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1986: The last plane out of Davao (Feature)

By Aurelio A. Pena

DAVAO CITY, Feb 26 (PNA) — Those were the days of living dangerously in Davao and elsewhere in the country. Manila was exploding into what we call now the “EDSA People Power Revolution”.

As a photojournalist working for Sipa Press, one of the world’s biggest news photo agencies based in Paris, I was caught flatfooted in Davao trying to figure out how to go to Manila on February 23, 1986, the day when all flights were banned as anti-Marcos military rebels led by General Fidel Ramos, joined in later by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, turned Camp Crame into a rebel fortress surrounded by millions of Filipino people.

Lugging my heavy camera bag with all my Nikons, I was at the Davao airport begging desperately for any available seat on the Philippine Airlines from this southern city at around seven p.m., showing the airport manager my foreign press accreditation card and a pleading face that gave me the only available seat on that “last plane” out of Davao.

There were talks around the plane’s cabin that rebel planes led by Gringo Honasan were flying that night around Manila’s skies on a lookout for planes carrying Marcos’ family fleeing the nation’s capital, so that added to our worries as the PAL plane flew above the night sky on the way to a metropolitan city with millions of people out on the streets revolting against the President of the country.

The plane’s passengers all sighed in relief when the cabin attendants and stewardesses walked along the aisle of the plane, all smiling, with their hands making the “V” sign of Cory Aquno. I couldn't believe that even the country's flag carrier was now up in arms against a Philippine dictator.

That’s when we noticed the front pages of the Philippine Daily Inquirer pasted all over the doors and cabin walls of this PAL plane, showing the big bold headlines of Ramos-Enrile breaking up with Marcos and the millions massing at EDSA and the front gate of Camp Crame to “protect” the military rebels from impending attacks of Marcos loyal troops.

All the plane’s passengers broke into applause, some cheering and shouting “Cory! Cory! Cory!” and I felt good, reducing the tension and anxiety in the plane as that last flight was nearing Manila. I spent the rest of the time on the plane, loading up my Nikons with color slide films, checking my flash batteries, and cleaning my wide and telephoto lenses, ignoring my cold sweat and trembling fingers.

Checking in at an Ermita pension house along Padre Faura, I watched a TV broadcast of the military rebels making statements on the air on RPN 9, followed minutes later by Marcos himself on a government TV station warning the Camp Crame rebels that 105 mm Howitzers were aimed at the camp and ordered the rebels to “surrender peacefully or else”.

The taxi that took me to Mendiola, not far from the gates of Malacanang, now a darkened palace at around 10 p.m. that night, was met by gunfire along the way, freaking out the driver who made a sharp U-turn to avoid being hit by bullets coming from nowhere. I was forced to get off and made my way to Malacanang on foot under the cover of darkness, crouching from time to time, to the sounds of occasional gunfire.

I was met by a group of desperate-looking Marcos loyalists who vowed to defend Marcos at all costs with their lives, their heads tied with red bands and their hands gripping big pieces of wood for weapons. They were all seated on the concrete sidewalk near the Malacanang main gate, where two white vans of NBC and CNN were parked with cameramen setting up their shots with their anchors.

Having heard over the radio that Marcos had already fled the palace on the opposite side of Pasig river, I asked the loyalists about it. “Hindi pa naming alam, po," one of the loyalists told me. "Umalis na,po? Hindi totoo yan! Buwis namin buhay dito sa kanya!”

Walking over to the darkened main gate of Malacanang Palace, I saw a Marine soldier in full combat attire approaching the gate from the inside, coming out from the darkness into the low glare of the sodium lamps, asking me quietly to go back because, according to him, the millions at EDSA were on the way to the palace that night. From the corner of my eyes, I also saw about ten more Marines crouching in the darkness beside the high iron fence of the palace.

I noticed immediately the yellow ribbon on the mouth of his M-16 armalite and another yellow ribbon tied around his camouflaged helmet. Faint sounds of a radio with an excited voice could be heard from the darkness of the palace. As I left the gate, the Marine broke into a smile and gave me the “V” sign of Cory.

Minutes later, the EDSA crowd came running furiously to the gates of Malacanang Palace, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, overwhelming the small group of Marcos loyalists trying to “defend” the palace. The runaway mob clambered up the high iron fence of the main palace gate, shouting and screaming, 'Cory! Cory! Cory!" over and over.

The Marcos loyalist defenders were overrun by the Cory mob near the gate. In the melee, one of the loyalists was knifed to death near the gate as the angry mob of EDSA crowd broke open the gates by sheer force, untouched by the Marine soldiers wearing yellow ribbons, giving way to people venting their anger against a dictator after long years of an oppressive regime . (PNA)


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