BALANGIGA, Philippines (Reuters) - In the devastated coastal Philippine town of Balangiga, a Roman Catholic belfry with a maroon steeple rises from the rubble, a battered symbol of resistance for a people with mixed feelings about the U.S. military now helping them survive.
After one of the world’s most powerful typhoons roared across the central Philippines and killed more than 4,000 people, U.S. military helicopters are flying in aid to desperate regions such as this once-picturesque fishing village of 12,600 people in ravaged Samar province.
It was here 112 years ago that one of the darkest chapters of American colonialism began: the island-wide massacre by U.S. soldiers of thousands of Filipinos, including women and children, in response to the killing of 48 U.S. soldiers by rebels.
Animosity has festered for more than a century over the ultimate insult: seizure of the town’s church bells by U.S. troops. In recent years, the Philippine government has demanded their return.
Marciano Deladia, a chief aide to the mayor, and other residents are thankful for the U.S. packets of rice and other food. “But we want our bells back,” he said.
The town built the belfry in 1998 in the hope that the United States would return three bells it says were stolen as trophies during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. One is believed to have been rung to signal the start of the attack.
Two of the bells are at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The third is part of a travelling museum now at a base in South Korea.
The dispute over the Balangiga bells underscores the difficulty the United States will face in transforming goodwill over its aid to typhoon victims into a bigger military presence on the ground in the Philippines.
Although the two countries are close allies, mistrust still lingers over America’s previous role as colonial master, as well as its longtime support for the brutal and kleptocratic regime of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The belfry is among just a few buildings still intact after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed 14 people in Balangiga, where a well-organized evacuation plan kept fatalities low.
“We don’t have any animosity against the American people,” said Deladia, standing in front of a monument recreating the ambush of U.S. troops. But the bells, he said, are “part of our historical heritage”.
Every September 28 the town re-enacts the 1901 Balangiga “incident” in which 48 occupying U.S. soldiers died in an ambush at the old church that triggered the brutal retaliation.
The dispute reflects America’s long ties to the Philippines, which declared independence from Spain in 1898 with the help of U.S. forces. When the United States went on to colonize the country, a war of independence erupted.
As the United States expands its military and economic interests in Asia to counter a rising China, fewer countries are more strategically important than the Philippines and its string of islands in the busy South China Sea.
Gregoria Pabillo, 76, said replacement bells, which are rung every day at noon and 6 p.m., lack the “rich sound” of the originals, which according to legend could be heard two towns over, some 20 km (12 miles) away.
An official at St. Lawrence the Martyr Parish Church, which stands on the site of the 1901 ambush, said retrieving the bells was important for a full accounting of the past.
“Some people say ‘what’s the big deal with the bells?’ To that I say: why is it such a big deal that you have to keep the bells?” said Fe Campanero, a secretary at the church.
But even if the United States wanted to return the bells, it seems it is restricted by law, at least for the next few years.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman, said the bells and “other memorial artifacts” were subject to legislation prohibiting their return.
“Specifically, the law is: Prohibition on Return of Veterans’ Memorial Objects without Specific Authorization in Law,” he said. The section on the bells expires in 2017. It wasn’t immediately clear what would happen then.
For many in the town, an uncertain future is their only concern.
“Whether or not the bells are returned doesn’t matter to me,” said Raymond Balais, 42, whose home was destroyed in the storm.
“We just had a disaster. I don’t know what to think.”
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jason Szep