Resteta Fernandez:

A Beloved Daughter, Sister and Comrade

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Resteta Fernandez was a vibrant and enthusiastic young girl. She was articulate and possessed a profound understanding of social issues. Her perceptiveness even led her to graduate high school as “most outstanding in Social Studies.”[1]

The path Resteta, “Res” to her family, took was not easy early on. She was born on May 17, 1957 in Sampaloc to Amalia Aguinaldo and Angelo Fernandez and was the third of four children. Her father worked hard labor as a carpenter and a construction foreman, but even so, his income was barely enough to put his children to school, but he enrolled his daughter anyway, determined to have her graduate college.[2]

By the early 1970’s, Res had been studying in Ramon Magsaysay High School and had been excelling. This was, however, during a time of militant student demonstrations. Inspired by her brother, Jose “Ding” Fernandez, Res embraced activism and joined him in Katipunan ng Kabataang Demokratiko, a militant youth organization, during her second year in high school.[3] She remained part of the resistance movement and sustained propaganda and organizing work even as they went underground in Manila, itself a hotbed of student militancy. Prior to her graduation in 1974, she was apprehended by school guards who confiscated subversive materials in her possession. She was briefly imprisoned in Camp Crame but was released upon the intervention of her relatives and school principal.[4]

After finishing high school as an honor student, her parents were all the more encouraged to help her finish college, but the financial restraints proved too much. As such, Res opted to become a working student to help her parents fund her education. When the family could still not overcome the financial burden, Res chose to work full-time instead. She worked as a saleslady at a department store in Avenida and as a coder-verifier for the Philippine Constabulary’s Firearms and Explosives Unit in Camp Crame. She also became a Church social action worker with the Protestant Pastoral Institute, which took her to the slums of Cavite and Tondo, immersing her deeper within the repressed fringes of society. As part of her activism, she continued her organizing work outside of Manila, and this ultimately led to her arrest in Isabela in 1980.[5]

Res was arrested for “rebellion, insurrection, and subversion,” according to her brother Ding, and was jailed at the Isabela Provincial Command jail for over two years. Having had brushes with the law twice, the second time in two years, did not dampen the spirit of Res, whose passion to help the less fortunate, the oppressed and the silenced still stoked the fervor of her desire to struggle. She briefly stayed with her family but, by 1983, expressed her resolute intent to “go to the mountains and join the armed resistance.”[6] Her mother pleaded for her to remain, but Res assured her that she was “doing this because of [her] love for [her family] also.” She placed her belongings in a backpack and bid her family goodbye.[7]

This was the last time the Fernandez family saw their daughter as she joined the New People’s Army (NPA) in Cordillera. They were only able to receive information about her through infrequent letters she was able to send. Other than this, the family spent their days with bated breath, anxious with every newspaper reporting of an NPA encounter with the military. Their worst fears were realized two years later when newspapers began reporting that Resteta, known to her comrades as Ka Senyang, was killed alongside Ka Bobot, identified as the rebel-priest Fr. Nilo Valerio, and Ka Gina, later discovered to be Soledad Salvador. The three were killed in a raid conducted by troopers of the Philippine Constabulary, led by Sgt. Henry Dayag and Sgt. Jose Panganiban, in Sitio Beyeng in Bakun, Benguet early in the morning of August 24, 1985.[8]

The reports were made all the more distressing because a letter from a “concerned Igorot” relayed to news agencies that not only were three rebels slain in the encounter, they were also beheaded and their heads paraded through the nearby sitios.[9] To confirm the news, the Fernandez family immediately formed a network with the families of the other two victims to confirm the news and retrieve the bodies of their loved ones. The Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP) organized a fact-finding mission composed of relatives and friends of the victims, as well as representatives of the media and the funding Baguio-based human rights organizations. Res’s brother Ding joined the team as a representative for the Fernandez family. He was introduced to Epigenio “Jun” Valerio, Jr., with whom he cooperated in every undertaking on the matter.[10]

Jose “Ding” Fernandez (left) and Epigenio “Jun” Valerio, Jr. (right) during the dig of the purported graves of their loved ones. From a newspaper clipping from the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission

