Home Features On All Souls' Day, kin of 'desaparecidos' cry for justice

On All Souls’ Day, kin of ‘desaparecidos’ cry for justice

It used to be that days before All Souls’ Day Lorena Santos and her father would join millions of Filipinos visiting the tombs of their departed relatives.

It would be a long drive home and an opportunity for father and daughter to be together. “He liked long drives because it gives us more time together,” said Lorena.

The years of long drives and going home together are, however, a thing of the past. Lorena’s father, Leo Velasco, has been missing for some time, believed to have been abducted by soldiers.

Lorena grew up in an unconventional family. Her parents were not always around when she was growing up. They were communist guerrillas.

Her father and mother were student activists who were forced to go underground when martial law was declared in the 1970s.

“They didn’t raise me, but they were able to guide me,” said Lorena.

Even when she was still young Lorena understood the risks of what her parents were doing. “I knew they could get killed anytime,” she said.

She admitted, however, that it never crossed her mind that her father would go missing and be included in the long list of victims of enforced disappearances.

Leo, a ranking rebel leader, was consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, which was negotiating peace with the government, when he went missing in 2007.

Lorena did her best to search for his father, but no one knew of his whereabouts. The police and the military denied that Leo was in their custody.

It pains Lorena when she hears people say that her father deserves to be disappeared because he was a subversive.

“No one deserves it. He was a communist and a revolutionary, but he is my father,” she said.

Families and friends of victims of enforced disappearances offer flowers and light candles outside a church in Manila to remember their missing loved ones. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Cycle of activism and repression

Like her parents, Lorena grew up to become an activist. But unlike them, she chose to work for human rights in the so-called parliament of the streets.

She worked for rights group Karapatan for a decade before joining Katribu, a network of indigenous people’s rights organizations in the Philippines.

Working as a human rights defender in the Philippines, however, can get also one killed.

“I could also get killed or abducted like my father because the government ignores the difference between an armed combatant, a peace consultant, and a human rights defender,” said Lorena.

Philippine authorities have tagged several organizations as “legal front organizations” of the underground communist movement.

On Oct. 31 alone, at least 60 activists were arrested after state security forces raided the offices of three activist groups in the central Philippine island of Negros.

“History is repeating itself. The repression and tyranny during the dictatorship of [President Ferdinand] Marcos that forced my parents to go underground are again happening,” said Lorena.

She described activism as a product of “the unceasing cycle” of social injustices in the country. “The government is creating more activists with its crackdown on the legal mass movement,” she said.

“I believe my parents and I have the same reason, and that’s social injustice, why we became activists,” she said.

One of the many cases of “social injustices” that Lorena encountered in her work as a human rights defender was that of the Cedro family in Navotas, a suburb of Manila.

Armando Cedro Sr. organized urban poor families to oppose a government plan to demolish the informal settler community in Navotas.

On July 14, 1988, Armando was forcibly taken by armed men who identified themselves as state agents. “We never saw my father again,” said Sonny Cedro.

The search for the missing Armando has stopped, but Sonny said they “will not stop the search for justice.”

Two years ago, another tragedy hit the Cedro family.

Armando Jr., second of the three sons of Armando, was killed in what the police claimed as a legitimate operation against illegal narcotics.

Armando Jr. was with friends in the market when two men on a motorcycle shot him in the head and body.

Flora, the family matriarch, could not bear what happened to her son. She died a few days after his funeral.

Every year, on Nov. 2, families of victims of enforced disappearances gather in a church in Manila to remember their missing loved ones.

Flora did not fail to attend the event when she was alive.

Photographs of victims of ‘desaparecidos’ are displayed outside a Catholic church in the Philippine capital Manila during a demonstration. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Father Dionito Cabillas, a pastor of the Philippine Independent Church who has been working with human rights defenders, said enforced disappearance is “unjustifiable.”

“A government may arrest its perceived enemy and put him into a trial, but it has no right to make a human person a ‘desaparecido,'” he said.

There are at least 1,996 documented cases of enforced disappearance in the Philippines since the administration of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.

Out of this number, 1,165 are still missing while 587 surfaced alive and 244 were found dead.

The Marcos dictatorship recorded the greatest number of victims with 926, followed by the administrations of former president Corazon Aquino with 540, and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo with 336.

Until August last year, at least 23 victims of enforced disappearances have been recorded under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The number of reported victims, however, is much higher than the documented — with a total of 2,334 across seven administrations.

Erlinda Cadapan of the group Desaparecidos said every year, when Filipinos observe All Souls’ Day, “we don’t know if it is proper to mourn.”

She said families of missing persons have no tomb to light candles and offer flowers.

A long drive to somewhere remains Lorena’s favorite pastime whenever she has time with her husband and daughter.

She already accepted the possibility that her father, Leo, is already dead, and that “he couldn’t take me on a long road trip anymore.”

“But I will continue to take the road less traveled,” she said. “I will pursue justice, not only for my father but for the countless victims of social injustice.”

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