Produced by Rocky Nazareno
By Alex Y Vergara
Portraits by Pinggot Zulueta
Video by Alvin Veri And Samuel Abad
These days, if you were to run into Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, you would think they were your ordinary lolo and lola out for a stroll in the mall, or if you saw them in Europe holding hands while walking, you could make the mistake of assuming they were retired executives from the Philippines finally enjoying their pension and their freedom.
But Benito and Wilma are not your average grandparents. They are the most formidable heads of the central executive committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines, he—the chair and head of the CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, and she, the CPP secretary general. They have spent so much of their time together on bail in Norway to engage in the very perilous and delicate mission of resuming peace talks between our government and the communists who have become part of what is believed to be one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world. The world is waiting for a political settlement to happen, especially after failed attempts at peace under five Philippine presidents.
For the Tiamzons, who have been out on bail since Aug. 19,“freedom” holds a completely different meaning.
WHEN BENITO MET WILMA
In the 43 years they’ve been together as husband and wife, Benito and Wilma Tiamzon have gotten used to a life on the run marked by months-long stretches of separation as well as several imprisonments between them. As a pair of lifelong tibak (activists), it has become par for the course for Benito and Wilma to lead fuss-free lives devoid, as much as possible, of drama and a penchant to look back and dwell on certain setbacks.
But much as they would want to downplay and even shrug off certain episodes in their lives as part of their bigger struggle to improve the plight of the masses, these episodes stand out not only as stark reminders of their commitment to the movement. They affirm to both friends and foes, sympathizers and critics that one of the most feared and supposedly most dangerous couples in the country are also human beings capable of crying over missed opportunities, taking pride in their two children’s achievements, looking back with humor at how they found ways to communicate in prison, and holding hands in public, which they’ve been wont to do, said Wilma, since becoming campus sweethearts at Rizal High School in Pasig in the late ’60s.
“We now have six grandchildren,” Wilma, the proud lola declared. “We’ve been so busy since the peace talks started that we haven’t had time to go anywhere with the kids. But we had the chance to see and spend some time with them during our recent detention at Crame.”
Just a little over two weeks ago, the two were in Oslo, Norway to take part in the second round of peace talks with representatives of the Duterte administration. They were mobbed by Filipino OFWs and illegal migrants whose total number, said an astounded Wilma, now hover at 40,000. Just how did these two charismatic figures and seemingly tireless revolutionaries cross paths? Where and how did their love story begin? More important, how do they manage to stay together in a world where it has become more common for couples with fewer responsibilities and more mundane concerns to end up leading separate lives.
“We belonged to a pilot class in high school, an experimental section. The class got smaller every year until we reached fourth year. By then, we were so few that the class became like one big barkada,” said Benito in Filipino.
Both Wilma and Benito were children of working-class families in Pasig and Marikina, respectively. As kids, they never imagined themselves taking part in any movement, much less the communist insurgency, but Wilma recalls that growing up in the ’50s and ’60s also meant being exposed to grown-up talk about nationalism and the dysfunctional and unfair system prevailing in Philippine society. She had many questions of her own, but all she could do was listen because it was a no-no back then for minors to join in adult conversations.
CLENCHED FISTS, HANDS TOGETHER
“We lived in the looban, and I remember how adults would gather us kids and give us flags to wave in the streets during those Independence Day parades. Tagalog movies showing Filipino guerrillas standing up to and beating the Japanese were big hits back then,” she said in Filipino.
The two never knew each other until they met in high school. Asked what set Wilma apart from the other girls in school, the soft-spoken Benito, CPP’s legendary organizations man responsible for running the movement, including the once formidable NPA, on the ground after CPP founder Jose Maria Sison went into exile in the Netherlands in 1987, smiled and turned red before regaining his composure: “As far as I remember, she was the brightest girl in class, both academically and in terms of the way she reasoned.”
Wilma was also drawn to Benito’s intelligence, which, she said, was far from “bookish.” He managed to remain humble as he stood his ground defending his views, she attested. Even then, Wilma was already showing signs of admiration for people who were willing to question authority and buck the system, especially if they felt that they were in the right.
“Another thing I liked about him was he didn’t easily give up even when dealing with authority figures. When he knew he was right, he didn’t hesitate to argue with teachers, even with the principal. I admired him for that,” she said.
The relationship, which, as Wilma put it, “resulted initially from mutual attraction that further deepened into something more serious,” continued when both of them moved to the University of the Philippines in Diliman in 1969. Wilma, who originally wanted to become a doctor, took up statistics, while Benito pursued chemical engineering. He also wrote for the Philippine Collegian, UP’s celebrated campus paper. Both were also active in so-called DGs or discussion groups organized by the UP Student Council. They studied the writings of Filipino nationalists like Claro M. Recto and Renato Constantino as well as certain revolutionary writings.