The fact-finding mission went to Benguet by mid-September to interview witnesses in Sitio Beyeng and exhume the bodies and heads from the supposed shallow graves they were buried in. Almost immediately, the local Kankanaeys noted the similar facial features of Ding and the late Ka Senyang. When Ding sketched a portrait of her sister, they unanimously agreed that it strikingly resembled her. They also told Ding that Ka Senyang had poor eyesight, had difficulties pronouncing the “l” and “r,” and, most importantly, that she had been limping for a few months, which matched what Res told her family in her last letter, as she injured herself after an encounter.[11]

Eyewitnesses told them that the victims had been staying in two adjacent huts with five of their comrades, as one of them had fallen ill. In the morning of August 24, the group was taken by surprise when some twenty PC soldiers raided the huts. Res was reportedly hit as she went out the window.[[12]] Upon being guided by the locals to the site where the bodies were supposedly buried, Ding, Jun and the fact-finding team were taken aback to find the site empty. Going to nearby Sitio Sadel to visit the burial site of the heads, the team once again found empty holes.[13] They merely found traces of human remains, such as a skull fragment, rotting flesh, a severed toe, and other items such as eyeglasses and a keychain belonging to Nilo Valerio.[14]

 

Resteta Fernandez’s name as seen on the Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City. Photo cropped and taken by Reginald C. Coloma on June 10, 2021.

The nearby residents told the team that three days before they arrived, they saw a helicopter flying above the area and a military jeep full of soldiers visiting the gravesites. The mound that indicated something had been buried was suspiciously leveled off, indicating what had been there was hastily exhumed, presumably to hide the fact that the bodies have been beheaded and to prevent an autopsy being performed. The claim of the beheading was corroborated by witnesses, who claimed that after the incident, the PC troopers selected three able-bodied men among them to cook for them, but were told to carry the heads of the victims instead, as they were paraded in nearby sitios to frighten the locals. Though no one personally saw the beheading, they were in agreement that it occurred.[15]

The locals were likewise incensed about the incidents, and condemned the soldiers for the desecration of the victims, whom they had considered friends. The NPA group had arrived a couple of days ago, having already been acquainted with the residents. During their time there, they were able to teach them how to plant bananas and were introduced to acupuncture. They also helped petition for a soil technician to help improve their crops and encouraged them to form a cooperative in order to better earn for their products. The last initiative had been ongoing but was halted due to the horrific incident that occurred.[16] As such, suspicion fell squarely on the raiding team.

The team proceeded to meet with the Special Action Committee, separately organized by AFP Chief-of-Staff Fidel Ramos to conduct their own investigation into the matter. They expressed their desire to summon Sgt. Dayag and Sgt. Panganiban.[17] Upon their return to Manila, Ding was already wary. Even before the news of the encounter reached the national dailies, military and government officials had already attempted to refute the allegations of a beheading taking place, claiming that the victims were accorded a decent burial.[[18]] Ding wrote a letter addressed to Ramos and Brig. Gen. Tomas Dumpit, the officer who had initially denied the beheading, and summarized what the fact-finding team had discovered. He categorically held the military responsible for the missing remains of the three victims and demanded the AFP to surface the bodies. Parents and friends followed suit with open letters of their own, as they also demanded an audience with Ramos.[19]

The Special Action Committee, headed by Lt. Col. Berlin Castillo, was unable to reach Sitio Beyeng because helicopters were not available. They were likewise unable to summon Sgt. Dayag and Sgt. Panganiban, who supposedly were busy operating in the mountains.[20] To rectify this, Ramos acquiesced for a meeting with the families and formed a second Special Action Committee, headed by Lt. Col. Albano and Col. Federico de la Cruz, and allowed representatives of the families to accompany them. Ding declined to participate, convinced that the military would only seek to whitewash the case. This second committee likewise produced no reports for the family, and the alleged perpetrators were never charged.[21]

Jose “Ding” Fernandez, the brother of Resteta Fernandez, holding his sketch of his sister during a visit on February 14, 2020. Photo by the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission (HRVVMC).

