law in the United States prohibited war relics and memorials from being returned to foreign countries. In the bells’ case, the US Air Force had the legal rights.

That did not stop Clinton, however. In 1994, he gave a verbal promise to return the bells. Opposition in Washington soon followed. The law was never amended. The offer never came to fruition.

In the 2000s, efforts from various Filipino, American and Filipino-American advocates in the United States continued. Yet several groups composed of American war veterans did not relent.

Since the original bells of Balangiga were taken, a new belfry was built at the southwest side of the church, one that is taller and more prominent.

Over the last few decades, it has housed the bells that have served as temporary replacements.

But for many in Balangiga, the newer ones just do not sound right.

This is strange considering that after 117 years, no living resident has ever heard the original toll. It has only occupied a dimly lit corner of their imagination.

Professor Rolando Borrinaga walks in front of the empty belfry of the San Lorenzo De Martir Parish Church, the spot where the historic Balangiga bells were once located. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Borrinaga, for his part, says he has learned how to temper expectations over the years.

“I have been through past failures so I became a bit guarded. Nasanay ako na mabigo.”

(I’ve grown accustomed to disappointments.)

What happened in Balangiga, however, is a reminder for Borrinaga that one’s spirit shouldn’t be deterred by limitations. Even if the odds were stacked against them, those who fought in Balangiga were able to overcome.

Borrinaga laments that the nation tends to commemorate failures in history and often forgets its triumphs.

“We have been so used to remembering ’yung mga talo – the fall of Bataan, the fall of Corregidor. We have the victory of Balangiga pero medyo apologetic tayo doon. Na parang ‘sorry, mag-celebrate kami kasi nanalo kami.’ Defensive tayo. We should change that. Kailangan mag-celebrate kasi nanalo tayo.”

(We have been so used to remember the losses – the fall of Bataan, the fall of Corregidor. We have the victory of Balangiga but we are slightly apologetic about it. Like ‘sorry, we’ll celebrate because we won.’ We are defensive. We should change that. We need to celebrate exactly because we won.)

The name of Casiana Nacionales written on the Balangiga Encounter marker at the municipal town plaza in this photo taken on December 7, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

There’s a list of 113 names etched in a marble panel on the left side of the monument in the town plaza. All of them belong to locals who fought against Americans in the Balangiga encounter: Pedro. Tomas. Artemio. Marcelo. Marciano.

All men. Except for one: Casiana Nacionales.

Little is known about her. Not on record. Not on many accounts of survivors from the encounter. There are no surviving photographs of her. She’s not even included in the monument built for the town’s heroes.

History has seemingly buried her story, making it difficult for anyone to piece together how her narrative weaves into the conflict.

Yet the tales of Casiana in Balangiga are abundant. Ask any resident and they’d give you a detailed account of her supposed participation during the encounter.

In Balangiga, Casiana goes by many names. A research paper written by former University of the Philippines-Tacloban Assistant Professor Glenda Bonifacio reveals that her full name was Juliana Susana Salazar Nacionales based on land title records. A local written account, meanwhile, referred to her as “Geronima” – supposedly her nom de guerre among revolutionaries.

In her father’s stories, Fe would come to know her through her nickname “Apoy Sana”.

Photo of Apolonio Cote Campanero, grandnephew of Casiana Nacionales. Courtesy of Fe Campanero.

Esperanza Campanero Carilla, 85, shares stories of her grandaunt Casiana Nacionales during an interview on December 8, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Fe’s father grew up in the house of Apoy Sana. Along with his siblings, they would gather around the elderly woman dressed in her church garb. They would listen to her stories about what happened in the encounter.

Apoy Sana would always finish these stories with a teaser. She wanted a reason for the children to return to her house the next day. The children often did. For Fe’s father though, it became mandatory. He would spend the night at the house, falling asleep as Apoy Sana told him tales of the battle.

Fe would come to know Apoy Sana through the stories her father told her.

Apoy Sana was a prayer leader in the community when the Americans arrived. Like everyone else in town, she was friendly to the visitors. But that changed when her brother, Eugenio “Gono” Nacionales, was among those arrested and forced to work in the camps.

Apoy Sana would be privy to the meetings prior to the attack on September 28.

According to Borrinaga, Apoy Sana played an instrumental role. At a time when no one gave a second look at women, Apoy Sana also smuggled in weapons to the prisoners.

Fe Campanero waits at the Balangiga town plaza after hearing the first Simbang Gabi Mass on December 16, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Nandoon sya sa mga meetings. Alam niya yung mga development kaso lang ’yung documentation. Kung babae ka, ‘di ka pina-pangalanan.

(She was in all of the meetings. She knew all the developments. But nobody documented her experience. At that time, if you were a woman, you weren’t worth mentioning.)

