MANILA – “They did not give my son a chance to rehabilitate, the right to live.”
Leila Cervantes, her silver-streaked hair concordant with her mourning black shirt and shawl, still weeps for her only son, Jason, who was killed in a police anti-drug operations nine months ago at his home in Caloocan City. He was a drug user, she admits, but he was not a bad person.
“They killed my son, and his youngest child is not even baptized yet,” Cervantes said. Jason left three children: age nine, seven, and the youngest, only nine months old.
It was Cervantes’s first time to speak to a crowd about her son, and she spoke with her heart in front of others like her, whose kin were victims of human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention based on trumped-up charges.
The forum, dubbed “Remember. Resist,” gathered relatives of victims of drug-related killings and families of activists who were killed or disappeared. Also present were the kin of political prisoners, as well as those recently released. Mainly led by the victims group Hustisya, the assembly aimed to strengthen the call for justice and defense of human rights, which continue to be violated, from the time of the Marcos Dictatorship to the present Duterte administration.
Human rights groups estimate some 12,000 victims of extrajudicial killings related to the Duterte administration War on Drugs.
“It’s painful for a mother to bury her son. Sana ako na lang,” Cervantes said.
Although her son’s death was drug-related, she shares common feelings of grief, guilt and loss with families of political rights abuses. They also shared the call to make state security forces accountable.
“This gathering serves to remember our loved ones who were deprived of their rights,” said Evan Hernandez, chairperson of the victims’ group, Hustisya. Her daughter Benjaline, a writer-activist was killed in North Cotabato in 2002. Beyond remembering, she said, the assembly is also a show of unity of people who cry for justice.
“We are here, and we are ready to resist anti-people programs of the government,” she said at the forum.
‘We are all victims’
A young woman whose father and brother were slain in anti-drug operations spoke at the gathering with her face covered with a shawl. She admitted that her father, “Luis,” was a drug user, but had surrendered and vowed to stop. He even worked as a village guard to show his effort to self-rehabilitate. But a week before he was killed, he learned he was fired from work.
Her brother, “Gabriel,” was not involved in drugs. He worked at a catering and his wife had just given birth when he was slain.
“Kahit gumagamit Papa ko, tumigil na po siya…pinatay pa rin po siya. Pati Kuya ko dinamay (Even if my Papa was a former user, he had stopped, and yet they killed him. They had to kill my brother, too),” she said.
Boy Cadano, a Hustisya member, commiserated with other relatives: “We are all victims, victims of a repressive state.”
The only difference, he said, is that drug users turn to drugs to escape from the reality of poverty, while activists challenge the system that breeds poverty. But both have become state targets.
Cadano’s son, Guiller was arrested by the military and detained for two years in Nueva Ecija, along with Gerard Salonga, another activist and fellow graduate of the University of the Philippines (UP). They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, but were acquitted and freed in December last year.
A judge eventually dismissed the case as both police and military failed to explain why the two youths were arrested. Cadano recalled similar statements by police officers and soldiers in court: “We don’t know why the two were arrested; when we got there, they were already tied up.”
“They couldn’t even present the supposed grenade…maybe they were still using it in another case,” Cadano quipped.
But whether one is an activist, a drug suspect or not, Cadano said everyone is vulnerable: “I myself might become a target when I walk on the street…they just have to say, ‘He had drugs.”
Cadano, a retired banker, became an activist himself as he campaigned for the release of his son and Salonga. He continues to call for the release of all political prisoners.
Also at the gathering was Glenda Co, wife of ethno-botanist Leonard Co who was shot dead by soldiers along with two others in Leyte in 2010. The Department of Justice has only recommended filing a case of reckless imprudence against nine accused soldiers.
“Leonard Co was a botanist who asked for nothing in his occupation but to revive the dying forests, and to study the endangered species there,” she said.
“Up to now there is still no justice, just when we thought it (court case) will be over,” she said.
The real enemy
Also in attendance were some members of the group Families of victims of enforced disappearance for justice, or Desaparecidos. Many of the disappeared victims have been missing for more than a decade.
Beth Calubad, wife of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant Rogelio Calubad, came with her granddaughter Sugar. Her husband and their son, Gabriel were abducted and disappeared in June 2006. Sugar was then only two years old.
“My husband has not surfaced. My son has not surfaced,” Calubad lamented. An activist herself from the Marcos dictatorship era, she said that even without martial law, state forces brazenly commit violations.
Gabriel’s daughter Sugar, now 13 and a grade 8 student, said many relatives from her grandfather’s side “are yet to move on.” But she apparently had, as she called on government perpetrators: “Kahit patay man po sila, maibalik po sila (Please return them to us even if they are already dead).”
She said the disappearance has taken a toll on their family, as her own mother had “abandoned” her and re-married.
AL Ayroso, whose father Honor was disappeared in Nueva Ecija 15 years ago, conveyed restrained rage as he recalled that his father was first abducted by state forces in 1989, but was surfaced and imprisoned for a year. In 2002, Honor, a peasant organizer was disappeared with Bayan Muna coordinator Johnny Orcino, also a former political prisoner. They remain missing.
“Bulok pa rin ang pulis. Bulok pa rin ang AFP…sige pa rin ang pang-aabuso (The police is still rotten, and so is the AFP…abuses go on),” he said.