“We weren’t like a typical couple in UP,” said Wilma. “We had different schedules. We weren’t together all the time. He pursued his interests, and I pursued mine. In fact, we only learned much later that we had both signed up in the same discussion group. But even if we weren’t always together, we knew we were a couple.”
And since they belonged to different colleges on a sprawling campus, their chance encounters were also few and far between. But if there’s a will, there’s a way. Even if cellphones and social media were decades away from being invented, Wilma and Benito managed to find ways to meet up fairly regularly.
“Aside from seeing each other during those discussion groups, we agreed to meet up on certain days at the UP Library,” said Benito.
“One would hang out at the library until the other one showed up,” Wilma chimed in. “We were beginning to look like nerds.”
It was also in Oslo sometime during the peace negotiations last month where Manila Bulletin’s Rocky Nazareno first spotted the couple holding hands while walking. Teased about it, Benito merely gave a toothy grin, while his wife broke out in a rich, throaty laugh.
“That’s nothing,” she said, unable to contain her amusement. “We’re used to holding each other’s hand even when we were sweethearts in UP. Yes, even when we were deep into revolutionary work in Samar.”
The Tiamzons, who abruptly left UP as their involvement in the movement deepened in the early ’70s, spent some of the best years of their lives in the remote barrios and hinterlands of Samar where they pioneered in grassroots organization among the neglected province’s poor and oppressed masses. Although they already had an idea of how broken the system was even during their activist days within and outside the campus, their work in Samar, said Wilma, showed them the scale of the problem and the degree of deprivation and oppression ordinary people regularly faced in the hands of military forces, corrupt politicians, and the province’s usurers.
They walked barefoot among the masa, sometimes for days, as they trudged from one part of the huge, almost unspoiled island to another. Apart from being wary of real and imagined pursuers, the Tiamzons and the people they led had no choice but to make their way through thick virgin forests because Samar barely had roads back then. Wilma lit up as she recalled how beautiful and pristine the country’s third largest island was. There were times the couple were separated from each other for months on end, as their respective work brought them to opposite sides of the island. But life in the forest wasn’t all that bad despite being constantly deprived of good food and certain creature comforts most city dwellers now take for granted.
LOVE ON THE RUN
“There were stretches when nothing dramatic happened, but when something did, we had to leave with an entire village at a moment’s notice to evade our enemies. Anything could happen,” Wilma said.
Life on the run seemed to suit them just fine even during their salad days as a couple. Upon the insistence of Wilma’s parents, especially her mother, she and Benito agreed to get married during a no-frills midnight ceremony officiated by an employee of the Cainta municipal hall.
You can’t even call it a ceremony because the couple had to do away with the usual vows and trappings, including the bride’s white wedding dress. “I was wearing ordinary clothes,” said a smiling Wilma, matter-of-factly. “We had no time to fuss over our appearance. Alam mo naman kaming mga tibak. (You know how we activists are.)”
All they did was sign on the dotted the line to legalize their union. It was early 1973, several months after then President Marcos declared Martial Law on Sept. 21, 1972, and several months before Benito was first caught by the military. Three months later, in July 1973, it was Wilma who got caught. While Benito was brought by his captors to a regular detention center, his wife was taken by hers to a safe house.
Both were tortured, but it was Wilma who faced a more uncertain fate. The words safe house were ultimate misnomers. Once Marcos’ subordinates brought you to one during those days, there was a big chance that you might not live to see the light of another day.
“None of you in this room was probably old enough to remember,” said Wilma to her much younger listeners. “Some of you weren’t even born yet. It was an open secret back then that when you were in a hurry to secure a permit to get married, you just had to go to Cainta. It was legal. With my mother as our witness, we signed the papers and later went home as a married couple.”
Getting married was more for their parents than for themselves, Wilma admitted. They were often working together and traveling out of town since their involvement in the movement as a couple started to deepen. Out of respect for her folks, she agreed to their wishes that she and Benito “formalize” their union. Everything was so hush-hush that the two weren’t able to tell Benito’s parents about it. It was Wilma’s mother who ended up telling her balae (Benito’s mom).
“His mother felt slightly offended (nagtampo) when she initially learned about it,” said a smiling Wilma, as she related what could have been a scene straight out of a wry comedy film. Her mother went to Benito’s house one morning unannounced with the couple’s marriage contract. She showed it to her son-in-law’s parents like it was the most normal thing in the world to do. Much as they would want to personally inform Benito’s parents, the couple had already gone underground by then.
