Philippine Air Force personnel unload the Balangiga bells yesterday at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City.
US Ambassador Sung Kim: ‘Balangiga bells are now home’
Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — One hundred seventeen years after they were pulled down from the belfry of a Samar church by US troops as war booty, the bells of Balangiga “are home now, in the Philippines, where they belong,” US Ambassador Sung Kim said yesterday.

Kim and Philippine officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed the arrival of the bells at Villamor Air Base.

Kim said the bells took a “very long road home,” with countless Filipinos and Americans working tirelessly for decades to make their return possible.

Also present at the handover ceremony were US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson and Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez.

“By returning the bells, the United States could restore to its friend and ally an important symbol of national independence and demonstrate our commitment to a relationship of two sovereign nations, two equal partners and mutual respect,” Kim said.

The return of the bells was the “right thing to do,” he added.

He said the bells should be returned rightly to the people of Balangiga and to the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir where they had hung for years before US soldiers on a punitive expedition took them away in September 1901.

The American soldiers were on a mission to avenge the death of their comrades at the hands of Filipino guerrillas in an attack signaled by the ringing of the bells.

The soldiers had orders from Gen. Jacob Smith to turn the town into a “howling wilderness” by razing the town and killing every Filipino male 10 years and above or anyone capable of carrying a rifle.

“May they ring in peace and bear testament to the ties and values which bind our two great nations for generations to come,” Kim said.

“The return of the bells of Balangiga lets us reflect on the US-Philippine relationship – where we have been, where we are, where we are going,” Kim said. “Having now served over two years as US ambassador to the Philippines, I am convinced that our relationship remains ironclad, consecrated by the service and sacrifice of the Americans and Filipinos who fought side by side for freedom,” he maintained.

Before their return to the Philippines, two of the bells were at the Warren USAF Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming and the third was on display at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.

Lorenzana, for his part, said the bells were a symbol of a people’s struggle during a dark period in Philippine-American history.

“After 117 years, the bells of Balangiga are coming home and will once again take its place in Balangiga Church. There was a time when the bells of Balangiga pealed to a different beat, encompassing a dark and painful episode in history which nonetheless teaches a lesson that nobody wins in war,” he said.

Decades of work

Since former president Fidel Ramos first raised the issue of the bells with president Bill Clinton in 1993, Kim said virtually every Philippine president has pressed for the bells’ return.

In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) last year, President Duterte strongly demanded the return of the bells.

“President Duterte made a forceful appeal for the bells’ return during his 2017 State of the Nation address. I was there and heard his passionate call loud and clear,” Kim added.   

US embassy spokesperson Molly Koscina said on Monday that a number of presidents, secretaries, Filipino and US ambassadors had worked for the return of the Balangiga bells, amid protests from some US veterans.

“So there were some legal issues really. It’s time for the bells to come back but it was not due to any particular event or any particular statement. People have been working on this for many many years,” Koscina said.

The return of the bells, she said, should remind the new generation of the sacrifices of Filipinos and Americans who fought side by side for freedom.

“We fought together for freedom and to protect democratic values across the Indo-Pacific region. In World War II and in Korea, our soldiers fought, bled, died and sacrificed side by side. Together they made possible the peace and prosperity we enjoy today,” he said.

While efforts to have the bells returned had spanned several administrations,

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Romulo Valles said the administration deserves praise for its relentless pursuit of the bells’ return.

“With this, we express our profound gratitude to the Philippine government for its years of vigorous efforts to reclaim these bells. We thank in particular our present government, with the leadership of President Duterte, for bringing a most successful and happy conclusion to all these efforts,” Valles, who is also Davao archbishop, said in a statement.

“The return of these three church bells, which, for the Catholic Church, are priceless religious treasures used for generations to call Her faithful to prayer and worship, affords us an opportunity to understand and appreciate history better with a more mature perspective. It also demonstrates that the path to healing and reconciliation may be arduous but is never impossible,” Valles maintained.

The CBCP president also said he is grateful to the US government for finally giving back the bells.

“We also appreciate the very wise gesture of the US government in finally bringing back the bells of Balangiga to where they should belong, thereby giving ourselves the experience of a deeper sense of justice and respect between our peoples and consequently letting our friendship grow stronger,” he added.

Military chaplain Oscar Florencio also said that he was grateful to those who contributed to the return of the bells.

“This return is also a deeper meaning of reconciliation and healing of the aged wounds of war and anger. We hope and pray that truly magnanimity of hearts and healing of wounds and misunderstanding will prevail,” Florencio said.  – with  Jaime Laude, Evelyn Macairan

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