Tuesday, July 10, 2007

DESAPARECIDO: (The Disappeared)

Sigurado ako na kung nandito ka, tutulong ka para sa pamilya ni Tito Jonas. Kung mas malapit ka lang, masasagot mo ang mga tanong ko at masasabi mo sa akin kung ano ang pwede kong gawin para kahit papano ay makatulong. [I am sure that if you are here, you will help find Jonas. If you are just here, you will be able to answer my questions and you will tell me what I can possibly do to help them.]
—Letter from Demi Patricia Pascua, 16

(Manila, Philippines to Asheville, North Carolina, 27 June 07)

Desaparecido. The Disappeared.
These days, desaparecido is more geared at what non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch refer to as “forced disappearances.”
A forced disappearance occurs when an organization forces a person to vanish from public view, either by murder or by simple sequestration. The victim is first kidnapped, then illegally detained in concentration camps, often tortured, and finally executed and their corpse hidden.
The term desaparecidos specifically refers to South America’s so-called “Dirty War,” particularly in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, which cooperated together, along with other dictatorships, in Operation Condor. (Operation Condor was a campaign of state terrorism and intelligence operations implemented in 1975 by right-wing dictatorships that dominated the Southern Cone in South America from the 1950s to 1980s, heavily relying on numerous assassinations. This systematic state terrorism aimed both to deter democratic and left-wing influence and ideas disseminated in the region and to control active or potential opposition movements against these governments.)
According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force on July 1, 2002, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, “forced disappearances” qualify as a crime against humanity, which thus cannot be subject to statute of limitation. (A statute of limitations is a statute in a common law legal system that sets forth the maximum period of time, after certain events, that legal proceedings based on those events may be initiated. In civil law systems, similar provisions are usually part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as “periods of prescription” or “prescriptive periods.”)
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec 20, 2006, also states that the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime against humanity. Crucially, it gives victims’ families the right to seek reparations and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones.

DESAPARECIDOS are a common “reality” in the Philippines, the country of my birth, during the height of the dreaded (Ferdinand and Imelda) Marcos dictatorship in the late-70s up to mid-80s. This swath of terror remained unmitigated and unabated in the 90s—despite the end of Martial Law—continuing to the globally-celebrated “people power” government of Corazon Aquino and later, in the midst of the administrations of Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, two former close-in allies of the Marcoses.
Up to this date, cases of desaparecidos still hound the Filipino people like bloodied nightmares that refuse to cease or subside.
Hence, the history of the desaparecidos remains a huge blot on the Philippine government’s human rights record. More than 1,600 Filipinos were abducted or disappeared under mysterious circumstances since the Marcos regime, according to a human-rights group that keeps count. Almost always, fingers pointed at the military, which has not kept secret its dislike of left-leaning organizations and individuals.

JONAS JOSEPH “JJ” Burgos, a son of late Filipino press icon Jose “Joe” Burgos, has been missing for almost three months now. JJ is now declared as a desaparecido (the disappeared). Joe was my first-ever editor and most staunch, lionhearted “people’s journalism” guru.
JJ was barely on his late-teens when I last left Manila in the summer of 1998. He was just a kid when me and his Dad’s ragtag staff of cocky, hotshot recruits ran possum with the military regime’s monstrous shadows – dismissing death threats as “chicken shit,” hauling off typewriters and IBM composers onto hidden, pitch-dark lairs as our loved ones prayed nonstop for God’s guiding, protective hand... wading through flashfloods, playing hide-and-seek with some high that kicks up from utter danger, “running between typhoon rains and wind.” That was the apex of my life’s subversive romanticism.
I survived those years—when a number of Joe’s “ragtag staff of cocky, hotshot recruits” didn’t make it at all. Some fled to China or to an East Bloc country to pursue Maoist or Marxist ideals, some escaped to the US and lived as self-exiles...
Some became desaparecidos.

MEANTIME, when Joe opted to retire in a small farmland that he purchased for his wife Editha, a daughter and two sons in the late-80s – we, his small minion of idealistic but fatalistic “alternative media” warriors, continued to fight the protracted war for “truth and justice.”
Apart from my other “rock journeys and sublime madnesses,” I published two biweekly newspapers and then formed the first incarnation to what is now called Traveling Bonfires, towards the end of the eighties. JJ’s older brother, Jose Luis (JL), used to play session bass for my band, Duane’s Poetry, which was the centerpiece of The Bonfires’ road performances. In the mid-90s, I hooked up with Alfredo Roces Guerrero, nephew of Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Joe’s main benefactor and most avid supporter, and edited/co-published seven “pulp” magazines. (The Spanish-Filipino Roces-Guerreros own the biggest and largest mass-market publishing empire in the Philippine Islands, perhaps the only traditionally-rich clan back home that didn’t accede to Ferdinand and Imelda’s fantastic whims and bizarre dictates.)
I chose to stay for few more years in Manila, and started work on a film that would chronicle a turbulent summer in the northern provinces—specifically in a tiny village called Marag Valley where three staffers of a multisectoral fact-finding mission to investigate military atrocities in the region were reported missing (later found dead). I wasn’t able to finish the movie (but I handed over pertinent footages and a boxful of interview cassette tapes to another journalist-filmmaker buddy who later finished the documentary film). Meanwhile, a near-fatal lung ailment demobilized me and had me airlifted to Manila.
But that wasn’t the deepest reason why I decided to “slow down.” My growing disillusionment and disenchantment with what I believed were “liberators of the people,” exacerbated by economic woes that continued to befell the country, finally made me declare, “I gotta take a break.”
I left Manila for New York City on my 38th birthday, almost eight years ago this month. That was the time when the once-vaunted Southeast Asian Tigers were declawed by Western World’s unswerving intervention (otherwise known as “The John Soros Hook” AKA “speculative investments”)—while China’s formidable open-door policy, all in all, rendered the region’s economic life a virtual wasteland. My seven “pulp” magazines, including a prototype of what I later called as The Indie, were all sideswept by that paralyzing economic crunch.
So I set out to an open-ended journey... Weary and tired, frustrated and disillusioned. I knew right there that I was looking for peace. A very personal peace—a quiet within.