It was a good thing they kept their union a secret. Had the military known that Benito was married to Wilma, they would probably have gone after her sooner. Once they were both behind bars, the couple could have gotten the squeeze from their respective interrogators and might have ended up unwittingly incriminating each other and their comrades during those endless series of tactical interrogations. They did no such thing. Luckily, they both survived their respective ordeals and were eventually transferred to the Ipil Rehabilitation Facility, a now-defunct minimum security detention center in the heart of what millennials now call Bonifacio Global City. They were released from the Fort Bonifacio facility on different dates in 1974.
TENDERNESS AND TORTURE
“When I was first caught, she was even able to visit me in the detention center. We made it appear that she was visiting me as my girlfriend,” said a smiling Benito.
Wilma added: “When we found ourselves together several months later as part of a bigger group that was moved to Ipil, he made it appear that he was courting me in prison. People, including our captors, believed that we met and fell in love in a detention center.”
These days, Benito, 65, looks hale and hearty for his age, while Wilma, whose turning 64 this December, appears frail. But wait until you hear her speak and break into her signature laugh. Her soft but husky voice is a perfect foil to her slight frame. Instead of leaving them sickly, their former lives in the boondocks have left them feeling young, motivated, and with a seemingly perpetual spring in their steps.
“Oh, he’s very healthy,” Wilma said while pointing to her husband. “He’s monitoring something, but otherwise everything about his health is manageable. In my case, because of my genes, I sometimes suffer from hypertension. But one positive side effect of being imprisoned was we had regular time to do our exercise. We were also able to monitor our diet. In a way, we became healthier in prison.”
Wilma is referring to their latest incarceration, her fourth and his second, after again being caught by government operatives in March 2014 in Carcar, Cebu. It was with no small amount of irony that the Tiamzons got to see their immediate relatives more regularly, including their two children, whenever they were imprisoned compared to when they were free, but constantly on the run.
“My brother once chided me in jest,” said Benito. “The fact didn’t escape him that it was easier to get hold of us whenever we were locked up.
It was also during their latest imprisonment that Benito learned that his mother had passed away. Asked by his captors at Camp Crame to list down his possible visitors, he listed, among other people, his widowed mother and siblings.
FIRST A REVOLUTIONARY
“When my siblings visited me, I asked them about Inang (mother). They just stared at me and said that Inang was no longer with us. That is part of the life of a revolutionary—long stretches with no contact with family.”
If Wilma regretted one thing, it wasn’t their decision to leave then five-month old Liza under the care of barrio folks when she and Benito had to move to another part of Samar to further lay the seeds of their revolution. In the grand scheme of things, her being a revolutionary seems to trump everything, including her being a daughter and mother. It wasn’t until four years later the the couple was finally reunited with Liza.
“You could say having a baby was an accident,” she said with a chuckle, when asked if they planned Liza’s coming. Turning serious, Wilma said: “I didn’t regret leaving her for four years with our friends in the barrio. It wasn’t easy, but my decision was firm. It was the best we could do back then. We both needed to do our work with the farmers.”
Named after Liza Balando, a factory worker and union organizer who was gunned down and killed by snipers at a Labor Day rally outside the old Congress building in 1971, Liza’s entry into this world seemed to mirror her parents’ lives. It was, to say the least, far from conventional. Wilma gave birth to her in one of the ramshackle houses in a secluded barrio in Western Samar. Hours later, she and her baby had to leave after they received word from comrades that a military operation was hatched near their place.
“I had to leave with my baby and my bloodied beddings to elude the possibility of being captured. I don’t know where I got the strength to do that. I was only 23. I guess when one is young one is more impervious to pain,” she said.
Instead of traveling by land, the barrio people she was with had the sense to hide them in the dead of night by taking a boat and sailing in the middle of the sea. There, Wilma and her newborn baby waited it out until she and her companions felt it was safe again to return to shore. Benito couldn’t join them immediately, as he was in another part of the province. They were reunited eventually, but the couple had to make a tough choice five months later.
The movement now wanted them to move to another, more remote and unorganized area of Samar. Apart from being fraught with uncertainty, the trip would require them to walk on foot for at least 11 days. Rather than endanger Liza’s life, they decided to leave her under the care of their friends. Wilma had nothing to give the poor community she left her daughter with other than a pair of earrings given to her by her mother. She didn’t even know if the heirloom pieces amounted to anything.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t feel anything,” Wilma said before pausing for several seconds trying to recall the sad day. “Of course, I did. I told myself as soon as I handed my daughter to one of the women not to look back.” Her exact words to herself as she left the community sound more powerful in Filipino: “Huwag kang lilingon.”