Gumagawa sila ng suman. Nilalagyan ng kutsilyo doon. Pinapadala doon sa kanyang brother sa loob ng kulungan kasi malapit lang naman kulungan doon sa kanilang bahay. Saka yung mga bamboo tube, ‘di lang tubig ang laman. May mga itak.

(They would make rice cakes and hide the knives in them. They would send these to her brother in jail. They would also fill bamboo tubes not just with water but with machetes as well.)

Prof. Rolando Borrinaga shows a copy of the Mumby map showing significant spots of the Balangiga encounter, a result of the Balangiga Research Group’s work. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

On the morning of September 28, Apoy Sana supposedly led the contingent of Lawaan – a part of Balangiga before, now its own town – inside the church. The men wore women’s clothing and veils to hide their faces so no one would suspect. It was normal to see a group of women inside the church, praying during the wee hours of the morning.

When Abanador raised his stick as a signal that the attack was ongoing at the town plaza, the church bells tolled to alert those inside the church.

Local versions of the stories, even if the retellings have taken their own dramatic license, have a common denominator: When the bells rang, Apoy Sana took her veil off, lifted her saya where she hid machetes, gave the men their weapons and attacked the American officers stationed in the convent beside the church. Apoy Sana ran outside the church, clutched the beads of her rosary, waved it in the air and signaled the attack.

For the likes of Fe, this story told by her father many times over, had a profound impact on her. As a child, her father gave her a heroine to look up to.

“Nakuha namin 'yung value of being resilient, na kahit mahirap, you should not stop fighting for what’s right. Malaking value rin is the empowerment of women.”

(We learned the value of being resilient, that even if it’s tough, you should not stop fighting for what’s right. Another important value is the empowerment of women.)

The woman with many names – Casiana, Geronima, Apoy Sana – would never marry. She lived in a house in Balangiga with the brother she helped rescue. Her house would be a home for her grandnephews and nieces.

Old records at the municipal hall show that Apoy Sana died on May 11, 1953 at the age of 125 years old. There are doubts to this as some would say she was around 90 years old then.

Her story however, continues to live.

The name of Casiana Nacionales and the date of her death in the Municipality of Balangiga death registry. Dawnavie Dadis, ABS-CBN News

The year is 2018.

In the last two years, the political landscape has shifted and two long-time allies suddenly found themselves adrift.

For more than a century, the US and the Philippines had maintained a close, albeit complex, relationship given the long history between the two nations. Yet the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 changed that.

Duterte launched a highly controversial drug war. Thousands of suspected drug users were killed in state-sponsored operations after allegedly fighting back against police during arrests. The US expressed both implicit and explicit concern and criticism over the killings, as pressure from international human rights groups mounted.

In his speeches, Duterte fired back in what he saw as hypocrisy on the part of the US. He dug up past atrocities, and unleashed ghosts from more than a century ago, such as the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre in Sulu where Americans killed 600 Moros in Mindanao, home of the country’s Muslim population.

And he also brought up the 1901 Balangiga conflict.

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 24, 2017 at the House of Representatives in Quezon City. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Needless to say, there’s been a pivot in relations between the Philippines and the US. Not unlike what happened in Balangiga between the locals and their guests.

In 2017, during his State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte demanded for the return of the bells, which he described as “reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers.”

“Give us back those Balangiga bells,” Duterte said. “They are ours.”

The congressional hall erupted in cheers.

The speech was televised so naturally, camera lenses quickly zoomed in on US Ambassador Sung Kim, who was sitting in the gallery, for a real-time reaction. There was none. If it was a poker game, Kim gave the straightest face.

Many of the descendants in Balangiga would echo Duterte’s sentiment.

For Fe, it’s important that the bells be returned to their church.

“There was one American who asked me, ‘What's the big deal about those bells?’ Sabi ko sa kanya, 'What's the big deal about those bells that you are keeping it?' You are keeping it dahil may pain kayo na kinikimkim. Kami rin may pain. But you have no right to keep it kasi amin ’yun.”

(There was one American who asked me, ‘What's the big deal about those bells?’ I told him, 'What's the big deal about those bells that you are keeping it?' You are keeping it because you still have pain. We also have pain. But you have no right to keep it because they are ours.)

“Ginagawa kaming promise land dito. Promise ng promise na ibabalik ’yung bells ninyo. Nasanay kami.”

(They are turning us into a promise land. They keep promising to return our bells. We’ve gotten used to it.)

In this image obtained from the US Air Force, Philippines Ambassador to the US Jose Romualdez and US Defense Secretary James Mattis pose on November 14, 2018, in front of the bells of Balangiga at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, in Wyoming. During the event, it was announced that the Bells of Balangiga would be returned to the Philippine government. Braydon Williams, US Air Force/AFP

On November 14, 2018, the decades-long streak of searing disappointments was suddenly broken.

In a reversal of roles, it was the Americans who sprung a surprise on Filipinos, this time, a most welcome one. A promise was finally fulfilled.

