Ghosts of democracy: Transcending loss with families of desaparecidos

Grieving a disappeared loved one is difficult to bear while more cases of enforced disappearances continue to haunt society.

It was 16 years ago when Edita Burgos last talked to her son, Jonas. An activist and farmer, Jonas was having a meal when he was forcefully dragged out of the Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City and thrust into a maroon minivan. His family flooded his phone with messages and calls to no avail, except for a phone call from Jonas the following day, saying he would talk to them tomorrow. But Burgos never heard from her son again.

Alab Ayroso was only a year and a half old when her father was taken. Honorio, a peasant organizer in the town of San Jose, Nueva Ecija, was merely riding a tricycle as a group of armed men pushed the driver aside and commandeered the vehicle. Since then, Ayroso only learned about the father she once had through the stories shared by people around her.

Jonas and Honorio are only two out of a thousand unsolved cases of “desaparecidos” in the Philippines, the number of which continues to grow to this day. Desaparecidos, meaning “disappeared” in Spanish, refers to individuals who were covertly imprisoned or presumed killed by members of the army or police in an effort to suppress or silence them. Enforced disappearances became widespread during the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr. with 1,032 reported victims during his rule.

The call to surface desaparecidos has echoed for decades on end but has only fallen on deaf ears.

Rising above grief and pain

But the numbers hardly capture how loss is never an easy occurrence to deal with. For families of the desaparecidos, the effects of these tragedies have manifested in their lives in different ways. “There are some families who kind of give up after a year or two of campaigning, but there are [those] who continue,” shares Ayroso.

Ayroso elaborates that because of the disappearance of a loved one, many families become inclined to join causes and campaigns to surface desaparecidos, despite not being initially drawn to these mobilizations. She, too, is no stranger to this experience. “His (Honorio’s) disappearance gave grief and sadness and anger for my family, [especially to] my mother, who essentially became a single parent [on] that day,” she narrates. Time and real connection to a father were robbed from Ayroso.

As the years went by, she tried to gain peace with what happened by building an invisible bridge back to her disappeared father as she followed in his footsteps to become an activist. “It’s continuing the activism that he did, but in my own way through climate activism,” she posits. Currently, Ayroso is the National Coordinator for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines; while its efforts differ from the cause of her father, it is clear that the heart of activism runs deep for she has found her purpose by focusing on championing the cause of urgent climate change awareness.

Similarly, Burgos clamored for social justice by starting the Free Jonas Burgos Movement and joining Karapatan, not only to call for the surfacing of her son and other desaparecidos but also to shed light on the myriad of state-sponsored human rights violations. Despite her loss, she was not alone in the fight. In their own various ways, Jonas’ siblings partook in the clamor for justice, rallying alongside their mother, other family members, and fellow Filipinos thirsting for justice, taking cases up to courts, and joining various groups. “Being productive has helped transcend not only the pain, [but also] the anger,” she explains.

Yet despite years of involvement in social advocacies and campaigns, Burgos realizes that the wounds of the past don’t simply go away. Wholeheartedly, she describes the feeling as “The grief has been transcended. But the pain surfaces and the feeling is exactly the same.” With the lack of resurfacing and sufficient response from the state, justice is yet to be served for her son and for every single one of the disappeared.

‘A sham democracy’

Since the disappearances of Honorio and Jonas, many more have continued to occur. Last April 28—the same day that painfully marked 16 years since Jonas’ disappearance—Cordilleran activists Dexter Capuyan and Gene “Bazoo” de Jesus were reported missing. The circumstances surrounding their disappearance were all too familiar: individuals who identified as part of the police force were allegedly seen abducting the victims. Capuyan was previously tagged as a communist-terrorist by the government, with a bounty offered for his arrest.

Ayroso believes there is a recurring pattern of state forces deliberately targeting activists. “It’s happening again and again in different administrations [with] the motivation of silencing and repressing anyone who would dare to resist and dare to criticize,” she asserts. Woefully, Burgos admits it has been effective. Through decades of enforced disappearances, many Filipinos have lived under the fear of expressing dissent, forced to grit their teeth with heads hung low whenever confronted with injustice.

To be a democratic country despite these conditions is, to Burgos, being a “sham democracy.” Cases sit unresolved for years because of the lack of accountability, while perpetrators run free. Burgos says restlessly, “Hindi pa rin tayo nagagalit, iilan-ilan lang. ‘Yang iilan-ilan na ‘yan, ‘yan ang mga dinudukot. ‘Yan ang mga pinapatay.

(We are still not enraged, only a few. Those few are the ones who get abducted and killed.)

Awakening the nation

The incessant cases of involuntary disappearances pose a direct threat to dialogue and dissent in the country. But more concerningly, Burgos states, “My greatest fear is that they are taking all the good people: ‘yung mga leaders, ‘yung mga thinkers, ‘yung visionaries. Sino na ang magiging leaders natin?”

(The leaders, thinkers, and visionaries—who’s going to become our leaders instead?)

As young progressive leaders are abducted or presumably killed, it is no surprise that only the same people who perpetuate the status quo of impunity and suppression show up on our ballots. Without the guiding hands of visionary and genuine politicians, this culture of violence remains unchallenged.

But collectively, the sectors of Filipino society can put an end to enforced disappearances through proactive action. Burgos stresses the need to integrate the topic of desaparecidos into school curricula and reinforce its documentation in books. It is only through letting the youth understand these circumstances that victims like Jonas and Honorio may be memorialized—their lives imprinted on the minds and hearts of those dubbed to be the hope of the nation. And hopefully, the youth will learn to rally behind truth and justice.

However, the education of civilians would prove insufficient if not coupled with action from the authoritative bodies. While there exists the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012, it extremely lacks proper implementation. Perpetrators are rarely imprisoned due to the nature of the problem: evidence is covered up and those in power do not act.

Burgos urges, “Implement nila [‘yung batas] to the fullest and those who are involved, ‘yung mga nandiyan sa DOJ (Department of Justice) sworn to protect the rights of the people—they should follow their oath diligently,” Burgos expounds.

(They should implement the law to the fullest…those in the Department of Justice…)

Activists like Jonas and Honorio pass on a challenge to continue the fight against suppression in hopes of awakening a nation to be conscious and truly democratic. The fight to uphold the nation’s democracy can only be won by arousing the rage that is inherent but yet to be enkindled within each individual.

“We can do it. Nasa puso ng Pilipino ‘yung tapang,” Burgos shares optimistically. “Sana ‘yun ang lumitaw sa ‘tin.”

(The heart of a Filipino is brave. I hope that emerges from us.)

Gwen Lizano

By Gwen Lizano

MJ Tinio

By MJ Tinio

Lizelle Villaflor

By Lizelle Villaflor

Leave a Reply