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Comfort women: Last of Japan’s WW2 sex slaves sing ‘forget us not’

As Pilar Galang limps with her walking stick into a room full of fellow octogenarian women in a sleepy Philippine town, she suddenly struggles to remember why she is wearing her favourite floral dress.

The 88-year-old glances at her sister-in-law, Maria Quilantang. It’s a cue to refresh her memory. The two women are in yet another gathering of former World War Two sex slaves – the so-called “comfort women” who were forced into military brothels in South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, China and Indonesia by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The 20 or so women in the farming village of Mapaniqui are among the last survivors in the Philippines.

As young teens they were snatched from their homes, dragged on dusty roads and imprisoned in a blood-red house where they were raped repeatedly. Now in their late 80s to early 90s, they continue to fight for a public apology and compensation from Japan, both of which have eluded them for decades. They recount their trauma to those willing to listen, hoping that they will not be forgotten by the world even as their own memories fade.

There were nearly 200,000 of them, mostly Koreans. In South Korea, their numbers have now dwindled to nine. The last known survivor in Taiwan died in May. Japan’s refusal to confront its wartime past and pay reparations has been a source of tension with its neighbours.

In a 1951 peace treaty with Japan, the Philippines agreed to waive claims for wartime reparations. Although the former sex slaves say they will not recognise this, the Philippines, whose top source of development aid is Japan, has been reluctant to push Tokyo.

“We hope to get justice before we die,” says Ms Quilantang, the group leader and the most outspoken among them. “There’s only a few of us left and we are all in our twilight years.”

On a sweltering afternoon, the group, which calls themselves Malaya Lolas or Free Grandmothers in Filipino, gathered as they have for decades to sing their story in slow a cappella verses.

“We cried. We pleaded for a little compassion. Their bestial hearts only craved satisfaction. At the age of 14, I was poisoned,” the Malaya Lolas sing.

Ms Quilantang cracks jokes to put her fellow grandmothers at ease: singing before an audience is no different from karaoke, she tells them. There’s no anxiety that chewing on a betel nut cannot soothe.

Then, Ms Quilantang turns serious. She was eight when she was raped in that red house in the middle of a rice field. Up to this day, she gets flashbacks when she sees that house from across the highway. Dilapidated, it still stands, now attracting ghost hunters and historians.

So many crumbling World War Two structures remain in the grandmothers’ village, located in Candaba town, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Manila – although it’s now known for duck eggs and tilapia farms rather than its dark wartime past.

Ms Quilantang says far more mundane things also trigger flashbacks. When she sees soil drenched in rain, she remembers the time during her captivity when her only source of drinking water were the deep footprints of water buffaloes that ploughed the rice fields.

“What we carry is quite a burden,” she says. “I had so many dreams when I was a kid.”

Ms Quilantang says the ordeal robbed her of her childhood, a good education and a happy family life as her father died during the war: “I could have worn nice clothes as a little girl. Instead, we were constantly moving from place-to-place, constantly fearing the Japanese.”

Yet she considers herself lucky because she got married to a farmer and raised a family. Many other Filipina comfort women suffered discrimination in their communities and within their own families.

As much as Maxima dela Cruz wanted to attend that afternoon’s gathering, she couldn’t because she is bedridden. At 94, she is among the oldest in the group.

She watches the slow days in Mapaniqui town pass by from the window of her home. When she was much younger, she was among the Malaya Lolas’ most active campaigners.

“I’ve been to so many protests. I’ve been to Japan, Hong Kong, even Europe,” she says. “The lawyers who help us bring us to all these places. Everything is still clear to me, ingrained in my mind even if my body is now weak.”

After the war, Ms dela Cruz says she was forced to work and was unable to go to school because she had to help out on her parents’ farm. When she got married at 16, she remembered distinctly how the family shared one whole chicken instead of having a wedding feast.

“It would have been nice if Japan gave us a little something for our daily expenses,” she says.

Recalling their past is always cathartic for the Malaya Lolas, says their lawyer, Virginia Suarez.

“This is so liberating for them, to tell their story in a song. You can’t stay quiet when you suffered what they went through. That will be additional torture,” Ms Suarez adds.

Japan has insisted that any attempt by the Philippine women to seek compensation must be backed by their government. The Malaya Lolas’ appeal to force the government to do so went as high up as the Supreme Court, but failed.

They raised their case with the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), which in March this year ruled that Manila must compensate the grandmothers and apologise to them for the decades of suffering and discrimination.

“This is a symbolic moment of victory for these victims who were previously silenced, ignored, written off and erased from history in the Philippines,” says Cedaw member Marion Bethel.

Ms Suarez, the Malaya Lolas’ lawyer, said government agencies had released thousands of pesos in aid to her clients since the Cedaw ruling. But, she adds, they will never stop campaigning for an apology from Japan.

“An apology is really important to the lolas because it is an admission of wrongdoing,” she says. “Japan committed a very grave sin against them. The world should not forget that and they should pay for that.”

For Ms Quilantang, the fight will go on for as long as people will listen.

“We are a very close-knit group of friends and we have many people helping us. We want justice. As long as people invite us, we will keep singing.”

Source: BBC