From the looks of it, it was obvious that painstaking efforts were exerted to conceal the previous existence of the abandoned military camp. But the cries for justice of the victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives can never be muted as the former camp occupied by the 24th IB of the Philippine Army yielded burnt human bones and other vital evidences proving the claims of escaped torture victim Raymond Manalo that the military was involved in the abduction and torture of UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, and farmer Manuel Merino.
BY RAYMUND B. VILLANUEVA
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
On March 22, 2007, Shara Hizarsa was waiting for her father Abner to bring lunch to school she would later share with him. He has cooked and brought food for her without fail since he left the underground movement due to frail health.
But no one arrived for the girl’s lunch that day.
It had been 19 months since. There is still no father to cook and bring food for Shara.
Last October 13, Shara commemorated her 12th birthday. Even her mother Cris cannot be with her on her special day because she had to join dozens of relatives of the forcibly disappeared under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime in a fact-finding mission in Barangay Bliss, Limay, Bataan.
In an abandoned military camp near the World War II monument in Mount Samat, about 50 human rights workers under Karapatan and Desaperacidos, the victims’ relatives, officials and staff of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and University of the Philippines (UP) anthropologists (led by Dr. Francisco Datar) dug holes on the ground, hoping to find remains of summary execution victims. They were led to the site by Raymond Manalo, one of two brothers who escaped from the custody of the 24th Infantry Battalion of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.
Manalo said that he and his brother Reynaldo were taken to the camp on November 21 or 22, 2006. A week later, he saw missing UP student Karen Empeño and farmer Manuel Merino. They were later joined by Sherlyn Cadapan, another abducted UP student.
Inside the camp, Raymond was ordered to help build the barracks, cook and clean house for the soldiers, led by a certain Maj. Donald “Allan” Caigas. He witnessed how the two students were hung upside down on one foot with sticks repeatedly rammed in their private parts. After each torture session on the women, Raymond was ordered to clean the room of the victims’ blood and feces and even wash their underwear. He recalled of many nights he went to sleep with blood-curdling screams ringing in his ears.
Raymond also recounted in his affidavit that he, his brother Reynaldo and Merino were taken to “cattle-rustling and harassment missions” by the soldiers led by Caigas. He witnessed the execution and abduction of farmers in outlying villages.
One night in June 2007, soldiers took Merino from their holding room, saying then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan wanted to talk to him. Several minutes after, he saw Merino being marched to a grassy field 50 meters away from the camp’s barbed-wire perimeter. Standing by a window, Manalo heard screams and moans, like someone who was startled (“Parang nagulat.”), followed by two gunshots. “Siguro hindi nadale sa saksak, kaya binaril,” he said. (“They probably failed to kill him by stabbing so they shot him.”) Then he saw what looked like a bonfire that lasted late into the night. The next morning, he was told not to look for Merino as he has already “joined” Cadapan and Empeño. “Pinatay si ‘Tay Manuel dahil sabi ng militar matanda na siya,” Raymond added. (“Manuel was killed because the military said he was already old.”)
In July 2007, the Manalo brothers were taken to Caigas’ farm in Bolinao, Pangasinan to work as laborers where they escaped on the night of August 12, 2007.
“Clear and convincing” testimony
The government and army’s top officials took turns belying Raymond’s testimony by denying the existence of the camp. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and retired Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon said that Manalo’s testimony was “baseless.” Lt. Gen. Isagani Cachuela, PA Northern Luzon commanding general, said that he would not know about the existence of the camp in Barangay Bliss. Maj. Gen. Ralph Villanueva, 7th ID commander, which has jurisdiction over the 24th IB, echoed Cachuela’s statement saying he “still has to find out.” Last September 20, PA spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner also issued a statement saying Cadapan, Empeno and Merino were nowhere to be found in any army camp where their relatives and supporters claimed they were detained.
But residents of Barangay Bliss are one in saying that there indeed was a military camp in their village. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also reported that former Bataan vice governor Rogelio Roque confirmed that the military used to occupy the area, which is adjacent to his property.
Despite the military’s claims, Raymond’s testimony was considered by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court (SC) as “factual,” “harrowing” as well as “clear and convincing.” Last October 6, the SC affirmed the appellate court’s decision to grant the privilege of the writ of amparo to both Manalo brothers, providing them protection from state forces. The order also affirmed the possible culpability of Palparan in their abduction and torture, as well as that of Cadapan, Empeño, Merino and others. The SC also rejected the 7th ID’s investigation as “very limited, superficial and one-sided.”
CHR chair Leila de Lima, for her part said, “The Manalo brothers, for me, have the most significant testimony in the extralegal killings and enforced disappearances.”