When deferred hope stirs

Viewpoint
When deferred hope stirs

By Juan Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:36:00 07/16/2010

“THEY’RE YOUNGER than our children,” the wife whispered. We studied the faded black-and-white photo—tacked on the church bulletin board—of the smiling priest on a motorcycle. Newer photos, some in color, depicted even more youthful faces. “Where Are They?” the headboard asked of people filing in for Sunday Mass.

Welcome to the 25th anniversary exhibit of Redemptorist Fr. Rudy Romano’s abduction. Other “disappeared” (desaparecidos) were also remembered: activist Jonas Burgos, UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, Benedictine deacon Carlos Tayag, among other people.

“Martial law was the most democratic chapter of our history,” Imelda Marcos claims. That was when Father Romano disappeared. He denounced martial law abuses as he worked with Cebu’s poor.

On July 11, 1985, a white Cortina, sporting a government license plate, blocked Father Romano in a Cebu sidestreet. Armed men on two motorcycles swerved in. They bundled the priest inside the car and sped away.

In a Quezon City mall, 22 years later, burly men would shove into a Toyota Revo 36-year-old agriculturist Jonas Burgos. Edita Burgos, Jonas’ mother, traced that car to the 56th Infantry Battalion in Bulacan.

Both Father Romano and Jonas have never been seen since. Meanwhile, scores more have vanished. Under Marcos’ dictatorship, the Philippines “became a gulag of safe houses,” Amnesty International noted. “Members of the Armed Forces…were responsible for acts of unusual brutality.” Over 35,000 men and women were “salvaged” (summarily executed).

Commission on Human Rights tallied 403 “disappearances” from 2001 to 2007. Archbishop Deogracias Yñiguez claims the Catholic Church’s tally exceeds 778. Not a single abductor has been convicted.

But many of those who tortured and salvaged bluffed and threatened their way into de facto—then legalized—impunity, notes the book “Closer Than Brothers” (Yale University). Some were elected into national office.

Impunity builds up incrementally, stoked by official support, tolerance and silence. “A man begins to die the moment he remains silent about things that matter,” Martin Luther King warned.

Cebu’s one-day exhibit differs from permanent memorials. Cambodia’s Choeung Ek, for example, contains 8,895 graves. Remains of those liquidated in communist pogroms here, like “Ahos,” still have to be located.

Yet both exhibits symbolize what Czech writer Milan Kundera stressed: “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Some Romano abductors, we’re told, are now dead. But many of those who “salvaged others are still among us,” sociologist John Carroll, SJ, notes.

Little has been done to “give the nameless dead their true names and decent burials,” much less identify and prosecute perpetrators. “Unless the nation rises to vindicate its common conscience, it may be condemned to wander forever in the wilderness of valueless power plays among the elite.”

Yet, once deferred hope is re-stirring. “With the new Aquino administration, there’s fresh hope that justice will be served and truth will finally come out,” Fr. Ricky Acero said. There had to be “closure” for the Redemptorist community to move on in their work among the poor.

At his first military command conference, President Aquino underscored respect for human rights. Was Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez listening?

She’s reeling from charges of misusing her office to shield former President Macapagal-Arroyo and spouse against sleaze charges—from the ZTE broadband scandal to rigged road construction bids. Early July, Gutierrez absolved her patrons, plus 16 others in whistle-blower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada’s abduction.

But listen to what Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, says: “The Ombudsman’s office… failed to act in any of the 44 complaints alleging extrajudicial executions attributed to State agents submitted from 2002 to 2006.

“There is a passivity, bordering on an abdication of responsibility,” Alston adds. “(It) affects the way in which key institutions and actors approach their responsibilities in relation to such human rights concerns…”

How does our track record on desaparecidos stack up with other countries? Take Argentina and Bosnia.

“Desaparecidos do not exist,” Argentinian dictator Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla averred in the 1978 World Cup ceremonies in Buenos Aires. “In a secret detention center, blocks away, his men tortured prisoners,” Associated Press recalls.

Videla is now 84. He went on trial this month. Human rights charges ballooned after the Supreme Court voided his 2007 presidential pardon. Over 30,000 disappeared in Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

At The Hague, the International Tribunal continues the trial of Radovan Karadzic. The former Bosnian Serb leader faces 11 counts of war crimes, genocide, etc. from the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If convicted, Karadzic faces life in prison.

These trials reflect truths enunciated by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on receiving the Nobel Peace prize: “Victims need (assurance) we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours …. What I’ve hoped for, all my life, is that my past should not become your children’s future.”

In Quezon City, Ombudsman Gutierrez insisted she won’t resign. Cheers erupted from 200 employees. “Let that be my answer,” she purred into press microphones.

A hired cheering squad is like impunity. Invariably, it blots out the soft voice of conscience: “The blood of your brother Abel cries out to Me from the earth.”

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