The family never tired of writing to concerned authorities seeking for assistance and accountability, even after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in February of 1986. Ding even personally wrote to newly elected President Cory Aquino and asked for her intervention, but he lamented that “since then, everything else hanged in the dark, and the military authorities were mummed.[22]

The Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation honored Resteta Fernandez by etching her name in its Wall of Remembrance, which pays tribute to the heroes and martyrs of Martial Law. She was among the first to be honored in the mid-1990’s.[23] The family was able to have her represented in the “Human Rights Litigation Against the Estate of Ferdinand E. Marcos” (MDL No. 840, CA No. 88-0390) as a presumed human rights violation victim and was compensated in 2014 with payment from the settlement fund.[24] That same year, Ding also submitted a claim for his sister to the newly formed Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB), mandated by Republic Act No. 10368 to provide reparation and recognition to the victims of Martial Law atrocities. Fernandez was duly recognized eligible for such restitution. Her case, however, was not processed under the ambit of killing, but rather, under that of “enforced disappearance.”

It has been nearly 40 years since Resteta Fernandez, Nilo Valerio, and Soledad Salvador were killed by Philippine Constabulary troopers in Sitio Beyeng. Their families have stopped at nothing to pursue the persecution of those behind the desecration of their body and to recover the remains of their loved ones. Despite all their efforts, until today, the bodies of the three freedom fighters, collectively remembered as the Bakun Martyrs, have not been recovered. Though they have been given recognition, the families given reparations, justice and closure will not be achieved until they are given the proper farewell and their malefactors given the appropriate sanctions.

On this day, August 24, 2021, 36 years after she was killed, we remember Resteta Fernandez. She was an enthusiastic young woman with a zeal for life, a penchant for learning, and a passion to serve the people. She was supported by her loving parents, her dedicated brother, and eventually, her loyal comrades. She died helping the cause of the Kankanaeys of Bakun, Benguet, who considered her and her fellow rebels as friends. Her memories and her will to struggle live on as we ensure that the unjust fate that befell the Bakun Martyrs no longer happens again.

[1] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez,” citation from MARTYR, FIND and NL-HRO, n.d., accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission; “Fernandez, Resteta,” Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, October 17, 2015, accessed August 16, 2021, https://www.bantayog.org/fernandez-resteta-a.

[2] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez.”

[3] Ibid., Her brother had been an activist as well.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Fernandez, Resteta.”

[6] Jose A. Fernandez, “Affidavit” (Case No. 2014-14-08100, Quezon City: 2014), accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

[7] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez.”

[8] Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[9] “Bakun NPAs beheaded,” Ichthys, Vol. VIII, No. 35 (October 11, 1985), 1-2, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. The letter correctly identified Fernandez (albeit with the first name of “Cristeta”) having been imprisoned in Isabela for subversion, lending semblance of credence to this initial reportage.

[10] Erlinda Timbreza-Valerio, “Building on Nilo’s Legacy,” Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, October 2006, accessed August 16, 2021, https://afad-online.org/voice/oct_06/buildingonnilo.htm; “Sworn Statement of Jose Fernandez y Aguinaldo given to Inv. Agent III Florentino Urmatam here at Baguio City This 14th Day of September 1985,” September 14, 1985, 2, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. This transcript was submitted by Ding Fernandez as part of the claim filed to the Human Rights Victims Claims Board.

[11] “Sworn Statement of Jose Fernandez y Aguinaldo,” 2-3.

[12] Jo-ann Baena Cruz, “The Case of the Missing Heads and Bodies,” Veritas, October 13, 1985; Nonoy Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?” Mr. & Mrs., October 4-10, 1985, 12.

[13] Cruz, “The Case of the Missing Heads and Bodies.”

[14] Desiree Carlos, “Victims’ kin seek dialog with Ramos,” Malaya, Vol. IV, No 265, October 8, 1985; Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[15] Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?”, 13.

