The other night I was able to watch a riveting documentary, “Time to Fight,” on the cable TV channel Al Jazeera, which reminded me of the human rights situation in the Philippines. It has one last showing today at 1 p.m. but if you’re unable to catch that, I have information at the end of this column on how you can watch it through the Internet.
The documentary is about an Argentine, Lucia Garcia, and her 15-year search for justice. Her parents were among the desaparecido (disappeared)—people kidnapped, detained and murdered by the military during their guerra sucia or dirty war, which began in 1976 with a military coup and lasted until 1983 when democracy was restored.
After 1983, a National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) was set up and the investigations yielded many horror stories from survivors of imprisonment and torture. Some 9,000 persons were named and confirmed as desaparecidos but there are other estimates that go as high as 30,000. Accounts of even more barbaric atrocities emerged, of prisoners thrown out of planes alive, and of children taken away from their activist parents and given to new parents in the military.
The trials stopped shortly after, supposedly to bring about national reconciliation, but clearly in response to military uprisings that tried to destabilize the democratic government. It was only in 2005 that a new president, Nestor Kirchner, publicly apologized to the Argentine people for the government’s human rights violations and ordered a resumption of the prosecutions.
Through the years, the victims’ families have organized themselves and pressured the Argentine government to bring justice. Perhaps the most well known of these groups are the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared who organized themselves into groups like Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) who, from 1977 to 2006, congregated every Thursday in the capital’s central district to call for justice.
In 1995, another group called Hijos emerged, an acronym for Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio, (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence). As the name implies, these are mostly the sons and daughters of the disappeared, now adults themselves and determined not to allow Argentina to forget. Lucia Garcia is a member of Hijos.
But the Al Jazeera documentary “Time to Fight” is more than the story of Lucia Garcia; it chronicles how a nation suffered grievously with deep emotional wounds that have not healed. As in the Philippines, the wheels of justice grind ever so slowly, and known torturers and murderers have even dared to appear on mass media to talk about the way they handled “communists.”
The documentary features Hijos groups doing the escracha, an innovative form of mass action where musical and theatrical performances are launched in front of the residences or offices of known torturers, as posters and flyers are distributed to neighbors and passersby, with a photograph of the known torturer and the full address and information on what the person did. The protesters also have photographs of the disappeared, including children who were kidnapped and given away, and messages like “Our indifference keeps [the murderers] free.”
The protest actions reflect exasperation on the part of the relatives and friends of the disappeared, but these are also an attempt to get the public, starting with the neighbors of the torturers, to become involved. They do not call for revenge or for any harm to the torturers; instead, they explain, they are simply communicating the need to remember.
The most powerful segments in the Al Jazeera documentary aren’t the escracha but the personal encounters, such as Lucia and her sister looking at family photos and, toward the end, Lucia talking with an 87-year-old woman who had just testified in one of the trials. The elderly woman had lost a son, a daughter-in-law, and an infant grandchild.
There is also television coverage of one of the trials and the conviction of some military officers. As the names of the guilty ones are read out, protesters in the street, presumably organized by Hijos, shout out, “asesino (murderer)!”
Researching on the murder of journalists and media workers in the Philippines, I realized we don’t have a term in our local languages for impunity. We need to name the unnamable, maybe borrowing the Spanish words where the articles “el” and “la” fortify the nouns. Memory (la memoria) is female; forgetting (el olvido) and silence (el silencio) is male. Then there is la impunidad—impunity—casting long and ominous shadows on our history.
Diego Benega, an Argentine psychoanalyst working with the families of the disappeared, has an insightful article in the journal Performance Research where he describes the escracha protest actions as a combination of public performance and psychoanalysis—a response to the trauma of state violence and terrorism, and a call to people not to forget. Benega describes a poster which reads: “They (the military) killed in the past because they knew you would stay silent today.”
We need to develop such forms of collective psychoanalysis and awareness-raising. Forty years after martial law, I’m meeting too many people who are arguing we need to “forgive and forget” and move on, forgetting that one reason the Philippines moves on far too slowly is our wheels of justice, and governance, are still corroded by impunity. Benega’s article on Argentina has a timeless message: “They (the military) killed in the past because they knew you would stay silent today.”
The government might want to think ahead, too, in preparation for the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law. It would help so much if the government apologizes to the Filipino people for state terrorism, not just under Marcos but also under the last president. And instead of some vague commemoration of Sept. 21 as the anniversary of martial law, we might want to follow Argentina, where the date of the military coup of March 24, 1976, has become a Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.
I’ll end with a plug for Al Jazeera, which has several programs that feature very well researched documentaries that offer many new and deep insights on the social issues we face today, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Visit Aljazeera.com, click on Programmes, and then on Witness to get Time to Watch and other informative documentaries. Also try People and Power, where a recent feature was “Syria’s Songs of Defiance,” done by an underground correspondent and following the life of a young Syrian who leads the chanting of protesters.