Jonas Burgos, 42
I never knew Jonas Burgos, but I know his mother. Every reporter on my beat does. It’s hard to miss her, the checkered shirt, the small folding umbrella, the black purse with the envelopes stuffed with court papers. Her story has been told in documentaries and theater plays, her face is the face of the search for the lost. She has stood at attention behind the revolving cast of activists howling into protest megaphones, holding posters of her lost boy. Although I have yet to see her throw a tomato at a cardboard cutout or set fire to a grinning effigy, it’s possible that she has. Edith Burgos will do what is necessary to find the son she lost five years ago, and it is the reason she stood by a monument along Edsa yesterday, reminding the world that for as long as she lives, so does Jonas Burgos.
She does not like spotlights, she says. She is happiest standing in the shadow, sharpening pencils for would-be heroes, patting the heads of her frightened sons while their father conducted his written assault on the dictator’s palace. She stands when she must, as she did on the day Marcos’ men came to arrest Jose Burgos, We Forum publisher and father of her five children.
There is more white in her hair now than there was on the day I met her under the trees of the Burgos farm in San Miguel, Bulacan, near the grave of the husband she calls Joe. She was going to be a nun before she met him, she says, but he wrote her long letters and she fell in love in spite of herself, and in falling in love signed on to a lifetime as a soldier in Joe Burgos’ long crusade for freedom.
She stands now, this time for her son and the sons and daughters of many other mothers. She is there at court hearings, quiet beside the families of the lost. She weeps with the weeping and laughs with the laughing, she holds out coffee cups and press releases and takes tricycles to the Department of Justice. She gets on her knees to unlock tripod legs and hoists boom mikes when there is nobody left who can, and has been known to invite in sheepish young journalists who skulk outside her door during interview breaks, pretending not to smoke.
“All my sons smoke,” she says, smiling. “I used to.”
There are five children, three boys and two girls. Jonas is the boy in the middle, the one who took after his father, the son who sold copies of Malaya in Manila street corners at the height of martial law.
All my sons smoke, she says. Notice the present tense. JL smokes. Sonny smokes. Jonas smokes. Jonas is in every room Edith sits, in every conversation she has, he is there even if she never says his name. She points to a picture. This is Jonas’ daughter. The overhead light flickers. Jonas would have fixed it if he were home. Only Jonas is gone, has been gone five years, snatched from his chair at a restaurant in Ever Gotesco Mall in the early afternoon of April 28, 2007. Jonas, the activist who may or may not be an intelligence officer of the New People’s Army, whose code name Ka Ramon is listed on the military Order of Battle beside the word “liquidated.”
Jonas Burgos could be dead. It is the not knowing that is hardest. Edith worries that he is hungry, or that he is cold. He is alive, she feels it in her heart, she is his mother and she would have known. And yet in the five years since the headlines screamed about the disappearance of Joe Burgos’ son, not once has Jonas Burgos been seen. No witness has come forward, no Raymond Manalo to describe shared torture, no coded messages sent to relatives the way Sherlyn Cadapan did a year after she was hauled by armed men out of a farm in Hagonoy, Bulacan. Jonas Burgos, 42, is missing, presumed dead by many, but never by his mother.
It took almost four years for the Commission on Human Rights to piece together the Burgos story. On April 28, 2007, exactly five years and a day ago, the man believed to be Ka Ramon walked into a sting operation orchestrated by the gentlemen of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Ka Ramon was led to believe that he was to meet with 2nd Lt. Dick Abletes, a former activist and fresh AFP recruit who had been passing information to the New People’s Army. Abletes had already been compromised at the time of the abduction, and was already in the custody of the AFP. A woman later revealed to be a military asset named Melissa Concepcion was meant to act as liaison between the two.
Five men and one woman headed by Army Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr. of the 56th Infantry Battalion stormed into the restaurant where the son of one of press freedom’s greatest heroes sat having his lunch. Jonas Burgos understood what was happening, and began shouting. The busboy that later identified Baliaga tried to help, but stopped when Baliaga announced they were arresting a suspected drug dealer. A second witness, the last civilian to see Jonas Burgos alive, took down the plate number of the vehicle Burgos was thrown into. The Isuzu was later traced to the 56th Infantry Battalion.
The military has denied any hand in Burgos’ disappearance, and it has continued to do so under the regime of another son of another hero. In five years, Edith Burgos has filed seven complaints in a variety of government institutions, slogging through paperwork and court hearings, following process and policy and protest, all the way to a monument along Edsa one Saturday in April, five years after Jonas Burgos disappeared. Her boy could be dead, she says, and thank heaven if he is. But she knows she lives, and so she will continue.
“We may have been denied our petitions in court,” she says. “We may have been perplexed by inaction from the authorities. We may have been reduced to ‘just’ a number among those searching for the lost love, relegated to the pages of a report on human rights violations in the country. Yet the search has been a journey where hope, enkindled at the very start, has grown and has been nourished. For indeed, as we have read, heard and believed grace would abound where trials exist. We continue looking for Jonas with hope. God in His Mercy will hear our prayers.”
I write this in solidarity with the many who have known this woman, and who believes because she believes. I do not know Jonas Burgos, but I know his mother, and believe no mother of any son, rebel or soldier or child of heroes, should be forced to live with the loss that Edith Burgos carries every day.
This is the message she sends out, to Jonas Burgos, wherever he is. Jay, hold on, we will not give up.
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