Residents of a sleepy, nondescript eastern Philippine town celebrated Saturday the return of three bronze-alloy church bells seized by US troops in 1901.
The bells, two of which weigh about 270 kilograms each and one about 135 kilograms, were carted away by American soldiers as trophies in a reprisal for a surprise attack during the colonial period. US troops reportedly killed thousands of Filipinos after razing the Balangiga town in Easter Samar province. More than 40 US soldiers also lost their lives.
The bells arrived in Balangiga late Friday ahead of an official handover ceremony on Saturday.
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“Nobody, but nobody, can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said after ringing one of the bells before a crowd of thousands, which included US and church officials.
“The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people – period,” he said, striking a rare positive tone on Washington.
The bronze church bells are revered in the Philippines as a symbol of resistance to US colonization and the struggle for independence.
The bells were used to signal an attack by Filipino insurgents against US soldiers occupying Balangiga
The Philippines has been pushing for the bells’ return since the 1990s. Manila had the backing for its claim from the Catholic Church and supporters in the US.
But the repatriation took longer than expected as some US lawmakers and veterans, who viewed the bells as tributes to fallen soldiers.
Two of the three bells were in the US state of Wyoming and the third at a US base in South Korea.
Earlier this year, a key veterans’ group dropped its opposition to the bells’ return to Manila, which paved the way for their repatriation.
In 2017, President Duterte, called on Washington to give back the Balangiga bells: “They are not yours,” he said.
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The church bells are revered in the Philippines as a symbol of resistance to US colonization
Emotions running high
Many Balangiga residents were tearful as they wore “Welcome home, Balangiga bells” T-shirts and waved golden bell-shaped balloons and signs.
“No amount of words can describe what the (people of Balangiga) feel right now,” said Randy Graza, the town’s mayor.
“We are overwhelmed with joy and happiness. We share this with you, our bells, our story, our history,” underline Graza, adding that he and the Balangiga residents hoped that the bells would not toll again for the same reasons as they did in 1901.
“It’s not just me but the whole town is walking in the clouds because the bells are finally with us,” 81-year-old Nemesio Duran told the AFP news agency.
“We are the happiest people on Earth now,” he added, saying he is descended from the boy who rang one of the bells, long said to have signaled the attack on the Americans.
Manila has drifted away from the US, its historical ally, since Duterte came to power in 2016. The president has often used anti-US sentiment for his populist politics.
“It’s mixed emotions because the bells also remind me of what happened,” Constancia Elaba, 62, told AFP.
“It was painful and you cannot take it away from us. We can never forget that,” she added.
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shs/ng (AFP, dpa)