JJ IS AN agriculturist who has lived quietly and simply all his life. He is a member of the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (AMP, Alliance of Farmers of the Philippines) and was active in its farm training program. AMP is an affiliate of the more militant, Kilusan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (KMP). When I was in my late-20s, I edited KMP’s organizational newsletter and news dispatch in between my work as desk editor for a national newspaper, and worked as farmers community organizer in Central Luzon’s (main island) farming villages.
JJ was kidnapped April 28 with two companions at a restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City (a suburb of Manila). Witnesses said they were dragged into a Toyota Revo outside the restaurant. They furnished the police the vehicle’s plate number. Many believed that the abduction was perpetrated by the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has denied any involvement in the disappearance of JJ Burgos. The license plate of the Toyota Revo used in the kidnapping, however, was traced to another vehicle that was impounded in the Army’s 56th Infantry Battalion in Norzagaray, a town of Bulacan. The army said the TAB 194 plate was stolen by “trouble-makers” living near the camp.

MYSTERIOUS disappearances of usually individuals with direct or indirect involvement or interaction with activist organizations, or simply “mass-based” sectors (ie farmers, fisherfolk, labor, urban poor, militant students), were “ordinary” occurrences in the Philippines when I was in my 20s/30s. Once a colleague is reported or deemed “missing,” we—more or less—were certain that he/she’s going to surface as a lifeless, decomposing lump of flesh by the riverside or dumpsite later.
I revisited all these gruesome tales and stories of decades-long “summary executions” and “desaparecido” kasama (comrades) in my working-novel, “Waiting for Winter,” and in my piano/violin sonata, “Awit kay Clarita” (Song for Clarita), which was interpreted through a 15-minute dance in a social realist “Art of Resistance” exhibition in SoHo (Manhattan) in the fall of 2000. I also tackled the same subject in a tribal musical, “Dara” (Ilocano/Igorot tribal word for “blood”) that I wrote in 1991 while I was in India, and in an unproduced screenplay, “Dundungoen Canto” (“I’ll Watch Over You”).
Desaparecidos occupy a bloodied room in my heart. I can almost see my own (dear departed) Mother’s agonized face in JJ’s Mother’s grieving, waiting...

THE PHILIPPINES is an eternally impoverished country – with 15 million of its huge population (or 1.5 percent of the people) living on a $1 a day subsistence... There is no visible sign of light across this dark, cold tunnel.
Oceans away and almost ten years ago, the cadaverous stench and torture-chamber cold of memories of the many years of struggle against military oppression still rouse me from sleep. Just like before—when I treaded ricefield foottrails with landless farmers and sailed improvised bancas with small fisherfolk in the barrios, when I scoured citystreets for “people’s news” and then marched “kapit-bisig” (arms clutched together) with the masa (common people) afront soldiers and cops with their firearms drawn—I still feel the surge of blood running up and down my spine, onto my heart and spirit. Day in, day out – no warmth and comfort of America can ever heal the wound. I can feel a moment’s joy but healing will always be my life’s journey.
I survived those years. I “physically” survived those years. But I can never survive the memories—especially that they keep on coming back.
JJ may still be alive... or maybe he has already joined his Dad somewhere in another world. At this moment, his family and friends are grieving. There is no way to make them happy. They want JJ back...
Last week, my youngest brother Alvaro left Manila for Macau to work so that he could somehow help give his sickly wife, and young son and daughter a decent future. His family sent him away with tears but with hope.
These are my people.
Last month, just like many summer Saturdays of the “Bonfires for Peace at Pritchard Park” in the last four years, I saw families – younger mothers and fathers danced with their kids, families enjoying a moment of peace and love – families who may not have the same pain and misery as my people thousands of miles away... But just the same, I feel the quiet joy inside me. My day mattered, my life is worth it. I feel like I never left “home” whenever I see these people dancing out there. I am “home” in my little space in my little park.
Again, the rain threatened to fall and stop the joy on that last Saturday’s “Bonfires for Peace”—just like many times in the last four summers. But again, it didn’t rain. It will never rain... because moments like these keep hearts close together and spirits communicating. In case it rains, we will all dance under God’s blessings – life is here, life is a gift.
My “bonfires” have traveled far from the countrysides of the Philippines to the mountains of North Carolina. But they never failed to lighten things up and gather people together. Even for a moment’s time. It will always be that way.
To JJ Burgos, wherever you are – be brave, keep faith. “Home” is wherever you are. Spirits fly, fires burn, life carries on.


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