‘Ang Paghahanap/The Search’
Only recently did I learn the translation in Filipino of involuntary or enforced disappearance, the manner in which the so-called disappeared or “desaparecidos” (Spanish), vanished from this earth without a trace. All the time that I had been writing about them in English, I simply used the word “disappeared” or “desaparecido” to refer to those who had been forcibly taken by state forces during the 14 years of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986).
Enforced disappearance, in Filipino, is “sapilitang pagkawala” while the disappeared (plural) translates as “mga sapilitang nawawala.” Sapilitan means forced.
Of the documented 2,000-plus desaparecidos of that dark era, 81 have been found, many of them buried in remote and unlikely places, and after years of search and research. (There is a book on this.) Credit the families who never gave up in finding the truth and the human rights groups that assisted them.
The last week of May was the International Week of the Disappeared. Before then, a small group of Filipinos flew to Geneva to be at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Periodic Review of the Philippines. A side event there was the launch of the children’s book (for adults, too) “Ang Paghahanap/The Search” written by Nilda Lagman Sevilla and illustrated by Ryan John L. Tresvalles. It was again launched at the Commission on Human Rights office two weeks ago, with families of the disappeared in attendance.
Sevilla is the sister of labor lawyer Hermon Lagman, who disappeared 40 years ago on May 11, 1977. Rep. Edcel Lagman of the first district of Albay, their eldest brother, gave his reflections at the launch. Tresvalles is a nephew.
Published by the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) and Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (Afad), the story weaves the life experiences of the children of the disappeared into a fictional narrative that shows the impact of enforced disappearance on families, their search for justice, healing and the truth.
Author Sevilla defines the crime as “the arrest, abduction, or detention of mostly political activists by the agents of the State who subsequently refuse to disclose any information on the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, thus placing the victims outside the protection of the law.”
As with most books for children 6-10 years old, the images are big and colorful while the words are few and well chosen. It begins with a young girl named Bituin wondering why her playmates have a father and she has none. So she asks her mother, who then tells her the story about her father’s work among labor groups and about the uniformed men who took him away one night.
Fast forward. In the end they find him, but that is after the passing of the years. At last they find him where he had been buried. Bituin, a teenager by then, begins to understand.
The book’s foreword is by Phebe Gamata Crismo, national coordinator of the Philippine Interfaith Network for Children and whose first husband, Rolly Crismo, is among the disappeared. I did write about that case of disappearance in the 1980s in the alternative press when Phebe, then newly married to Rolly, was in so much pain and, with Rolly’s family, left no stone unturned to find him.
After years of search, Phebe and Rolly’s older brother Louis fell in love and got married. They raised four children. Louis is active in FIND and has been in searches, exhumations and identifications. “We would find items in their pockets,” he told me. “We even found a coin of that era.” The process is tedious, if not a suspenseful one.
Afad secretary general Mary Aileen D. Bacalso said that in the whole world, Asia has the biggest number of disappeared. Afad has a comic-book-style material (for adults) on enforced disappearances titled “Desap.”
FIND has documented more than 2,000 Marcos-era cases in the Philippines. No wonder then that the Philippines was the first in Asia to pass a law against enforced disappearance. Oh, but do you know that the Philippine government has not signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance adopted by the UN General Assembly? Big question: WHY?
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