By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Sobs were all that 50-year-old Violeta heard from her sister Elena Tijamo, a development worker who dedicated more than half her life in serving farmers and farm workers, as she was dragged out of their house in Cebu, with her mouth gagged and hands tied to her back.
Elena was forcibly disappeared for more than two months now by suspected state forces in her hometown in Bantayan, Cebu. This despite repeated pleas from her sister, her 17-year-old daughter, and a family friend staying in their home, and the sobs and wailings that escaped Elena’s lips, which Violeta can still vividly remember.
She is the latest – the 13th activist – under President Rodrigo Duterte to fall victim of enforced disappearance, the most cruel form of human rights violation. The United Nations said that victims are placed outside the protective precinct of the law and put to the mercy of their captors, while families and friends go through slow mental anguish of not knowing the victim’s whereabouts.
This despite a law against enforced disappearance.
More than two months since her abduction, the Tijamo family has heard no lead from the police. Instead of looking into the perpetrators, they felt that they were the ones being subjected to an investigation as the police wanted to know who she was and why her abduction was quickly reported not just in the country but also abroad.
But their search for Elena continues, just as the many other families and colleagues of victims of enforced disappearances.
Service to farmers
Elena spent more than half of her life in service of her poor farmers and farm workers in Central Visayas, where she was instrumental in piloting sustainable agriculture program in many farming communities in Cebu, Bohol, and Negros Oriental.
Former head of the Farmers Development Center (Fardec) Estrella Catarata said introducing a sustainable agriculture program to farmers who are used to the current farming system they have known all their lives is far from easy. But Elena, who is patient and a good communicator, took time until she was able to reap the benefits she sowed.
“She is known to be a very responsible development worker. She is also very effective. She would even stay in farming communities for as long as necessary. You need to be deeply immersed in this kind of work. You cannot give a three-day training and leave farmers on their own. So she stays with them for long periods of time,” Catarata told Bulatlat in an interview.
Soon, farmers were harvesting twice the amount of rice per hectare, with less water requirement and with the use of bio-fertilizers. They welcomed her to their families with so much appreciation for her commitment.
Red-tagging and surveillance
Elena, however, is not your ordinary development worker. Apart from providing trainings, Elena also helped in organizing farmers and forged partnerships with other non-government agencies to support their needs. She would also assist farmers in their land disputes amid the widespread landgrabbing cases in the region, earning the ire of local landlords in these regions.
They continued their work amid the pandemic, providing much-needed relief assistance to families in need, especially those whose livelihoods were affected due to the lockdown.
As such, Elena and the rest of the officers and staff of Fardec are not at all surprised to be among the often vilified grassroots organizations in the region. The farmers group, too, was red-tagged along with other national and international humanitarian agencies before a congressional hearing last year.
Red-tagging, according to local human rights organizations and even the United Nations itself, often lead to graver human rights abuses.
Last month, however, individuals who introduced themselves as from the social and welfare department went to her house to ask about her personal information, claiming that the interview is part of the requirements to avail the government’s COVID-19 amelioration program. The family found out later that their village officials were not informed of such visit and that no other household in their community was interviewed.
Weeks later, Elena was abducted.
“Who will benefit from this? Who red-tagged her in the first place? I cannot think of anyone else but state forces,” said Catarata.
Apart from Elena, Fardec’s staff Fely Catalbas was also forcibly disappeared in 2007 and remains missing to this day. The farmers’ assistance group has also lost two of their founding board members Victor Olivar and Mario Auxillo to extrajudicial killings back in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Their members and staff also experienced varying degrees of harassment.
A generous person
Growing up, Violeta looked up to her sister, who was by then already working in the city. As the eldest in the brood of five, Elena was caring and responsible. She never thought twice about extending financial assistance to her parents or when she footed the bill for Violeta’s college tuition, despite receiving a meager salary from the development agency she works for.
Her parents were initially against her decision to work for Fardec as they feared for her safety. But they saw how happy and passionate she was when she took on the job. In the end, they threw their support to Elena.
A cool and hands-on mother, Elena is also a hardworking single parent to her two daughters, whom she used to tag along in farming communities during the summer breaks.
Elena also extended her generosity to their neighbors. She was a go-to person whenever there are land disputes in the village. Even among her colleagues, Elena is known for being caring and generous. Every time there is a gathering, she would volunteer to cook. Among the crowd favorites are her sweet and sour fish, garlic shrimp, pancit, and caldereta.
She does not know how to say no to those in need.
The injustice that the Tijamo family is facing continues to this day – with the endless agony over her disappearance. The local police, too, has yet to provide them a credible lead but the supposed investigation only ended up with more questions on Elena’s identity.
Their family was also displaced from their hometown, as they had to move to a relatively safer space due to fear that her captors would return to bring more harm to them.
“We want her back,” Violeta said, “If she has wronged anyone, let her have a day in court. But do not hide her. No, not this way.”