Wilma said the only way she could plod on was to tell herself not to look back. And for 11 torturous days as she trekked across Samar, she never allowed herself to turn her head.
Liza, after being weaned on condensed milk and nearly succumbing at one point to measles, miraculously survived without her parents. To borrow Hilary Clinton’s words, it literally took a village to raise her. She was reunited with her parents four years later in another part of Samar.
MOTHERHOOD AND MARTYRDOM
“We had to finish a series of meetings before we could even attend to her,” Benito recalled. “I welcomed them earlier and even tried to carry her, but she wouldn’t come near me.”
After being reunited for a few hours, they were again separated for several months from their daughter until Benito’s brother was able to come to Samar to finally take Liza to Manila. After growing up in a sleepy community with no electricity, the girl, who didn’t speak a word of Tagalog, understandably suffered from culture shock during her first few months in the big city. It was Christmas season then and poor Liza couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw colorful lights glistening at night from strange looking trees.
“Once I asked her what her merienda was,” said Wilma. “She told me, referring to the siopao she had, that she ate a huge egg with paper sticking at the bottom.”
To cut a long story short, the Tiamzons began the process of having their daughter adopted by one of Benito’s Manila-based siblings. Since quitting the movement was farthest from their minds, they probably felt that Liza’s future would be limited in Samar. She needed to move permanently to Manila under the care of immediate relatives. They later also did the same thing to their second child Alex, who was also named after a fallen revolutionary. For personal and security reasons, the couple declined to reveal the last names of their two children.
“But they have known since they were young that we are their real parents,” said Wilma. “They know about the movement and its importance. We explained it to them. They also fully understood while they were growing up why they had to call their parents tita and tito in public. They knew that nanay and tatay had plenty of enemies.”
In later years, they made it a point to seize every opportunity they could get to be with their children in Manila. One instance Wilma couldn’t forget was when a teenaged Liza reminded her mother not to reveal the identities of her comrades even during extreme situations. Wilma had no inkling were she got such an idea, but instead of feeling alarmed, she felt proud of her daughter. Liza wasn’t only aware, she also cared so much about the movement her parents had devoted their lives to.
“She even once wanted to join the NPA,” Wilma shared. Instead of dissuading their then 15-year-old daughter from following in their footsteps, the couple allowed the situation to eventually resolve itself. In due time, Liza changed her mind and pursued other things.
“We learned what her real motivation then was,” said Wilma with a chuckle. “Before I was caught in 1989, we were always together. She was also often visiting us at the sona guerilla. It turned out she had a crush on one of the members of the NPA, a 19-year-old guy. She herself told me about it.”
Despite leading unconventional lives, which includes not seeing loved ones often enough and running constantly to elude the law, the couple can’t imagine themselves living any other way. And they never seem to get tired. Why should they, said Wilma, when their enemies never get tired as well.
“We will never get tired of fighting for what we believe is right, but there have been points in our lives when it did get physically tiring,” she said. “Until we don’t see the changes we want to see, we can’t allow ourselves to get tired. Our minds and our hearts remain steadfast.”
KEEP THE FIRE BURNING
Wilma was again caught by the military for the third time in 1994. But within two weeks, she was released from prison, together with a number of communist rebels and political detainees, by then President Ramos. The government was embarking on a series of confidence-building measures prior to sitting down with various parties to hold peace talks.
Instead of going home and visiting her ailing parents, Wilma chose to disappear to elude military surveillance. She figured that if she went home, they would be able to shadow her and lock her up again should the peace talks collapse. It turned out be the one and only decision as a revolutionary she would regret publicly for the rest of her life. She was in the company of comrades in a sona guerrilla somewhere in Luzon when she learned that her father had died.
“That was the time I really cried,” she sighed before pausing for a few seconds to regain her composure. “I’m turning emotional again. Had I gone home, we would have seen each other. I knew he had health issues, but I never thought they were that serious. I thought his vision was just failing because of old age. When I was away, his doctors discovered a tumor in his brain. He was operated on, but he never woke up.”
Still, the question begs to be asked. What made their relationship last this long? Both of them laughed before Benito turned and looked at his wife. No words were said between them, as he allowed Wilma to answer the question.
“We’ve already developed a clinical way of looking at a relationship,” she said. “To make any relationship work, we believe it is important for partners to have mutual respect and attraction for one another as well as an unwavering commitment to revolutionary ideas. If one factor disappeared, the relationship could end. If mutual respect and attraction disappeared, we could still be revolutionaries without being in a relationship.”