“We need to have a fresh start,” says Fidel Nemenzo, new chancellor of UP Diliman. Photographed at home by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

The M-16 bullet that changed Fidel Nemenzo’s life

In this exclusive interview for ANCX, the new UP Diliman Chancellor recalls the moment he was shot at a peaceful protest rally in Welcome Rotonda 35 years ago — and talks to Ces Drilon about the life that moment prepared him for.
Ces Oreña-Drilon | Feb 29 2020

The M-16 bullet that went through Fidel Nemenzo left a gaping hole in his chest and missed his heart by a mere inch. The 23-year old student was among the protesters determined to march to Malacañang on September 27, 1984. 

Those in the protest movement recall that day as one of the worst rallies of the time against then President Marcos, where police trained tear gas, water cannons, and guns on peaceful demonstrators. Thousands were dispersed at the Welcome Rotonda, two bystanders were killed, and several others were seriously wounded. 

The protest rally in ‘84 where Fidel was shot. Photo from History with Lourd on Facebook
Bloodied Fidel on the day of the violent dispersal.

It was Fidel’s excellent physical condition (he was a runner, winning the Diliman Marathon in 1979) coupled with the burst of adrenaline from his anger at the violent dispersal that helped save his life. “Galit na galit ako kasi we are unarmed demonstrators – students, professionals, there were religious people, there were business people,” recalls Fidel. “Galit ako dahil paatras na kami nung nagpaputok sila. Nung tinamaan ako parang naalala ko alam kong eto na.” 

Running was a passion he needed to stop after the shooting.

“Akala ko wala na talaga”

It took an hour for Fidel, who lost about 2 liters of blood, to get to a hospital. His group fleeing the dispersal had difficulty finding refuge from the police. Houses around the area closed their gates. 

“Naalala ko lang kumakatok yung mga kasama ko, sunud-sunod na apartments, ayaw talaga akong papasukin,” Fidel recalls. “Pero may isang nagbukas ng kanyang pintuan at marami kaming pumasok. Hindi ko alam kung ilan at may isang matalik akong kaibigan na nakasama dun. Naalala ko lang na nilagyan nya ako ng jacket. Pinatong niya yung jacket at hindi na siya makatingin. Kasi duguan na ako noon. At nung panahong yun akala ko talaga wala na.” 

Leonid, Paul Encarnacion (Fidel’s best friend), Fidel and sister Lian in Baguio in early 80s.

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There were police blockades everywhere, ambulances could not get through, and it was only aboard a radio mobile that his companions managed to bring Fidel to the emergency room. “I was conscious. In fact, ang sabi ng doctor, it was the adrenaline that acted as an artificial pump.” 

“I was conscious. In fact, ang sabi ng doctor, it was the adrenaline that acted as an artificial pump,” Fidel tells Ces over coffee at his house, recalling the day he was shot. Photograph by Chris Clemente

Fidel’s eyes mist at the memory. “I was thinking of my parents, thinking of my friends. I was thinking of my very close friend at that time.” (referring to Marivic Raquiza, a professor at UP’s National College of Public Administration and Governance, whom he met at the protest movement and later married)

 

“I was a reckless adventurer”

It was a life-changing experience to be sure and it shaped the Fidel who is committed to what he calls the life of the mind. “I think it strengthened me but it also taught me fear. It taught me that life is fragile and vulnerable. You make the most out of what you have,” he tells me when we interview him for the first episode of the new season of Ces and the City, the ANCX.ph web series. 

At the University of the Philippines for the first episode of Ces and the City’s new season. Photograph by Chris Clemente

The incident taught him to be more cautious. “Dati medyo reckless ako —idealistic, reckless, you think that you can overcome everything but when you're hit… We read about people dying but it can be you, it can be anyone. You suddenly feel that everything can disappear in an instant,” relates a pensive Fidel. “Before I was a reckless adventurer. But now I always say when I talk adventure hindi lang adventure but adventure in ideas, in a sense it challenged me. But did I regret anything? Of course not. In a sense that event in my life made me who I am.”

