By EMILY VITAL
MANILA – A pair of shiny sickles, a golden, bountiful rice harvest, red flags waving over a rally. These are images from an illustrated book about two peasant organizers from Nueva Ecija who have been missing for 20 years.
The book is about Honor Ayroso and Johnny Orcino, activists and former political prisoners who were abducted and disappeared by suspected military men on Feb. 9, 2002. Entitled “Honor at Johnny: Matatalas na lingkaw ng Nueva Ecija,” the book is being written by Aleli Dew Ayroso, Honor’s wife and Bulatlat editorial cartoonist who goes by her nickname Dee in Bulatlat bylines.
“I want them to be remembered and celebrated as activists who served the people,” Ayroso told Bulatlat. “Activists are the silver lining in the bleak, dark cloud that is the world. They are not motivated by selfish interests, but by the desire to connect to people and bring them together to change things for the better. That’s who Honor and Johnny were.”
“That’s why it’s important to remember them, Honor and Johnny and all the desaparecidos, as heroes, not just victims.”
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On Feb. 9, 2002, at around 7:30 p.m, Honor, then 34, and Johnny 44, were abducted by at least four armed men suspected to be soldiers of the Philippine Army’s 71st Infantry Battallion, in Encarnacion subdivision, barangay Sto. Niño 1st, San Jose City, Nueva Ecija. As in all cases of human rights violations, police and military officials denied any involvement in their disappearance.
“The state security forces are the ones with motive, methodology and capability to carry out disappearances. They did it during Marcos’s martial law, and we’ve seen how more activists were disappeared under Gloria Arroyo, and even now under Duterte,” Ayroso said.
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Using watercolor illustrations, the book portrays Honor and Johnny as young peasant boys growing up in the top rice-producing province in the country and yet faced with hunger and poverty.
The two would continue to question contradictions in society as they grow up to become student activists. Johnny was a fraternity leader of the progressive Phi Beta Rho in Central Luzon State University in the late 70s. Honor was a leader of the League of Filipino Students in Wesleyan University of the Philippines in Cabanatuan City in the late 80s. They would help arouse, organize and mobilize hundreds of Nueva Ecija youths on issues about students’ rights and welfare, as well as agrarian reform.
Although 10 years apart in age, the two would eventually meet and work together as activists in the province. It was a time when the national democratic movement in Nueva Ecija strengthened and gained triumphs in agrarian and sectoral struggles.
Honor and Johnny were also deeply devoted to their respective families, and each occasionally took time away from work to be with his wife and children.
Days before they were disappeared, Johnny finished constructing a pigeon coop upon the request of his eldest son, then 12. Honor, meanwhile, organized a mini-library at home, all the progressive books he had collected with his wife for future reading by their two children.
The book is still a work-in-progress, as Ayroso is still polishing up the images. She said she had mulled the idea of an illustrated book for years, but had taken too long to get started. Like other families of desaparecidos, she gets gripped by grief and trauma whenever she recalls the incident, specially when the day of their disappearance approaches.
Like most families of victims, even after two decades, Ayroso feels like it happened yesterday. A mix of despair and helplessness leads to her seasonal inactivity, usually starting December leading up to February the next year. Both Honor’s birthday and that of their son, Abril Layad, are in December.
“Honor should’ve been 54 last December. When he was disappeared, our son was six, our daughter was just turning two,” she said.
But the “dark clouds” eventually pass and dissipate.
“I try to remind myself that we’re also targets of the perpetrators and that we should not fall into their intended consequences: for us to grope in the dark, feel hopeless, and resent the people’s movement. They want us to be afraid, to crouch in our gloom and rage, stop searching for justice,” she said.
Ayroso, who is a Palanca awardee for short story for children, has actually written about the search for Honor in 2002. Her children’s story, “The fireflies keep hoping, glowing,” was published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 5, 2002. It was prompted by then editor-in-chief, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, after Ayroso approached Inquirer for help.
She said Magsanoc asked her to write something she could tell her children about their father’s disappearance. Ayroso wrote a tale about a missing firefly named Honor and how his family searched for him. “When it was published, messages of support poured in. It was heartening and I’m still grateful,” she said.
As in most tales, the story in the Inquirer had a happy ending, as Honor the missing firefly was rescued by a community of animals. The real life story is not as bright, but “the fireflies are still glowing.”
“We know Honor and Johnny are never coming home alive. The perpetrators have gotten away, the military officials have been rewarded and retired quietly. But did they win? No. Because we’re still here, aren’t we? And many younger activists have taken Honor and Johnny’s place,” she said.
“Yes, they were disappeared, but we will continue to write and tell stories about their lives, we will remember their hard work, humor and brilliance, and we will carry on. Honor and Johnny will live on,” she said.
Bulatlat will soon post a digital copy of the book “Honor at Johnny: Matatalas na lingkaw ng Nueva Ecija.”