On a cold Wednesday morning in Wyoming, at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced the return of the disputed bells to “smooth the bonds that were tested but never broken by war.”

The US law, which forbids the return of war relics and memorials to foreign countries, had been amended. Although there was still opposition, the US veterans had, for the most part, given way. It was a confluence of events that led to this moment.

Mattis assured the veterans that the service and sacrifice given by US troops would live on.


“To those who fear we lost something by returning these bells, please hear me when I say: Bells mark time, but courage is timeless.”

“It does not fade in history’s dimly lit corridors.”

Borrinaga was one of the first to break the news of the bells' return on social media. Prior to the announcement, he had learned from advocates that the bells would finally make its way home.

For the historian, who had learned over the years to take developments like these with a grain of salt, it was simply euphoric. He had studied and advocated for the return of the bells for 24 years.

The journey was long and arduous but finally, there’s a sense of closure.

“Hindi ko pa alam kung ano mararamdaman ko kapag nakita ko ’yung bells sa Balangiga. Pero siguro…iiyak. This is closure. Wala ‘nang sagabal. We can all move on.”

(I’m not sure yet what I’ll feel when I see the bells of Balangiga. But I guess…I’ll cry. This is closure. There’s no more unfinished business. We can all move on.)

Fe Campanero is close to tears as she shares her story on how she reacted upon learning the news that the US government had agreed to return the historic Balangiga bells, in this photo taken on December 8, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Fe was in her house, scrolling aimlessly through her Facebook newsfeed, when she saw the announcement.

Her mouth dropped. Her eyes blinked rapidly.

She couldn’t believe it.

“History will be kind to Americans. It’s a gesture of tighter friendship. It’s a gesture of truth.”

Fe wanted to run and tell her father the good news. She wanted to hug him and tell him that finally, the day they had waited for so long was drawing nigh; that the stories he told his children during those afternoons by the street will have a new chapter; that the stories Apoy Sanay passed on to him were going to get a conclusion. No more ellipses. No more teasers. No more cliffhangers. The curtains were closing. The bells, dear father, were coming home.

But she couldn’t.

Apolonio died in 2013 due to heart failure at the age of 79.

“Siguro, hindi man makita ni tatay ’yung ngayon... ’yung bells, isasauli through us. He will be so happy.”

(I guess even if my father will not be able to see it…the bells will be returned through us. He will be so happy.)

But Fe Campanero is 57 years old and she believes in ghosts.

When the bells are returned to the town church, she knows that in some ways, her father will be there too. He would stand with her and the family to hear the bells toll for the first time.

“If you believe in spirits, his spirit is here... joining us. Gaya ko, [he will be] emotional. Siguro ang sasabihin niya, ‘Salamat!’. Walang ibang word that will describe how it feels kung hindi ‘salamat’. It connotes a feeling of happiness. It connotes a feeling of relief.”

(If you believe in spirits, his spirit is here…joining us. Like me, he will be emotional. He’ll probably say ‘Thank you!’. There’s no other word to describe how it feels but ‘thank you.’ It connotes a feeling of happiness. It connotes a feeling of relief.)

Fe Campanero turns emotional as the historic Balangiga bells are unloaded from military trucks upon their arrival in Balangiga on December 14, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Balangiga waited for the return of their church’s bells for 117 years but they only had a few weeks to prepare for the actual turnover.

The date of the bells’ return to their town was set on December 15.

But the three-piece war spoils landed on Philippine soil on December 11, aboard a giant US Air Force cargo aircraft. They were welcomed by Philippine and US officials, dressed in their Sunday’s best, at the Villamor Air Base. President Duterte skipped the event.

Excitement hung in the air. Balangiga’s descendants made their way to Manila and onto the tarmac, hoping to hear the bells ring – a sound that had eluded them, yet craved for, all their lives.

In some ways, the program itself was seemingly built as an auditory experience. There was a military brass band that played Lupang Hinirang followed by The Star Spangled Banner. There were the flags of the two countries, side by side, flapping in the wind. The red, blue and white. The three stars and the sun.

There was a minute of silence for the dead.

Nemesio Duran, great grandson of Vicente Candelosas, who tolled the bells signaling the Balangiga attack, kisses one of the Balangiga Bells during the turnover ceremony at the Villamor Air Base in Manila on December 11, 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Ambassador Sung Kim, who heard Duterte’s demand for the bells as he sat on the gallery across the rostrum during the 2017 State of the Nation Address, spoke about the long friendship between the two countries.

“This solemn ceremony reminds us of the many brave Filipinos and Americans who fought for freedom. In 1901, our two countries were adversaries. That painful conflict soon ended, and our countries became partners and friends.”

“On behalf of the United States, it is my great honor to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history…the bells of Balangiga are home now, in the Philippines, where they belong.”