[16] Ed Maranan, ed., Bakun: Three Martyrs for the People (Metro Manila: Bakun Martyrs Committee, 1987), 6, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. The Bakun Martyrs Committee is composed of families and friends of the three victims.

[17] Ibid., 107

[18] Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?”, 12; According to Maranan’s book, this open letter had originally been sent on September 5.

[19] Jose Aguinaldo Fernandez, “Family demands missing corpses,” Malaya, October 1, 1985; Maranan, Bakun, 103-104. According to Maranan’s book, this open letter had originally been sent on September 5.

[20] Maranan, Bakun, 103; Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?,” 13.

[21] Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] The honoring of heroes and martyrs became an annual tradition for Bantayog shortly after. Presumably, Fernandez’s name was inscribed along with the other two Bakun martyrs and her comrades Nilo Valerio and Soledad Salvador.

[24] “Resolution” (Case No. 2014-14-08100, Quezon City: 2014), accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. As a supplementary proof, Ding Fernandez included a letter from Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C. dated January 9, 2014, informing them that they are eligible to claim the amount of PHP50,000 after payment was approved.

[1] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez,” citation from MARTYR, FIND and NL-HRO, n.d., accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission; “Fernandez, Resteta,” Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, October 17, 2015, accessed August 16, 2021, https://www.bantayog.org/fernandez-resteta-a.

[2] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez.”

[3] Ibid., Her brother had been an activist as well.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Fernandez, Resteta.”

[6] Jose A. Fernandez, “Affidavit” (Case No. 2014-14-08100, Quezon City: 2014), accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

[7] “Resteta Aguinaldo Fernandez.”

[8] Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[9] “Bakun NPAs beheaded,” Ichthys, Vol. VIII, No. 35 (October 11, 1985), 1-2, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. The letter correctly identified Fernandez (albeit with the first name of “Cristeta”) having been imprisoned in Isabela for subversion, lending semblance of credence to this initial reportage.

[10] Erlinda Timbreza-Valerio, “Building on Nilo’s Legacy,” Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, October 2006, accessed August 16, 2021, https://afad-online.org/voice/oct_06/buildingonnilo.htm; “Sworn Statement of Jose Fernandez y Aguinaldo given to Inv. Agent III Florentino Urmatam here at Baguio City This 14th Day of September 1985,” September 14, 1985, 2, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. This transcript was submitted by Ding Fernandez as part of the claim filed to the Human Rights Victims Claims Board.

[11] “Sworn Statement of Jose Fernandez y Aguinaldo,” 2-3.

[12] Jo-ann Baena Cruz, “The Case of the Missing Heads and Bodies,” Veritas, October 13, 1985; Nonoy Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?” Mr. & Mrs., October 4-10, 1985, 12.

[13] Cruz, “The Case of the Missing Heads and Bodies.”

[14] Desiree Carlos, “Victims’ kin seek dialog with Ramos,” Malaya, Vol. IV, No 265, October 8, 1985; Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[15] Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?”, 13.

[16] Ed Maranan, ed., Bakun: Three Martyrs for the People (Metro Manila: Bakun Martyrs Committee, 1987), 6, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. The Bakun Martyrs Committee is composed of families and friends of the three victims.

[17] Ibid., 107

[18] Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?”, 12; According to Maranan’s book, this open letter had originally been sent on September 5.

[19] Jose Aguinaldo Fernandez, “Family demands missing corpses,” Malaya, October 1, 1985; Maranan, Bakun, 103-104. According to Maranan’s book, this open letter had originally been sent on September 5.

[20] Maranan, Bakun, 103; Fajardo, “Where are the Bodies of the Headless?,” 13.

[21] Fernandez, “Affidavit.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] The honoring of heroes and martyrs became an annual tradition for Bantayog shortly after. Presumably, Fernandez’s name was inscribed along with the other two Bakun martyrs and her comrades Nilo Valerio and Soledad Salvador.

[24] “Resolution” (Case No. 2014-14-08100, Quezon City: 2014), accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. As a supplementary proof, Ding Fernandez included a letter from Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C. dated January 9, 2014, informing them that they are eligible to claim the amount of PHP50,000 after payment was approved.

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