“Where are you going?” my son asked over breakfast, and when I answered it was a special event to remember the disappeared, his eyes went wide open as he insisted on tagging along.
I realized “disappeared” conjured images of magical tricks for him and I had to explain these were “enforced disappearances,” people abducted usually by government forces and then never heard from again. It’s also been called secret imprisonment because the abducted might be detained for years without trial, and without being allowed to contact their families and friends.
The event I was going to attend was a forum organized by the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (Afad) to mark the International Day of the Disappeared, which is on Aug. 30. The forum was being held in UP Diliman a few days early because of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards. One of the awardees, Laotian Sombath Somphone, was in Manila in 2005, honored for community development work. In 2012, he was abducted by police, the crime even captured by CCTV. Now the wife was back in Manila for a “Surface Sombath” campaign.
In the end, my son did come along to the event because I thought it would be a good social studies session. Younger (and the not so young) Filipinos are often unaware of the disappeared, or, if they are, might dismiss it as something that happens “only” to activists. But we forget that the disappearances make all citizens vulnerable. What is there to prevent the military or police from abducting someone, anyone, simply because they suspect the person of being antigovernment?
On the way to the forum I explained to him that the disappeared were usually people who worked with the poor, and that governments become uneasy with people in that kind of work because they think these are people out to overthrow government.
It did become difficult explaining what “overthrow” means, and the nuances around community organizing, but when he interrupted me in Filipino about not wanting to become a military person, I just had to say, “Not all of the military and police are involved in these disappearances.”
I meant that, and at the forum for my welcome remarks, I said that so much mistrust and fear still drive government forces to kidnap people, to “disappear” them.
There is irony here because we think of the military and the police as powerful, their power coming from their guns and armaments. Yet in many ways they are quite disempowered, their fears of the unknown driving their mistrust and making them too quick to abduct the undesirables, too quick to pull the trigger.
Yes, there is impunity, too. During the dictatorship thousands were arrested, tortured, disappeared because the military knew they could get away with it. These days, they’re more careful, but there is still a sense of impunity, especially if they are deployed in areas where they are backed by local warlord politicians.
Another important deterrent are prosecutions, which is why the ongoing trial of retired general Jovito Palparan is so important. Palparan was tagged as the the mastermind behind the abductions of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan in 2007. He went into hiding and was arrested only last year, but his trial has been moving at a snail’s pace, sending a signal to would-be abductors that they might be able to get away with such crimes.
We do have a law, Republic Act No. 10353, An Act Defining and Penalizing Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance passed in 2012, but much more needs to be done. Two years ago the Supreme Court ordered the military to produce Jonas Burgos. Nothing has happened, and his mother has filed another case.
Afad has been campaigning for the Philippines to sign a International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an important provision of which is mandatory universal jurisdiction over all acts of enforced disappearances. This means a person can be tried for such crimes in one country even for charges of enforced disappearances committed elsewhere. The Philippines has not signed the convention.
The problem of the disappeared is global, with Latin American countries particularly affected because, like the Philippines, they had military regimes in the 1970s, often with dictators more brutal than our own.
Perhaps most iconic of the relatives demanding justice are the Madres de Plaza de Mayos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, mothers who gather in plazas with photographs of disappeared children dating back to the 1970s.
Meeting Edita Burgos, mother of disappeared journalist Jonas Burgos, I thought of Pete Lacaba’s poem on the disappeared, on what it means when someone no longer comes home to share a meal, a bed. Edita has been waiting for eight years now; some of the Madres de Plaza de Mayos and Filipinos who lived through martial law have been waiting for more than 40 years.
A few months back in a Japan surplus store, I came across some bells and I asked the owner, a Korean, what the bells were for. He said he wasn’t sure but in Japan, during World War II and for years after, and in Korea, during the war between the north and south, mothers and wives would ring the bells for the soldiers who did not return from war. The bells rang out for the souls of these disappeared men.
Men and women still disappear today because we continue to wage wars, often against fellow countrymen, Filipino against Filipino.
At the forum, I brought a little brass bowl and rang it three times, explaining that we were not ringing them out of grief. Instead we rang them out of hope, a way of connecting to the disappeared, wherever they might be, and saying we will keep working for justice. Whether we find them or not, let it not be said we did not try. And if we can’t bring them back, we would have at least done our share to prevent more abductions, more of the disappeared.
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