Kim then looked to the country’s top defense official, Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. This time, it was the US that had a request for the Philippines.

“Please take them to the people of Balangiga and to the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir. May they ring in peace and bear testament to the ties and values which bind our two great nations for generations to come.”

And as the bells tolled in the end, the descendants of Balangiga wept.

Fe, who watched the event on the television, was in tears too.

December 15, 2018.

Balangiga was abuzz with anticipation.

Tarpaulin streamers unfurled in the plaza, marking the homecoming of the trio of church bells. The Home of the Bells were emblazoned on white sheets. The smell of ink and vinegar from freshly screen-printed souvenir shirts filled the air.

Hundreds of residents trooped to the town plaza, energy pulsating in the air with every percussive beat from the town’s brass band. Dozens held bell-shaped cardboard cut-outs, painted in marigold with tempera paint.

The sun was on full-dial but the spectators didn’t mind. The crowd at the plaza was massive, with others barely having any space to stretch their arms, but it was okay. Nothing was going to stop them from witnessing history.

“Ang saya,” said one resident. “Parang piyesta.”

The guests were a who’s who of government and military officials, dignitaries, as well as advocates from all over the world who had long championed the return of the bells.

Descendants of those who fought in Balangiga, including Fe, were in attendance too. It was a family affair. She went with her sisters, cousins and grandaunt.

Inside the covered basketball court by the plaza, descendants and other officials, all dressed in white, waited in eagerness. The bells, hidden behind a red, velvet curtain, were placed on a golden carriage on stage. They were set to be unveiled to the residents by their guest of honor – President Duterte – who would toll the bells for the first time in more than a century in Balangiga. The bells would then be brought inside the San Lorenzo Martir for its formal turnover to the church.

The stage was set. It felt like graduation day, reunion, festival, concert and Christmas day all rolled into one.

The day was going to be the biggest and perhaps most meaningful celebration in town since their ancestors claimed victory against the Americans in 1901.

President Duterte rings the bell during the turnover ceremony at the Balangiga covered court on December 15, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

President Duterte, who skipped the arrival at Villamor Air Base, arrived in Balangiga late afternoon.

In his speech, Duterte stressed that it wasn’t a singular force that made the return possible, but that it was through the efforts of many. For a man who had not given many praises to the US in the past, he was gracious for what he called a “generous act” by the Americans.

In some ways, the day marked a reconciliation of sorts – not just of past grievances but of the present.

"Let me be very clear on this: There are some who are front loaders and pedantic in the government. The bells are returned and it was really because of the fervent prayers of the entire Filipino nation," Duterte said.

"But nobody can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans. The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people. Period.”

The curtains on the carriage dropped. The audience gasped before erupting into cheers. Duterte then pulled a rope that rang the smallest of the three bells. For the first time in 117 years, the town heard the ringing of their bells.

It was a sound foreign to descendants like Fe but it also felt familiar, like they were being transported slowly back in time to the memories of their fathers and mothers and those who came before. The echoes were so immense that many burst into tears.

"I am sure that our ancestors are celebrating with us here on this remarkable victory. And that it does not only bring back the glory of the town, but also contributes to the full restoration of our dignity as a Filipino,” Duterte said.

Finally, the town, haunted by the past, can move on.

Before the bells were carted off to the church, the president had left town.

A few minutes before the Mass at the town church ended, Fe and her family made their way to the altar. The carriage, where one of the bells was displayed, was parked right in front of it.

She grabbed her 84-year-old grandaunt by the hand and walked slowly towards it. Her sisters and cousins followed.

Some of the mass-goers stood up and began to rush in front of the church as well. All determined to get a close view of the bells that they had long heard about.

The music from the church orchestra grew louder as Fe slowly inched closely to the bells. It was like a scene straight out of a climax in her father’s stories.

Except this was no longer a figment of their imagination.

Fe and her grandaunt were the first ones to touch the bronze bell, their fingertips carefully pressing the cold, metal surface.

Fe closed her eyes.

“Salamat,” she whispered.

At that time, a crowd of residents had gathered around the bell, all of them touching a piece of their past.

Nakikita na namin. Hindi lang sa kwento. Ang bells namin will continue to be ringing in our hearts. Inspiration namin ‘yan.

(We are finally seeing it. Not just through stories. Our bells will continue to ring in our hearts. That is our inspiration.)

For descendants like Fe, the bells of Balangiga are meant for the living. But they are also for the dead. They are for her father, who all his life heard many stories about the bells, but did not live long enough to hear them toll. They are for her Apoy Sana, forgotten by history but her story told many times over.

These are the bells of their ancestors. Now, it is theirs.

The Campanero family poses for photos as they touch the historic Balangiga bells for the first time after the turnover ceremony and thanksgiving Mass at the San Lorenzo De Martir Parish Church on December 15, 2018. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News