The Sag-od Massacre and Historical Denialism

by Jess Immanuel Espina[1]

Published on September 15, 2023

Martial law and human rights education in the Philippines frequently neglects the fact that the years 1972 to 1986 was not only a time of arrests and torture, but also a time of massacres. While state forces in Metro Manila usually targeted individuals, those in rural areas around the country targeted whole communities. By the end of martial law, thousands of individuals—men, women, and children—had perished in massacres carried out by military forces and paramilitary thugs.

The Massacre

Among these massacres was the Sag-od Massacre in Brgy. Sag-od, Las Navas, Northern Samar. Investigations by the Komite San Katawhan sa Hustisya ug Kamurayan (KKHK) and the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace (CCJP) say that several members of the Special Forces – Integrated Civilian Home Defense Forces (SF-ICHDF), who were later identified as part of the “Lost Command,” came to Barrio Sag-od on September 15, 1981 at 5:00 AM and gathered the residents to the lawn of the barangay captain. They were looking for a certain NPA commander said to be roaming the area.[2]

The residents did not know who this commander was, and subsequently denied being in contact with the person. The SF soldiers then separated the men from the women and children, then forced the latter to march across the river, away from the barrio. As the women and children marched, they heard gunshots coming from the direction of the barrio. After a while, they were stopped and asked about the whereabouts of a certain “Kumander Racel.” When they failed to provide this, they themselves were fired upon by the soldiers.[3]

The incident, now known as the Sag-od Massacre, took the lives of as many as 45 men, women, and children from the barrio. Thirteen others survived. Among the survivors were the ones who were already working in the fields before the soldiers arrived. The others were women who managed to escape across the river and children who were shielded by the bodies of their loved ones when the soldiers began firing upon them.[4]

The Perpetrators

Investigations by independent human rights groups showed that these members of the “Lost Command” were men of dubious backgrounds. Many of them had criminal cases and were even released from the prison in Muntinlupa.[5] It is also said that one of the massacre’s identified perpetrators, Col. Lademora, was also responsible for a grenade-massacre incident at the San Pedro Cathedral in Davao in April of that year.[6] The soldiers also doubled as security guards for the San Jose Timber Corporation (SJTC), a logging concession located in the nearby Barangay San Isidro.[7] SJTC was later identified as one of the companies owned by then-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.[8]

Previously, the SJTC witnessed labor unrest and boycotts within the town against the implementation of new labor practices. Later, the leaders of the boycott were arrested and “allegedly tortured.”[9]

Investigations and Media Coverage

A video clip of the documentary “To Sing Our Own Song”, produced by the BBC and narrated by Jose W. Diokno, a motu proprio Human Rights Violations Victim.
Taken from the Youtube Channel of Atty. Chel Diokno

Narrator: Jose W. Diokno

Marela, who was only eight (8) years old, tells what happened when the soldiers came to her village.


(in Waray)

“Put down your children!”, the soliders commanded my mother. And then, my little brother, Jumar, cried as she put him down, and then they [the soldiers] began shooting us. The three of us fell down. My mother put her arm around me. Then, when everything was quiet, I stood up. My mother’s head was wounded… My little brother’s body was cut in half. I felt my head, it was all bloody — my mother’s brains were all over my hair.”

The massacre’s brutality turned heads in the international arena. Various investigations were conducted by independent human rights groups, including Amnesty International. The victims spoke publicly and detailed their harrowing account of survival. Among the survivors include the then-eight year old Marela Yanay, who spoke at a People’s Court organized by the Coalition for the Defense of People’s Rights at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City.[10] She was later featured in the BBC documentary “To Sing Our Own Song” as she narrated the massacre’s details at the site itself.

The massacre was also a particular source of embarrassment for the Australian government. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Mr. Richard Woolcott released a statement publicly deploring the massacre.[11]

The massacre contributed to the ongoing discussions of the effectiveness of Australian aid to the Philippines, especially since there was an ongoing aid project in the region called the Northern Samar Integrated Rural Development Project (NSIRDP). Some argued that Australian aid may have contributed to the massacre, sparking a debate in the editorial pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. Among those who defended the massacre was E.E. Peacock, the Chairman and Managing Director of Crooks Michell Peacock Stewart Pty. Ltd., the company involved in managing the NSIRDP. In defending the aid project, Peacock made a controversial statement, writing that:

“…there is no evidence at all that the perpetrators were under local military control and indeed there is strong suggestion connecting it with thugs privately recruited for private commercial reasons.”[12]

The statement ignores the evidence then-gathered that the “thugs” were connected to Enrile, who was in charge of the country’s defense and a high-ranking member of the Marcos government.


September 15 marks the anniversary of the Sag-od Massacre. But the deplorable state of education on Philippine history makes its historical backdrop, Marcos’ Martial Law, a hotly contested topic to this day. Historical denialism against the atrocities that occurred during the period persists and many have been raising the alarm.

This denialism is a continuation of the Marcos administration’s attempts to erase such narratives from public knowledge. In 1974, Marcos denied that torture was being inflicted on Filipinos. Today, we see the denial of human rights abuses in YouTube channels and Facebook posts. There are those who were in power during the period who still actively deny the atrocities, such as Enrile, who in 2018 said that there were no massacres or arrests during Martial Law.[13]

Never Forget, Never Again

This argument holds no water and must be put to rest. Republic Act No.10368, or the”Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013″ embodies the commitment of the Government to recognize, honor, and memorialize all the victims of the period by way of preventing the recurrence of state-sponsored atrocities. It pushes back against the erasure, whitewashing, and distortion of history, and resolves to never forget.

September 15 is a day to remember those who were killed in the Sag-od Massacre.



[1] Contributing researcher for the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. This article was reviewed and edited by the HRVVMC Research and Education Division.

[2] Roberto Z. Coloma, “The Las Navas Incident: A Village Weeps for Its Dead as the Government Prepares Its Defenses,” WHO Magazine, 5 December 1981, 12-16, 12; Komite San Katawhan sa Hustisya ug Kamurayan (KKHK), “An Sag-od Masaker,” (Unpublished report, 1981), 1.

[3] Coloma, “The Las Navas Incident,” 12-13; Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, “Samar Atrocities Exposed,” Political Detainees Update Monitor. Vol. V, No. 22, 30 Nov. 1981, 4.

[4] KKHK, “An Sag-od Masaker,” 2-3.

[5] Komite San Katawhan sa Hustisya ug Kamurayan (KKHK), “An Sag-od Masaker” (Unpublished report, 1981), 1.

[6] Coloma, “The Las Navas Incident,” 12.

[7] KKHK, “An Sag-od Masaker,” 5.

[8] Ricardo Manapat, Some Are Smarter Than Others (New York: Altheia Publications, 1991), 169.

[9] Graham Williams, “Australia Reconsiders Foreign Aid Project after Filipino Massacre,” Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 1981, 7.

[10] Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, “Samar Atrocities Exposed,” 4.

[11] Williams, “Australia Reconsiders Foreign Aid Project,” 7.

[12] E.E. Peacock, “Massacre account lacks balance,” letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1981, 6.

[13] This is especially ironic considering that it was Enrile’s San Jose Timber Corporation that figured at the center of the Sag-Od Massacre. Furthermore, Enrile himself, as the Senate President, approved Republic Act No. 10368, to be discussed in the next paragraph.