All Souls’ Day for the kin of the disappeared

(Photo by Arkibong Bayan)
(Photo by Arkibong Bayan)

“Until we see their bones in a grave, or we see them in prison, we will not stop searching.”

MANILA – Today’s sombre grey sky commiserated with the small gathering of people huddled under tents outside Quiapo Church here in Plaza Miranda. Tears fell with the soft downpour, urged on by a song that tells of the sorrow and yearning of an endless search.

“Hinahanap-hanap ka, sa payapang dagat… (I search for you in the tranquil sea),” went the song. On the ground were laid out dozens of pictures of people: the desaparecidos or the disappeared.

On All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, the families of victims of enforced disappearances gather to make their cries for justice heard. The victims: activists and their supporters who were abducted and disappeared by state security forces, from the martial law era up to the regime of President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Led by the Families of the Disappeared for Justice (Desaparecidos), the annual gathering is always under a veil of constant mourning, for the dead whose bodies were never found, whose deaths are yet to be accepted by many families, even. But underneath the sadness and longing boils the anger at the continuing injustice and human rights violations. Even under President Duterte, the promise of change has left out those who cry for justice.

“We have no grave to light candles or put flowers on,” say most of those who have conceded to the possibility of their loved ones’ deaths. But many still hope for the opposite.

“You took them alive, bring them back alive,” cried Linda Cadapan, addressing the military. Her daughter Sherlyn was disappeared with Karen Empeño, in Bulacan 10 years ago. The mastermind of the crime, retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. is still being tried for the kidnapping and illegal detention and is detained at the Phil. Army custodial center in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City.

Empeño’s father, Oscar was also there, as all other familiar faces. The younger ones, like poet Ipe Soco of People’s Chorale, and Desaparecidos’s secretary general Aya Santos, now have more mature faces. Soco was only 19 when his mother, Gloria, was disappeared in 2006, along with his granduncle and grandaunt, Prudencio Calubid and Celina Palma, and their staff Ariel Beloy.

Calubid is a peace consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), just like Leo Velasco, Santos’s father, who was disappeared in 2007. Santos, now married, brought her toddler-son who has never met his grandfather.

Desaparecidos secretary general Aya Santos (in red) (Photo by Arkibong Bayan)
Desaparecidos secretary general Aya Santos (in red) (Photo by Arkibong Bayan)

The older ones, like Flora Cedro and Gaudencio Gile, now both senior citizens, appeared more bent, more burdened with sadness and age. Their loved ones were both urban poor organizers abducted in 1988, during the time of President Cory Aquino: Cedro’s husband Armando Sr. was abducted in Navotas, while Gile’s son, Joseph, was abducted in Pasay. Another community organizer disappeared in 1988 was Roberto Pascual, whose wife Sherly was also at Plaza Miranda.

But many kin were also missed at the gathering. Like the Luneta brothers, martial law activists Romy and Kiko, now both deceased, their search for their sister-in-law and niece, Margarita and her daughter Niña who were disappeared in 1976, now to be carried on by others.

“Until we see their bones in a grave, or we see them in prison, we will not stop searching,” said Bilet Batralo, whose brother Cesar, an NDFP consultant, was disappeared in 2006. Also there was Omek Ancheta, whose brother Leopoldo, is also a disappeared NDFP consultant.

“Sana po maramdaman din namin ang pagbabago para sa aming mga biktima ng human rights violations (We hope to also feel that change has come for us victims of human rights violations),” Cadapan called on the Duterte administration.

NDFP takes GRP to task to seek justice for the disappeared

Like balm to their wounds, the families were joined by four NDFP peace consultants, whose comrades were among those disappeared.

Peace consultant Ruben Saluta recalled Luisa Posa-Dominado and Nilo Arado, the two progressive leaders in Panay island who were disappeared in 2007. He and Dominado were student activists in the pre-martial law period: he, with Kabataang Makabayan (KM)-Aklan, while Dominado was with KM-Iloilo. During martial law, Dominado was repeatedly arrested but was able to be freed of charges or escape. They met and worked together in the countryside, until she was arrested again in 1987.

NDFP Peace consultant Ruben Saluta holds a poster of missing Panay leader Luisa Dominado (Contributed photo)
NDFP Peace consultant Ruben Saluta holds a poster of missing Panay leader Luisa Dominado (Contributed photo)

Saluta said he had also met Arado as a young activist, and recalled he was a survivor of the Escalante Massacre in Negros Occidental in 1985.

In 2007, Saluta was travelling to Manila when he heard the two were abducted. “I thought, there is no doubt, the military did it.”

Years before, in 1999, state forces abducted Saluta and held him incommunicado for a month. He said soldiers repeatedly asked him about Dominado. “They (soldiers) were so angry at her,” he told Bulatlat.

NDFP peace consultant Alan Jazmines said they are pressing government to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. More than 700 were disappeared during martial law, but this continued under succeeding administrations: 860 under Corazon Aquino, at least 40 under Fidel V. Ramos, 26 under Joseph Estrada’s short term, at least 200 under Gloria Arroyo. At least 27 victims were disappeared under Aquino.

(Photo by Arkibong Bayan)
(Photo by Arkibong Bayan)

“Those responsible for these fascist crimes are yet to be held accountable. Instead, they are being concealed, protected by fascist elements of the military, paramilitary, police and intelligence under the command of Uncle Sam,” Jazmines said.

“The NDFP and other revolutionary subjective forces will not relent in defending human rights and the Filipino people, and in seeking justice to make the ruling fascists pay for the brutal attacks against desaparecidos and all other victims,” he said.

Among the disappeared were comrades he personally met, like Velasco, Calubid, Batralo, Rogelio Calubad and his son Gabriel, and James Balao.

“They are not forgotten,” he said.

At the end of the program, slogans were shouted: “Surface! Justice to all disappeared!” Some voices cracked from the built-up grief, and rage.

“Putanginang militar ‘yan,” one of the mothers cursed, under her breath.

“Umiiyak ka ba (Are you crying)?” another teased her. “Matagal nang ubos ang luha ko (My tears have long dried up),” she answered, even as she wiped her eyes.

The tears, the rain will fall, but the search for the disappeared, truth and justice, goes on.

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