Catholics in the Philippines are paying tribute to their dear departed on All Souls’ Day, an important day for Filipinos. It is traditionally marked by prayers, the offering of flowers and candles, and even food, on the tomb of the departed.
Families of victims of enforced disappearances, however, have no tombs, no graves to visit on this special occasion. Their loved ones’ fate and whereabouts remain unknown. The desaparecidos remain in limbo.
In many countries, families of the disappeared have constructed monuments with names of their desaparecidos engraved on it. This is part of what they called as “memorialization,” an integral part of transitional justice, which necessitates the search for truth, justice, reparation, memory, and guarantees of non-recurrence.
In the Philippines, the Monument of Desaparecidos, which is undergoing reconstruction inside a church compound in Manila, and the Heroes’ Monument in Quezon City, are places where families of the disappeared sing hymns of agony and supplication and pray for their disappeared that one day truth will be revealed, and justice will emerge triumphant.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of families of the disappeared in a country devastated by internal conflicts, go to the monument of the disappeared on a roadside in the capital days before November.
At the foot of the monument is Basil Fernando’s poem, titled “By the Way Side.”
With no name attached,
Is for you,
Who have no grave,
As the place of earth,
Which embraced you,
Could not be found,
This place was placed by the wayside
For placing a memorial for you,
by the roadside.”
Every Oct. 27, family members of desaparecidos in Sri Lanka kiss their loved ones’ pictures on the monument, place candles, offer flowers, cry and chant to ask the government for the whereabouts of their loved ones. They ask no charity. They demand justice.
To recall, on the eve of the monument’s annual commemoration in 2011, a couple of priests of St. Cecilia’s Church asked the police to destroy the monument. It was preceded by several attempts of the parish council to discourage the use of the monument.
The attempts were manifested in the construction of a wall that obstructed access between the monument and the church premises. Church leaders threatened to file a case against the families of the disappeared and sought a court order to destroy the monument.
The organization of the families of desaparecidos was accused of using a lot owned by the Catholic Church and built the monument secretly even as the monument was already being used for 11 years.
Shantha Pathirana, twin brother of Sudath who disappeared in the late 1980s, said the monument is important “because the culprits are free (and) there is no justice.”
In Timor-Leste, families of the disappeared built empty tombs for children who disappeared during the war. One of those children, Victor da Costa, was later found in Indonesia. He came back to his country to search for his identity and found a grave constructed for him by his family.
There certainly are many other empty tombs especially in the eastern part of the country where families of stolen children, in their uncertainty, pray for their lost dear ones.
In distant Guatemala, families of the disappeared, whose minds and hearts are filled with uncertainty, make improvised altars to pray for the disappeared and include them in their rites for the dead.
In this Central American country, where Father Conrado de la Cruz, a Filipino missionary disappeared with an 8-year-old altar boy on May 1, 1980, people used to march from the cathedral of Guatemala to the Church of San Sebastian where Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was martyred in 1999.
In Rabinal, in the interior of the country, I have witnessed several memorials. I remember a simple grave with an inscription: “Me mataron cuando tenia seis meses de embarazo” (They killed me when I was six months pregnant).
For those who were killed, there are tombs to visit and offer prayers. But the 45,000 desaparecidos of Guatemala do not have graves.
In the tiny Central American country of El Salvador, every second of November, victims and civil society organizations perform a cultural act to remember the victims before the Monument of Memory and Truth.
The monument was constructed to honor at least 8,000 people who disappeared and 75,000 others who were killed during the armed conflict.
“It is an important form of re-dignifying the victims who have been stripped of dignity,” said Ester Alvarenga, former director of the Association for the Search of Missing Children.
As the Christian world observes the Day of the Faithful Departed, the absence of graves does not deter families of the disappeared to pay tribute to those whose memories will never be forgotten.
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is former secretary general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. For her commitment to the cause of the disappeared, the Government of Argentina bestowed upon her the Emilio F. Mignone International Human Rights Award on December 10, 2013.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.