There’s the Rub

Owing

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Suddenly, you realize how much we owe the Burgoses.

First, there was Joe Burgos. His contributions weren’t just to this country, they were to the world, a thing recognized by the International Press Institute when it named him one of the 50 “World Press Freedom Heroes of the 20th Century” in 2000.

The honor was richly earned. Joe became synonymous with the resistance press, the freedom-loving press, the truthful press, at a time when to resist was to court harassment, when to be freedom-loving was to court imprisonment, when to tell the truth was to court death. And he was harassed, imprisoned, and—if Marcos had not been ousted in time—probably killed as well. He was ahead of everyone, an often lonely voice though a powerful one, until other voices took up the chorus.

As editor of the We Forum and later the Malaya, he was arrested and jailed for telling the truth, including the one of Ninoy Aquino drawing a million people to his funeral cortege. Only the protests of the international community prevented him from being kept in jail forever. The experience did not daunt him, it gave him new resolve. If Marcos is gone from our lives today, however his kin threaten to bring his ghost back, it is no small thanks to Joe Burgos.

In 1986, receiving the Inter Press Service Award for his defense of press freedom, he said: “If I had my way, I would rather that this award went to each and every one of the Filipino media men who were killed or who vanished during those years of unspeakable oppression. They were—and are—real heroes to the cause of press freedom in my country.”

That brings us to Jonas Burgos. Joe might as well have been speaking prospectively about his son.

Jonas was/is not a journalist, he was/is an agriculturist. As was Joe, who later on in life, after the country had climbed out of the dark pit of martial law and journalism could be left to the hands of others, pursued this other love. Jonas did not live under martial law, but he lived in a time comparable to martial law. It was a time when to oppose was to court harassment, when to be freedom-loving was to court imprisonment, when to tell the truth was to court death. Jonas was not imprisoned, but he was harassed and has disappeared. Most people fear the worst and believe he is dead. His family continues to hope he is not.

Was/is Jonas an activist or revolutionary? We do not know. Until recently the military and police have denied any knowledge of his abduction or whereabouts. But we do know he was abducted at a time when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was fighting for her life, or power, which were but one and the same thing for her, and had ordered a war against the communists, regarding everyone who opposed her as so. We do know this was a time when more than 700 activists/revolutionaries perished in the slaughter, all the more horrifying for the cynicism with which it was wrought.

Maybe Jonas was/is an activist/revolutionary. But his father was an activist, too: His refusal to be silenced was the ultimate act of defiance. His father was a revolutionary, too: His insistence on telling the truth revolutionized things. Jonas Burgos has become the face of the tyranny that was the Arroyo regime. If Arroyo is gone from our lives today, however her camp tries to keep her ghost alive, it is no small thanks to him.

And then there is Editha Burgos.

We’ve just been through Holy Week and seen various depictions of the Pieta, the figure of Mary cradling the limp and bloody figure of her son, Jesus. It is the picture of absolute devastation. You are a parent who worries about the whereabouts of your children when they have not come home late at night, you will understand it. Heaven forbid you grasp it in its entirety, in all its horror, by seeing the tragedy that has befallen them.

Editha Burgos offers a picture of that. You see the Pieta written all over her. I don’t know which is worse, looking at the figure of your dead son, or daughter, after the cruelties inflicted upon them by fellow human beings crazed by bloodlust, or not having them at all before you, or not knowing what has happened to them, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. I remember again what the kin of the disappeared have always told me, which is that in many ways the disappeared offer more torments than the dead. The dead die only once, the disappeared die again and again. You die only once when you see the dead, you die again and again when you keep hoping the disappeared would reappear.

Years after her son disappeared, long after a nation gave him up for dead, amid all the obstacles that have been put in her way, the hostility of the previous government, the secrecy of the military and police, the maze and interminableness of legal procedure, Editha has persevered. She has been indefatigable. She has been inexorable. Nothing has deterred her from purpose.

And slowly, almost miraculously, she has been able to untangle the skein of mystery that has surrounded the disappearance of her son. He was not abducted by the rebels in one of their purges, he was seized by the military and police. She has the evidence to prove it, she has the evidence to send the perpetrators to jail, or whatever damnation befits them. She has not been deterred by time, and toil, and no end of trouble, she will not be deterred by threats to her life. Along the way, she has managed to make forced disappearances a separate crime in itself. Along the way, she has managed to make people realize how vital human rights are to life. Along the way, she has managed to give whole new dimensions to courage.

If we are finally able to push back the culture of impunity to the edge of the sea, it will be no small thanks to her.

Suddenly, you realize how much we owe the Burgoses.

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