 

“We need to build those bridges again”

It is in the battlefield of ideas where Fidel seeks to prevail as UP Diliman Chancellor starting a three year term this Monday, March 2. He will be governing the academic community of UP Diliman which counts 27 colleges and about 15,000 students and professors. The state university has a 3-pronged mandate: teaching, research and public service. 

Fidel and Leonid with UP schoolmates.

The community includes some of the sharpest minds in the country: scholars, professors, and staff that help run the university. It will be a tough balancing act, coming on the heels of feared political interference in the appointments of deans in the university. “Certain processes in the university need to be reviewed,” Fidel says, clearly choosing his words carefully, “Actually the race for the chancellorship took place at a time when there was high levels of mistrust between the community and the Board of Regents. We need to build those bridges again, clarify positions, because we need to have a fresh start. I think that's the main challenge.” 

An early morning walk at the Academic Oval with old friends.

But there are, of course, other challenges. “We’re developing the lands around UP, but we also have communities living here. We need to find the feasible, compassionate solutions to these problems.”

 

“Guitar has a different kind of sexy”

Fidel was born two years after the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and his father, the respected political scientist and unabashed Marxist, named him after Fidel Castro. His younger brother Leonid was named after a Russian poet, short before Leonid Brezhnev became Soviet leader. They have a sister Lian, who runs the family preschool in Quezon City. 

The mind, says Fidel, is also a place for adventure.

The siblings grew up in the tight knit UP community and it was in UP High School where I met the brothers Nemenzo. Leonid was my ka-batch and Fidel was two batches ahead of us. Fidel was in the school’s track and field team and was a school champion in table tennis. Leonid became corps commander in CAT or Citizens Army Training. Early on, both brothers inspired respect with their “quiet but wonderful demeanour and countenance,” recalls another batchmate. Not only were they athletic, the brothers loved to play the guitar and wore their learning lightly.

Siblings Fidel, Lian and Leonid, then and now.

In college, injuries from the shooting prevented Fidel from engaging in his two loves: running and singing. “I was an active runner. I had to stop running. I was a member of Patatag, the singing group. I had to stop dahil may butas o nagrerecover ang aking baga,” Fidel recalls. “They say old wounds, kumikirot ang mga sugat kapag taglamig. Kaya nararamadaman ko paminsan-minsan. Minsan may mga spasms dahil maraming nahiwa, naputol na mga nerves dito. So I feel that every now and then.” 

Nemenzo brothers Leonid and Fidel.

As a member of Patatag, Fidel would participate in community singing in rallies and marches, starting from the AS (Arts and Sciences) lobby in UP. “Yung art and singing was a very good tool for expressing our yearnings for freedom, for our rights.” Fidel owns five guitars, and two are kept in his office. When I ask him to play, he declines but offers this explanation about his fascination with the instrument: “When you play, guitar has a different kind of sexy, more gentle and also there's something about the quality of strings.”

Fidel and his guitar.

At his office, the walls are adorned with vintage protest posters and photographs, among them a portrait of Lean Alejandro which hangs in a prominent corner. Lean, the student leader, is believed to be slain by rightists in 1987. “Because he represents the ideals of our generation,” Fidel explains the portrait’s place in his office. “Lean was a very good UP student. He was an intellectual but he was fiercely committed to solving the problems of the nation.”

It’s a description not very far from who Fidel is himself. The former student activist vows to maintain his activism as the university’s new “chancy.” “Activism simply means that you are guided by a yearning for freedom, for justice, for equality. Hanggang ngayon sinasabi ko aktibista ako,” Fidel says. “But I started as an activist just like our student activists. I will always protect their right to criticize, to offer alternatives, to express protest.”

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv

 

Join Ces Drilon as she gets up close and personal with Fidel Nemenzo in the first episode of the new season of Ces and The City. Premiering Sunday, March 1, on ANCX.ph

Additional photographs courtesy of Leonid Nemenzo, Telly Nacpil-Encarnacion, JJ Soriano