For 117 years, the Balangiga Bells were held by the Americans as trophies of war. The next half century saw our two nations fight together in World War II, no longer enemies but the closest of allies under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But to those who insisted on keeping the bells of Balangiga, they were trophies of war, and the enemy in that war were the Filipinos who killed 48 American soldiers in that one attack in Balangiga, Samar, for which Gen. Jacob Smith, in retaliation, ordered his men to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” in which thousands of Filipinos lost their lives.
Last Tuesday, the Balangiga Bells returned to the Philippines. They arrived at Villamor Air Base, where brief ceremonies were led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, United States Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Yong Kim, and Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez. President Duterte will be in Balangiga on Saturday to turn the bells over to the people and the parish of Balangiga.
It must not be forgotten that the bells were taken from the parish church of San Lorenzo of the Diocese of Borongan in the town of Balangiga, Eastern Samar. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has thus expressed its gratitude to the Philippine government and President Duterte and to the US government for the return of the bells in time for the start of Simbang Gabi before dawn the very next day, Sunday.
The bells, however, are no longer just church bells of the Balangiga parish. They have become part of the nation’s history—seized as war booty after a bloody war, kept for 117 years and displayed in war museums, and finally returned to a nation no longer an enemy but a close ally. Sen. Juan Manuel Zubiri has thus proposed that one of the bells be placed in the National Museum in Manila where the nation’s youth can see it as an important part of our history and a reminder of their forefathers’ struggles for freedom.
Whatever is finally decided about the Balangiga bells, they are no longer trophies of war but symbols of peace. In the words of Ambassador Kim, “Today we do not focus on looking back or relitigating a painful chapter in our past, but investing in our shared future.”
The bells of Balangiga have been part of a history of conflict but have now returned to their old church in Samar, pealing out their message of love and peace, so fittingly at this start of our Christmas celebration in the Philippines.