A spark came to life when I became a part of the Toronto ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia) team; when I learned about the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War across the Pacific. I learned how the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted so much pain and suffering on its neighbours, and how the survivors are dealing with that pain more than 50 years later.
(International relations are so complex. I don’t want to make the Japanese Imperial Army sound like heartless antagonists. They weren’t. They were treated like filth by their superiors, bullied into submission, and took out their frustrations on civilians in China and elsewhere. That’s one explanation. It’s also important to remember that these soldiers were socialized into believing certain things about themselves compared to their neighbours in Asia. I remember learning just how fragile us humans are, how capable we are of either good or evil. Iris Chang called this the “thin veneer of humanity.”
For me, it’s frightening how this veneer is so delicate, how the balance between good and evil is so precarious. How people like us make choices everyday that determine on which side we stand. Like the Joker said, “All they need is a little push.”)
That spark ignited into a flame when I began to feel an inseparable connection with the survivors. These people had been brutally beaten, raped, and witnessed the deaths of their families while they were young children. I clearly remember seeing the face of a survivor of military sexual slavery, a so-called “comfort woman,” and noticing how much she looked like my late grandmother.
After working with ALPHA and realizing how these stories and forgotten histories need to be told, my passion for this cause truly caught fire. It wasn’t until I met the very woman who had reminded me of my own grandmother that I realized just how big this flame would be.
It was a cold Sunday night a few weeks ago. Volunteers were invited to dinner with ALPHA staff and directors, with special guests Lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog) Fidencia David, Dr. Christina Rosello, and representatives from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Lola Fidencia and Christina visited from the Philippines to speak in public events hosted by ALPHA and the CMHR in Winnipeg and Toronto. Lola was to give her survivor testimonial, and Christina was there as Lola’s therapist and an expert on psychological healing. I didn’t know what to expect from this encounter, but from the moment I had met with everyone, I realized just how special this connection would be.
Within 1 minute of meeting Lola Fidencia, she felt like a grandmother to me. When I told her my hands were still cold from being outside, she immediately offered me Katinko, her all-purpose ointment. (It’s really supposed to treat dry, itchy skin, but who was I to refuse?) And it worked – the ointment and her charm. This woman was so incredibly strong and loving and grateful that I was instantly drawn to her warmth, and wanted to take care of her like I would my own family. I knew that it would be extremely difficult to listen to her story later on.
Lola Fidencia, at the age of 14, was taken along with her grandmother by Japanese soldiers to cook, clean, and “comfort.” Held captive, she did housework during the day, and was raped multiple times at night. While trying to escape, Lola saw her grandmother shot dead. She managed to reunite with her family, but to this day has had to suffer from that trauma. I remember holding her after she gave her testimony, sitting together while she calmed herself down by rubbing Katinko onto her trembling hands.
How could anybody not be affected by a story like hers? How could the Japanese government still not give a formal apology for the mass murder and slavery? What is incredibly unjust is that these survivors will not stay with us for much longer, and may never be able to hear that apology. From the Halmoni in South Korea who protest every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy, to the lolas who work with Christina, these people still suffer. After over 60 years of dealing with the so-called “side effect” of war, military sexual slavery survivors are still waiting for justice.
Violence against women during war should not be the norm. It should not even be expected. I admit that I may not know much about this issue, that I am naïve and simple-minded in this matter, but I care a LOT about my lolas. It is with love, our greatest weapon, that we can feed the flame that will guide us towards peace, reconciliation, and justice. It is with love that we will ensure that the odds will be ALL in our favour.
This journey to justice and equality is long and slow and emotionally exhausting and more than physically painful… but I promise you, it will be worth it.
“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
– A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens