Seated next to me–Ninoy Aquino, head bowed, lips moving in silent prayer, fingers caressing rosary beads, at peace with his God and prepared for his mission of peace.
Ninoy was exhausted, physically and mentally. He was the most extraordinary man I had ever met, but he was still a man, subject to the pains and sufferings of human emotions. Only he was better at handling them than most of us.
Thirty years ago, August 21, 1983, one man's courage confronted the cowardice of a dictatorship and changed the course of Philippine history. The Philippines gained a martyr. We, the Aquino family, lost a brother, a father, a husband. A single bullet signaled the beginning of the end of tyranny.
Four months earlier, the Philippines' most famous political prisoner had decided to end his self-imposed exile in Boston and return to the Philippines to seek nothing less than a return to democracy for his country and national reconciliation for his people.
It was a bold decision, inherently risky. For three years, he had been free from the shackles of oppression, from the pains of confinement, free to speak and criticize without fear of punishment. But his country came first. He put aside his personal concerns for what turned out to be his not-so-impossible dream.
What followed was a battle of nerves with Ferdinand Marcos firing all the salvos. Originally, Ninoy had planned to go home openly. His children Noynoy and Kris were scheduled to come with us. After all, what more basic right does a citizen have than to set foot in his own country.
But the government refused to issue Ninoy a passport, then tried intimidation by announcing a bogus assassination plot against him. They were determined to keep him away and he was equally determined to succeed.
We explored every possible route–Air France through the Middle East, Korean Airlines through Seoul, Japan Airlines through Tokyo, China Airlines through Taipei. We became paranoid about secrecy, not wanting Marcos to learn when and how he was arriving. We assumed our phones were tapped, and we developed codes. Air France became the long route. Korean Airlines became the 17-year-old route, since Ninoy had served as a 17-year-old correspondent during the Korean War.
Would government agents try to kidnap him along the way? Each official pronouncement and rumor prompted speculation about what it really meant. First, government contacts suggested Ninoy would not be re-imprisoned if he returned. Then they reinstated his death sentence. There was an announcement that Marcos was going into seclusion, a rumor that he was undergoing surgery, speculation that a hit squad was being sent to the United States. The emotional strain was intense.
The pressure on Ninoy to abandon his homecoming continued to the end. Despite the secrecy, he was recognized at the Singapore airport, where he had gone to brief Southeast Asian leaders he had known. In Taipei, the immigration officer questioned the passport of this man named Marcial Bonifacio, the name Ninoy chose for his fake passport (Marcial for martial law and Bonifacio where he was incarcerated).
At Taipei's Grand Hotel, where we stayed, he received a phone call from a Taiwanese friend. China Airlines, the official carrier, had discovered he was in town. Would the Taiwan government try to pick him up? Or stop him at the airport? He took a chance, contacting the government through back channels. The official answer: We have never heard of Ninoy Aquino and we do not know if he is in Taiwan. Taiwan would not stop him. The journey would continue.
That night, Saturday, August 20th, after all the reporters had left the room, Ninoy was subdued. Another rumor had surfaced that he might be hit at the airport when he landed. Another, that the plane would be turned around. But they were just more rumors.
That night, his last, Ninoy finally went to bed about 12:30, exhausted. He lay face down on his bed, hands outstretched, fingering his rosary beads and praying.
"You know," he said, "I'm so tired, maybe it's better if they take me straight to prison so I can rest for awhile."
Even with all the talk of assassination, Ninoy remained the perennial optimist, still hoping that he might be placed under house arrest.
He slept only about four hours. Up by 5 a.m. Sunday, he prayed his rosary again and called Cory in Boston. She read the Bible to him. He spoke briefly with his children and cried, then wrote each of them a letter.
But by the time we sat down for breakfast, Ninoy was his usual ebullient self, both excited and anxious about finally going home. He was wearing his favorite white suit with a “BSA” (Benigno S. Aquino Jr.) patch on the front pocket. He ate eggs chopped up and mixed with ketchup, which I said looked nauseating. He laughed and kept on eating, thoroughly enjoying every bite. We joked that perhaps we should handcuff ourselves together when we landed in Manila. He was very upbeat. But he reflected on his life too, saying one regret he had was that Cory had to suffer so much during the frequent absences required by his political life. And he regretted having to say "no" to his daughter Kris when she asked to come with us.
At the same time, Ninoy was anxious because there was still a chance he would be stopped at the Taipei airport. Indeed, when we got there, he was met by the Taiwan Garrison Commander. I feared he was being detained but was relieved when the General simply wished him a safe journey. But, after that encounter, we both knew that Marcos officials had pinpointed his flight and time of arrival. Clearly, he would be met in Manila and taken back to prison in Fort Bonifacio. Or so I thought.
