Saturday, July 26, 2008

It is only when they are together that they see hope

Mothers of 'desaparecidos' left to seek children, justice on their own
07/17/2008 | 09:15 PM

If there is one person best placed to explain why the best definition of torture includes the deliberate infliction of mental as well as physical pain, it is Erlinda Cadapan, the 59 year-old mother of missing university student Sherlyn.

It is now more than two years since her daughter was abducted by suspected military agents and joined the long list of desaparecidos -- human rights activists and political leaders who have ‘been disappeared’ and simply vanished.

Sherlyn, a sports science student at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, was taken at gunpoint on June 26, 2006 alongside fellow student Karen Empeño and farmer Manuel Merino, who stepped in to try and help after hearing the girls' scream. All three were reportedly bundled into a stainless steel jeep with license plate number RTF597.

The three disappeared two years ago last month while working as community organizers in Bulacan just north of Manila. Jonas Burgos was similarly working there at the time he was famously abducted from a shopping mall in Quezon City 10 months later.

"The only thing normal in my life is the abnormality of it," said Mrs. Cadapan who, like Edita Burgos, mother of missing Jonas, refuses to give up looking or simply stay home waiting for news that might not ever come.

While the government and the executive may be systematically failing all those missing -- unable or simply unwilling to help -- the families of the disappeared refuse to give up and become silent victims themselves.

Mrs. Cadapan can no longer count how many times she travels three hours to Manila each week to give interviews, attend forums and speak at meetings. Often she arrives home late at night only to receive a text asking her to return to the capital the following day for another event.

Despite financial constraints and the incessant traveling that is taking its toll, she welcomes each and every invitation to speak.

"I have to do this as mothers who give up never find their children," she told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

"I really need to remain active so the international community, our local media, even the authorities and, too, the perpetrators know that I know where my daughter is. The military is holding her and it is the military's responsibility to help me find my daughter," Mrs. Cadapan said.

Speaking last month in a live television debate, Mrs. Cadapan explained how she had repeatedly been turned away by soldiers at gunpoint when turning up at military bases to look for her daughter.

Last December, two farming brothers testified at the Court of Appeals how they had been held captive by the military alongside Sherlyn and the two others.

Raymund Manalo provided a detailed account of the time he spent with Sherlyn, Karen and Manuel as part of a petition for a writ of amparo served on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) by Mrs. Cadapan.

The writ of amparo obliges respondents to prove they did not violate the human rights of the named people.

Manalo, whose testimony corroborated accounts given by other abductees, stated how he and his brother had been held captive alongside Sherlyn and the others in Camp Tecson in San Miguel in Bulacan. Camp Tecson hosts the First Scout Ranger Regiment. He added that they were then all transferred to the 24th Infantry Battalion (IB) camp in Limay in Bataan.

He testified how Sherlyn, who was expecting her first baby when abducted, was chained up, tortured and repeatedly raped. He also claimed that the two women suddenly disappeared from the military camp one day in June 2007 when he, his brother and Merino were all taken out and forced to sleep overnight in a nearby forest.

Manalo testified that they were brought back the following day but that neither he nor his brother ever saw Sherlyn and Karen again. He claimed Merino was subsequently killed and his body burnt inside the camp, and was told by a soldier not to bother looking for Sherlyn or Karen as they and Merino were "already together."

The AFP continues to deny any responsibility for the abductions or knowledge about their whereabouts. However, the Court of Appeals has ruled that there was strong evidence that Merino and the others were abducted by the military. It moreover found that Major General Jovito Palparan, former commander of the 7th Infantry Battalion, "was not telling the whole truth," and his men were "evasive and contradictory" in their claims to know nothing about the case.

Palparan, the army's former counter insurgency chief and a fierce anti-Communist, has been charged by the media and human rights groups with responsibility for abductions and extra judicial killings. When it was finally published in February last year, the government's own Melo Commission report claimed "there was an increase in activist killings in the areas where Gen. Palparan was assigned."

Palparan denies any responsibility for extra judicial killings.

Still hoping

Yet despite testimonies, both Mrs. Cadapan and Karen's mother, Mrs. Concepcion Empeño, are still hoping that their daughters will one day return safely home.

"The only hope I am holding on right now is that I will be able to see Karen soon," Mrs. Empeño said in a phone interview. "We are always waiting for her. I will always keep on searching."

Says Mrs. Cadapan: "I never thought that something bad would happen to my child because I see nothing wrong with her being an activist, helping the people who were not familiar with the laws and the benefits they should be receiving. To me this constitutes helping the government but the government obviously thinks otherwise."

Mrs. Cadapan added that it was only after her daughter disappeared that she realized their family had been under some kind of surveillance. Still, though, she cannot quite believe it.

"I never thought my family would be a victim of a human rights violation by the government. I am respected in our community as the secretary of the homeowners association. When the head is not available, people come to me and so I never had any inkling that we had a problem with the authorities," she said.

Now though her heart is full of pure anger for those she considers responsible for her daughter's disappearance.

"When I imagine how they tortured my daughter, my anger with the government boils up as I expect them to protect and serve the people as mandated by our Constitution," Mrs. Cadapan said.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the case of their missing daughters has turned both mothers into activists themselves. It is both part therapy and part solidarity. The mothers of the disappeared help and strengthen each other. Many of them also look to and receive support from the human rights group Karapatan.

According to its general secretary, Marie Hilao-Enriquez, Karapatan provides a range of services to the families of victims including legal support, assistance and even counseling.

"Our office is an office in the morning and a safe house in the evening for people to come when they need to," she said, adding that they encourage the relatives to organize themselves into a group "because it is only when they are together that they see hope".

Mrs. Cadapan agrees. By bonding together and with the support of groups like Karapatan and support among the media, the families of the victims are able to gain strength from each other, and to make a lot of noise and heap pressure on those deemed responsible for the desaparecidos -- both perpetrators and the politicians who claim to be in charge. - Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

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