In a sleepy farming village in Bulacan, some 30 kilometres away from Manila, the Philippine capital, the sound of men’s footsteps shattered the silence of dawn.
Even before the roosters woke up and the first light of morning crawled through the moon’s shadow, Japanese soldiers stormed the usually quiet village, burned and tore down tattered huts and farmers’ homes as they searched for guerrillas.
It was 23 November 1944, the height of the Second World War. Isabelita Vinuya (right) was 13 years old at the time. Now, she is 81, wrinkled and tired. On some mornings, she can barely stand up because of recurring back pain. She forgets many things – but she will never forget that fateful day.
She remembers it all – the wailing of women and children running for their lives as soldiers burned their homes. In her inner mind’s eye, she can still see the clouds of smoke and soot. She can hear vividly the screams of men – brothers, fathers, uncles – as soldiers tied them up in the nearby school and burned them to death.
The Japanese soldiers then gathered the young girls like Vinuya, locked them in a dark, two-storey red house, tortured them and took turns raping them through the night.
Vinuya is one of roughly 250,000 Asian women victims of sexual crimes during the Second World War. She heads the group Malaya Lolas, whose members were gang-raped on that fateful day in what is now known as Bahay na Pula or The Red House (right), which stands to this day in San Ildefenso, Bulacan.
Vinuya, known as Lola Lita in her village, remembers the atrocities of war every single day. But she remembers it especially these days because of a recent comment by Japanese mayor who said that sex slaves served a necessary role during the war, ‘particularly to provide relief to Japanese troops’.
‘For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone,’ said Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, Japan.
Hashimoto’s words angered Vinuya and the rest of the women who suffered in the hands of Japanese soldiers.
‘Such a statement is unbecoming of a public official. Japan cannot rewrite history by justifying such wrongful acts and thus exonerate its crimes against women,’ Lila Pilipina said in a statement.
Lila Pilipina is a group of ‘comfort women’ survivors founded in 1992. Together with the Malaya Lolas, the two groups have a combined membership of more than 200 women.
Hashimoto’s statements leave a stark reminder to the women survivors that justice remains elusive to them.
Vinuya said their group continues to demand a public apology from Japan and legal compensation for the atrocities committed during World War Two.
Her group is also appealing to the Aquino administration to form a government body or assign an agency to look into their plight. She says many of them are old and sick and in need of maintenance medicines.
Human rights lawyer Harry Roque, who represents Malaya Lolas, said there have been apologies from Japanese officials in the past but there has been no recognition that the atrocities were war crimes.
‘They have to apologize for that state policy because so far there has been no admission,’ Roque said in an interview.
In the meantime, women survivors like Vinuya continue to hope for justice.
Vinuya lives in a quiet bungalow, shared with her husband and their children and grandchildren, at the end of a dirt road lined on both sides with hectares and hectares of rice fields.
It is a peaceful village where children can roam the streets freely.
Men and women enjoy quiet afternoons watching soap operas on television while the elderly, like Lola Lita, while away their time chewing betel nut.
But the silence of the village cannot conceal the anger.
‘I no longer cry about what happened. I am angry. I am still very angry,’ says Vinuya, her voice shaking in rage, her eyes squinting in frustration.
Yet she continues to hope for justice and promises to fight so that the next generations of women, including her children and grandchildren, do not suffer the same thing.
She excuses herself and sits with her husband by the veranda; they smile and hold hands as they watch their grandchildren play in the warm afternoon of May.