On the plane, the journalists created a huge commotion, trying to photograph and interview Ninoy. I finally got him to move to the back of the plane, which was empty. One of the pictures they took is now on the 500-peso bill. At one point, I looked back and saw Ninoy gazing downward, very pensive, posing for a photographer. I went to see what serious matter he was reading. It was the menu. We laughed. Neither one of us ate lunch that day. Too nervous. At another point, I turned to say something to him and he was deep in prayer.
Throughout the flight, there was still a chance that the plane would be turned back and Ninoy said it would be a victory if we just landed. So when the China Airlines plane touched down in Manila, he breathed a sigh of relief. I turned to him and said, “Noy, you’re home.” He had a big smile. As we taxied to the terminal, I looked out the window and told him a crowd had gathered to meet him. He was seated in the center section and couldn’t see out the window.
When the plane reached the gate, we were told to remain in our seats. I saw the soldiers coming up the stairs of the jetway and told Ninoy they were coming to get him, to take him back to prison, I assumed. It was tense. Camera crews were standing on seats to take pictures. Everyone was straining to see what was going on as the soldiers came down the aisle.
As they led him away, I yelled, “Noy, I’m coming with you.” He was supposed to tell the soldiers that he wanted his brother-in-law to accompany him. He forgot. He turned back and said, “Yeah, come on.” Those were the last words I heard him utter. I tried to follow, as did the journalists and photographers. But when we got into the jetway, the door to the tarmac was slammed shut and we were blocked.
Nine seconds later, as we later calculated, I heard the first shot, followed by a fusillade of gunfire. I was horrified. I tried to push my way out the door to see what had happened but was blocked again. Shaking with anger, I yelled some expletives. When I ran back into the plane, the faces of the journalists were ashen. Through the plane's window, they had seen Ninoy’s bloody body on the tarmac. All they could say was, “Sorry.”
I knew he had been shot, but I refused to believe he was dead. I ran down the jetway to immigration where there was a long line. I went to the front, saying, “My brother-in-law has been shot.” The passengers stepped aside, allowing me to go through. I was looking for my wife, Lupita, Ninoy’s sister, who was in Manila to help prepare his arrival. When I found her, I just kept muttering, “The bastards shot him.” She took me to the VIP room where Ninoy’s mother was waiting, along with leaders of the opposition. Mommy Aurora stared at me as if looking for some words of hope. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what had happened.
What followed is well chronicled: The hope for the country's future gunned down; the charisma, commitment and courage lying bloodied on the tarmac; the man who came in peace greeted by violent savagery.
In the days that followed, I tried to make sense of what had happened. Ninoy had a vision and a plan for the peaceful restoration of democracy and had the leadership to fulfill it. I had never met a more engaging person, a more captivating speaker, or anyone more committed to the cause of justice. To me, his assassination was the waste of a talent that comes along once in a lifetime, all because of the arrogance of power, because a dictatorship thought it could get away with murder.
Ninoy had been a political prisoner and in exile for nearly 11 years. During all that time, the country’s controlled press virtually ignored him, so I had always wondered if he had been forgotten. It didn’t take long for an answer.
Beginning the night of August 21st, after Ninoy’s body had been taken to his Quezon City house on Times Street to lie in state, people began lining up around the block to file past the casket in silent reverence, looking down at the bloodied face, at the hole in his chin where a single bullet had exited, at lips slightly upturned as if to smile in gratitude. They were boldly defying the rules of dictatorship by showing support for the dictator's number one critic. They were risking retribution from a regime that would not hesitate to exact it. They didn't care. They were angry. "Sobra na, tama na." They had had enough. Ninoy had not been forgotten.
Those ten days in August have left some lasting impressions: The hundreds of thousands who filed past the coffin on Times Street and the millions who lined the funeral route. Ninoy's ultimate sacrifice had awakened a sleeping giant, and the giant would not be satisfied until justice and freedom were restored, until tyrannical arrogance was replaced by the will of the oppressed. In the mournful aftermath of a murder that angered a nation and shocked the world, People Power was born.
So as I walked past Ninoy's coffin at the cemetery to say goodbye, I felt secure in the knowledge that he had not died in vain, that victory was indeed his. And I left the Philippines knowing that the rallying cry was not rhetoric but reality: "NINOY, HINDI KA NAG IISA!!" He was not alone.
Ninoy's Last Moments
Video by ABC News’ Jim Laurie
Ken Kashiwahara is a retired ABC Television News correspondent. He was traveling with Ninoy not as a journalist but as his brother-in-law, the only family member to accompany him.