“Do we light a candle for him or do we offer flowers?”
By IAN IRVING BAZARTE
MANILA – Romeo ‘Ka Omek’ Ancheta walks into the tiny living room of his small two-story house in Obrero village, Tondo, Manila, minutes after telling his grandchildren outside to quiet down for a while because he was to talk with a journalist.
He is old, really, at 65 years of age. “Limang taon na lang, bibingo na ako (Five more years and that may be it for me),” he laughingly says. His long shaggy hair is now almost completely gray, his skin is dry and wrinkled, his gait a little unsteady, his voice a tad too quiet. In the course of our conversation, every now and then he would cough and wheeze and sputter. He is suffering from a slew of medical problems: he has asthma, his ears are starting to go deaf, and just last year, he had to undergo treatment for eye cataracts.
In a well-functioning society, he would be retired by now. He would be living in the relative comfort of his home, safe from the elements and with an abundance of wants and needs. He would have the right to sit down by the television or the radio every day. He would have the right to reminisce about the good ol’ days with his pals and his family over at the dining table, coffee or tea in one hand and newspaper in the other.
In a word, he would have had the right to truly rest.
But he and his family were denied all these exactly 11 years back, when his brother, National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultant Leopoldo “Do” Ancheta was abducted by armed men suspected to be members of the military in Tuktukan, Guiguinto, Bulacan.
Up to this day, justice has eluded the Anchetas, who yearly call on the government to give them back the family member they lost so suddenly and without warning; pleas which no government, past or present, has ever seemed to hear.
Every November, the Anchetas are presented with a dilemma, unique only to families and friends of victims of forced disappearances:
“Magsisindi ka ba ng kandila o mag-aalay ng bulaklak sa kanya?” (Do we light a candle for him or do we offer flowers?)
A hero, a brother
In all of the photographs online that I’ve seen of Do, he looked like a no-nonsense man, someone who spoke little but whose actions said it all. Ka Omek’s accounts more or less corroborate my pre-judgement. He was, Ka Omek says, a generally quiet person, but once he got going, he got going.
Do’s exploits as a labor leader during the 70s to 80s is the stuff of legend, a story as simple as it is beautiful. His story began when he was a student in the nearby Jose P. Laurel High School, a jeepney ride or two away from home. It was there that he became aware of the other side of the coin, of the injustices that people suffer because of a government that never listens to them.
He began joining protests and small rallies, waving banners and shouting protests shoulder-to-shoulder with folks from all walks of life, banded together by their heartfelt beliefs that they fought for truly just causes.
With friends and acquaintances from Obrero, Do founded Makabayan Anak ng Obrero (MAO), which he led into protests and rallies until they were eventually absorbed into Katipunan ng Kabataang Demokratiko (KKD) in the 1970s.
Ka Omek recalls being prohibited by his brother from joining rallies, most likely out of fear that something would happen to him. One day, during Ka Omek’s first year in high school, he and some friends on a whim decided to go to a protest action where Do was in attendance.
“Nakita nya ako, sabi niya, ‘Uwi ka na, utol.’ Uwi agad ako eh,” he reminisces, pausing for a scant second before adding, “Takot ako doon noon sa kanya,” with a laugh. (He saw me, told me ‘Go home, bro.’ I immediately went home… I was scared of him then.)
A defining moment that hammered home to the Anchetas the dangers of activism in the volatile atmosphere of the Marcos era was when personnel from now-defunct Metropolitan Command of the Philippine Constabulary (MetroCom) raided their house, looking for Do.
The police officers had no warrant of arrest or even a search warrant, but they searched just the same, because it was martial law and the police cannot be bothered with technical stuff such as warrants.
“Alam mo ba na aktibista yung anak mo (Are you aware that your son is an activist?)?” one of the police officers asked their father.
“Wala akong alam (No, I’m not) ,” their father, frightened but also resolute, said.
“Pagka nahuli naman yung anak mo, di nyo na makikita,” (When we capture your son, you won’t ever see him again) threatened the police officer, who then left.
This, along with the constant surveillance and harassment, prompted Do to go underground in 1974 until 1979, maintaining little contact with family while still organizing trade unions and labor protests in factories around Novaliches, Marikina, and Quezon City.
Do was a founding member of both Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and Pinag-isang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator Nationwide (PISTON) in the early 80s, along with such figures as Bert Olalia and Crispin Beltran.
After Do went underground, Ka Omek decided enough was enough, and he became a member of Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (Kadena). He recounts a particular rally someplace he could not remember anymore where he saw his brother again.
