Time passed both slowly and quickly for Satur. His days were spent working with and for his fellow prisoners, in meetings with lawyers and supporters in the campaign for his release. He began to write about his life from his childhood up to the point when he saw himself as part of the Movement and the Movement had become a part of him, his life’s choices and his decisions.
In all that time, he had not seen his wife and comrade Carolina ‘Bobbie’ Malay, but he had exchanged letters with her — letters of love and commitment expressed both to each other and the Revolution, letters that spoke of their unbreakable bond. These letters that grew in number as the months and years went by, were written on the thinnest paper available, easily hidden, easily destroyed when necessary:cigarette rolling paper. Mrs. Malay smuggled them in and out, a secret employee of an unofficial but effective postal service.
In that time, the international newsmagazine Newsweek named Satur as one of the Ten Outstanding Political Prisoners in the World. The distinction made him busier than ever, even in prison, as foreign journalists came to interview him. More support came from various quarters, and Satur spent hours daily at the typewriter he was allowed to have writing letters thanking supporters, writing statements and speeches to be read at events to which he ad been invited but obviously could not attend.
As the international campaign demanding his release continued to grow, the dictator Marcos remained stiff-necked in refusing.
Marcos’ own defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile had already made the recommendation that Satur be set free because he was a model political prisoner. Marcos ignored the recommendation, saying that Satur remained defiant — “a viciously militant detainee,” Marcos called him.
(writer’s note: In the course of the interview, Ka Satur grew more than a little indignant when Marcos was mentioned. I asked him how, beyond the politics and the issues of accountability, he felt about Marcos and his son Ferdinand Jr. who was also running for the senate and in the slate of presidential candidate Sen. Manny Villar.
“Bongbong has reportedly said that he can work with Satur Ocampo. But the question is, does Satur Ocampo want to work with him? I would much rather not. He takes a position of absolving his father, of denying the crimes his father and his government committed under the veil of martial law. Can I work with him? How can I when I represent people whose rights his father violated? People who still wait for justice? He’s a guest candidate in the Villar slate, and so am I. It ends there. It would be naive to expect more.”)
Like any other prisoner, Satur had an important goal: to regain his freedom. He missed his children, he missed his wife, it was true; but what also ate at him was the awareness that he could do so much more for the Revolution if he was beyond the walls of prison and free.
From time to time, there would be supporters who would whisper to him that they had plans to set him free. They hinted at military operations that would allow Satur to end his stint as a prisoner, and he could rejoin the Movement. Satur smiled and thanked them even as he refused. A jail breakout would mean violent confrontation, and he did not want anyone to die at his expense, not even his police and military guards.
What he wanted, what he began to plan for, however, was an escape that would not make it necessary for a gun to be drawn or a single bullet to be fired.
After Enrile made his recommendation for Satur’s release, the National Press Club adopted a resolution recognizing Satur’s continued practice of journalism even as he had left the formal journalism profession. It was a tribute, the NPC said, to his commitment as a reporter and a writer, a true journalist who wielded his pen even in the most difficult personal circumstances so he could write about the truth.
It was a special recognition that the NPC had awarded to only one other individual, Carlos P. Romulo.
Sometime in August 1984, the NPC under the presidency of fellow activist writer Antonio Ma. Nieva, sponsored a forum on press freedom. Marcos, not wanting to appear that he was an enemy of the press but an ally in defending its freedom, granted Satur a furlough.
Satur delievered a speech, “The Press is Nothing if It’s Not for the People”, and the NPC’s main hall on the top floor was full to the rafters.
It was then that Satur first put together his plan for escape.
May 1985. The NPC announced that it was conferring lifetime membership to Satur. Marcos allowed it, and Enrile gave his assent. Satur would once more go to the NPC building in Manila.
As the NPC gave Satur lifetime membership, it also gave him the right to participate in the election of its officers which it was holding on that same day.
Satur arrived accompanied by a dozen guards all in civilian uniform, but armed all the same.
As president of the organization of political detainees, Satur was also well-respected and liked by the prison guards and the prison staff. They called him ‘Sir Satur,’ like he was a knight instead of a criminal in the eyes of the dictatorship. Satur, in turn, had always been generous to the guards, and treated the younger men like younger siblings. He had even helped a number of them with their financial difficulties, going so far as to lend one of the guards P2,000 so his, the guard’s, wife so she could open a karinderia inside the prison grounds. At the time, P2,000 was no paltry sum.
So that day of the NPC election, quite a number had actually volunteered to escort Satur, but only 12 were allowed to go.They had heard that the last time Satur went to the NPC, there were food and drinks, and the guards who had escorted him did not go hungry because ‘Sir Satur’ made sure that they were not neglected.
As was the system, six guards went up to the NPC building with Satur and six remained downstairs.
Upstairs, beer and wine flowed like water, and the tables were spread with different viands and various kinds of pulutan. It was an informal gathering of journalists, and Satur was in his element greeting and being greeted by former colleagues and sympathizers among the newspapermen and women. His children and Mrs. Malay, and brother Lito also arrived, taking advantage of the opportunity to see Satur in a different physical context.
As the minutes ticked and Satur made the rounds in the NPC’s environs, the guards began to, well, let down their guard. They saw Satur shift from one conversation to another with different people. They saw him relax and laugh. They saw him eat and drink. They kept an eye on him, but more and more their focus shifted on the food and the beer, both blissfully free.
They, too began to relax and laugh.
Then Satur reminded them that their colleagues were still downstairs, that they were probably hungry. No, they didn’t have to trade places — all 12 of them could come up and eat. It was a humid day, the heat was suffocating. It would be better if all 12 stayed upstairs in the NPC’s airconditioned halls. After all, it would still be a few hours before the election results would be read, and Satur had yet to cast his vote.
The guards agreed.
Satur had already whispered to Mrs. Malay and Lito his plans, and instructed them to leave early. Satur’s little boy, Anto, cried when he was told. He wanted to see his father vote, he said. But in the end, and without fanfare, he obeyed Satur and left.
Around 2pm, Satur talked to his guards and explained the situation. The voting was done one more floor up, and only NPC members were allowed. Could the guards wait for him to come back instead of accompanying him? The area was cramped with election paraphernalia and the tables of various candidates, there would be no space for all 13 of them.
It’s okay, Sir Satur, they told him. Dito na lang kami! And the guards made him a toast.
So Satur climbed the short flight of stairs to the next and top floor, alone and unaccompanied. He wrote on his ballot and walked, not back to his guards downstairs but to the exit at the back of the NPC.
With all 12 guards upstairs, there was no one left to watch that other doorway or the stairs that led downstairs. With all 12 guards upstairs, Satur went his way down quietly, unhurriedly, but he almost walked into a reporter from the Manila Bulletin whose eyes grew large when he realized who he was facing. Satur smiled, put a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, and continued his way down. He got into a waiting car in the parking lot right across the NPC.
Four hours passed before the guards noticed that none of them ad seen Satur in the past hour. It was not until four hours later that the alarm was rang and the doors and gates of the NPC was suddenly closed and everyone in it questioned regarding Satur’s whereabouts.
By then, Satur had shaved off his mustache, had his hair trimmed and breathed air as a free man for the first time in nine years.