Hope and despair

WE WILL not find them in the cemeteries—because they do not know where their dead are buried, or whether their long-missing loved ones are in fact dead. Today and tomorrow, as most of the nation slows down to remember the dearly departed, several hundreds of Filipino families will find themselves yet again confronting the agony of uncertainty.

This is the bitter fate of the families and friends of the forcibly disappeared, the desaparecidos whose misfortunes form a haunting counter-narrative, or even an alternate history, of the Philippines.

Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance, the NGO better known by its hopeful acronym FIND, has been compiling statistics on forced disappearances in the country since 1985. (The group’s database, however, goes all the way back to 1969, the year Ferdinand Marcos became the first president since Manuel L. Quezon to win reelection.) The numbers tell a harrowing story.

Under Marcos, a total of 878 cases of forced disappearances was recorded; 138 victims were eventually found alive, while 127 were found dead. Most of the victims, however, remain missing: these 613 desaparecidos include Charlie del Rosario, a student leader at the Lyceum in Manila, who was one of four victims forcibly disappeared in 1971; Romeo Crismo, a newly married teacher at the Cagayan Teachers’ College, who was one of 26 victims who disappeared in 1980; and Nilo Olegario Jr., the son of a retired Air Force colonel and a member of the August 21 Movement, who was one of 535 victims who went missing between 1983 and 1985—the last, tumultuous years of the Marcos regime. (There is truth in the adage that a wounded tiger is a dangerous one.)

The statistics show a general trend: Under the Marcos regime, there was an increased reliance over the years on the use of forced disappearances, culminating in the sweeping wave of the mid-1980s.

A restored democracy’s death struggle with a politicized but still powerful military helps explain the recurrence of the use of forced disappearances during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. Of the total of 825 reported cases, some 614 are documented, and of these 407 victims remain missing, including Jimmy Malicdem, an urban poor leader, who vanished in Parañaque; Federico Lopez Jr., who disappeared in Las Piñas; and Edgardo Estojero, who was taken in Pasay City—all in 1987, the start of a two-year period in which forced disappearances reached their peak under the first Aquino administration.

The use of forced disappearances as a clandestine policy tool returned under the Arroyo administration, when a total of 339 cases were reported, 182 of them documented. To date, 58 remain missing, including UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, who were abducted in 2006, and activist Jonas Burgos, who was taken—from a crowded mall!—in 2007.

All told, between 1969 and June 2012, a total of 2,211 victims was reported, some 1,838 cases of which were documented. Altogether, 1,147 victims remain missing.

Several of the victims’ families will gather at the Bantayog ng mga Desaparecido, at the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran, to remember their beloved. But what of the 327 victims who were forcibly disappeared in Western Visayas, or the 178 who went missing in Central Luzon, or the 198 who involuntarily disappeared in Western Mindanao?

A statement in a special edition of The Search, FIND’s official publication, paints a moving portrait. “No matter how firmly and proudly families of the disappeared declare that when they gather to pay tribute to their missing loved ones they are celebrating sterling lives of courageous and self-sacrificing patriots and freedom-fighters, they cannot obliterate the reality that they struggle to muffle their cries of grief and immense loss. This, despite the years and decades that have elapsed since the enforced disappearance of their kin.”

It is the not-knowing that gnaws at the soul, and the imagining of continuing torture that saps the survivor’s spirit. Another article in the magazine traces the terrible arc the families travel: “The families’ oscillation between hope and despair may eventually veer more toward the latter as the period of disappearance lengthens into weeks, months and years.”

On this day, spare a thought for the forcibly disappeared, and the families who survive them.

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Tags: editorial , families of victims of involuntary disappearance , Ferdinand Marcos , martial law

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