Not many words were exchanged between the two, Ka Omek remembers, but what happened said more than enough. Do gave him a simple, almost imperceptible nod and a single word: “Sige.” (OK.)
Ka Omek had finally gained his brother’s approval to also become an activist.
As Kadena member, Ka Omek participated in the 1986 EDSA Revolution, which he remembers with a mixture of pride and glee, describing scenes of solidarity, of strangers linking arms and singing songs and standing ready to die if need be, of love for country ultimately winning against the interests of a few.
There is sadness, too, he says, because it was the last time so many Filipinos truly banded together to overthrow greed.
After EDSA, Do resurfaced, eventually making his way to The Netherlands as a consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). He stayed there for two years, organizing Filipino seamen along with Dutch labor leaders.
After Do was abducted, the Anchetas launched into a whirlwind of activities. They contacted progressive group Karapatan, who aided them in looking for witnesses at the crime scene and in filing the habeas corpus case before the Court of Appeals against Jovito Palparan, then a major general of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) commanding the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division operating in Central Luzon.
Ka Omek is pensive as he recounts the legal battles that followed: the hearings themselves, the anxious waiting and waiting that stretched on for days and weeks and even into months, all the while hoping and praying for a sign, for any indication that his brother was still alive.
All of this culminated in a decision released in June 2007 – quite ironically, almost a full year after Ka Do disappeared – dismissing the petition due to “lack of substantial proof.”
It is a decision that Ka Omek never quite found sense in, and which drives him to continue looking for closure from a government that didn’t seem to care.
“Nag-appeal kami sa United Nations. Meron silang pinadala, pero walang malinaw na sagot si [then-President Gloria] Arroyo… May mga nakakita, ayaw tumestigo, oo, mga tricycle drivers, kasi nga takot sila, baka madale rin daw sila ng military (We appealed to the United Nations. They sent someone, but there was no answer from Arroyo… There were people who saw what happened, tricycle drivers, but they did not testify because they were scared of the military),” he laments.
Ka Omek describes searching military bases all over Luzon looking for his brother, even getting as far as Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.
“Pinasyal lang kami, pinakita lang yung lugar na talagang malaki, talagang di ka makaka-eskapo agad ng basta-basta (They just toured us around, showed us how big the place was. You really wouldn’t be able to escape easily from a place that big),” he remembers with bitterness.
Grasping at straws, and still hoping
These days, Ka Omek still participates in protests and rallies, alongside veterans and newcomers alike. The younger ones call him ‘Tatay’ because he is like a father figure to them, a product of the oft-forgotten age of Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law.
Ka Omek still marches against injustice mostly because it is his passion, his life’s work, his raison d’être. “Makikita mo yung pagkakaiba ng ordinaryong tao sa may prinsipyo at may disiplina [sa rally] (You’ll see the difference between ordinary folk and those who have principles and discipline in a rally),” he proudly says.
But he also marches because he hopes for an end to his search and to their family’s anguish.
“Kaya ako nandito kasi humahanap ako ng katarungan. Ilabas nila. Kahit yung bangkay lang, kahit na yung buto lang, sa buto sa ulo makikita’t makikila ko kung sino siya, kasi ako ang gumawa ng pustiso niya. Kaya alam ko. Alam mo, ako ang nag-process ng pustiso nyan (I’m still here because I’m looking for justice. Surface him. Just his corpse, or even his skull will do; I can recognize him straight away from those because I made his false teeth. I will know, I should know because I made his false teeth),” he says.
Eleven years after his disappearance, Ka Omek still misses his brother. He uses Do’s picture as the wallpaper of his cellphone, still keeps around letters and pictures and memento from his brother, and sometimes even sees the face of his brother in crowds, like what happened recently in a visit to nearby Quiapo.
“Unang tingin ko, siya, kaya nilapitan ko. Di naman ako umiimik, tinitignan ko lang… Payat siya na gusgusin, e yung utol ko mataba yan, e. Sabi ko siguro namayat lang yan… Sinisipat ko nang maigi,” he narrates.
At the end of our conversation I ask him the question I have been waiting to ask him since I first heard about his story: What would you tell your brother if you see him at this very moment?
Ka Omek is silent for a moment, eyes watering ever-so-slightly. His lips seem to tremble – or maybe it is simply my eyes playing tricks on me – as he answers:
“Kung sakali na makauwi na siya, sasabihin niya, ‘Tol, nandito na ako.’ Sabihin ko, ‘Uy, sama na ako nyan. Magkasama na tayo, dalawa na tayo (If he ever gets home, he’ll say, ‘I’m here, bro.’ And I will tell him, ‘Hey, I’m going with you. We’ll stay together this time, man, the two of us).’”