Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Finding the Disappeared

The finding of the Court of Appeals that the military was responsible for the abduction of one Jonas Burgos, a suspected communist rebel, has resuscitated a story that has been dormant in the mainstream consciousness for some time now. Burgos was abducted in 2007 by suspected intelligence agents of the military in Quezon City. Burgos' mother sought relief in the Philippine courts, and obtained a Writ of Amparo directed at the military, which meant that the military had to either produce Jonas, dead or alive, or account for his whereabouts. Thanks to the glacial pace of litigation in this country, and to the 15-second attention span that mass-media has cultivated among the mainstream public, the average Juan son forgot about the case. Recently, with a determination by the Court of Appeals, to whom the Supreme Court endorsed the case for in-depth investigation, that the military was responsible for Burgos' disappearance, and the surfacing of a photograph that seems to strongly suggest Burgos was in military custody at some point, people are remembering him all over again.

The timing is good; now that there appear to be fresh leads in Burgos' case, the determination of his ultimate fate now seems to be within his mother's grasp, or at least, closer than it has ever been before. There is now a law that punishes enforced disappearance, and if there are those within the current military who know what happened to Burgos but refuse to 'fess up, the consequences for such individuals, if Burgos is eventually determined to have been in military custody, could be dire.

It is not really my place to comment on the Burgos case as I am neither a journalist nor a lawyer for either side of the controversy, but as a human rights advocate I would like to weigh in on why enforced disappearance, of all human rights violations, is arguably the most pernicious of the lot.

The thing about acts of enforced or involuntary disappearance that makes them worse than acts of torture or even killing is the uncertainty that accompanies them, or more particularly the uncertainty they create in the minds of the families of the disappeared. Of course, in all cases of human rights violations such as torture and extrajudicial killing the families have to live with the aftermath of the violation, but in the case of EID it is the families who have it worst of all, even, arguably, more than the disappeared. It is the families who have to live with both despair, as they try to steel themselves for the worst, and the hope that they can never fully discount. I can't but wonder if hope isn't an additional source of torment in such instances rather than a balm. How can one close the book and move on when one doesn't even know how the story ended, after all?

Also, more than any other human rights violation it just feels unspeakably cruel because it serves no other purpose than to torment. Killing supposedly punishes and torture supposedly leads to information or retribution, but to me it seems that the sole purpose of removing a person completely from the public and then to deny any knowledge whatsoever of the person's whereabouts is to strike terror and dread into people's hearts. It is a statement that says "this can happen to any of you; we can arrange it so that you cease to exist." EID is not really about the disappeared, it's about the persons left behind.

EID is in no way justified by the revelation that the disappeared were actual enemies of the state; there are plenty of remedies available to deal with such people. They can be tried in court and thrown in prison, or, in the context of actual armed encounters, be blown to kingdom come. To subject them to EID is a losing proposition all around; all it does is martyr them, visit untold agony on their families, many of whom may not even know about their lives as rebels, and reinforce the decades-old image of the government security forces as human rights violators. As with all other human rights violations there is no place for EID in any civilized society.

Another thing I've observed about the loved ones of longtime "desaparesidos" is how their hope dulls into resignation, especially when the persons disappeared, having been removed from the field for so many years, have quite arguably outlived their usefulness from an intelligence standpoint, and are most likely occupying unmarked graves somewhere. Then, the refusal to admit the whereabouts or fate of the disappeared at this point stems from a desire to evade liability for the persons' summary execution. One evil begets another, and in the meantime, those left behind live the rest of their lives without any real sense of closure.

Whether or not the Philippine military has or ever had Jonas Burgos in its custody, to my mind one thing has to happen: they have to do their part in healing the wounds that were opened during the days of martial law, when tens of thousands of people were, in effect, dragged off the face of the earth. A year or two ago the military declassified, for the first time in many years, several of the files that were kept during the martial law years, a significant gesture by itself but which needs to be followed through. The information contained in these files could be key to determining the whereabouts of at least some of the thousands of desaparesidos who disappeared in the 70s and 80s. In the years that have passed since then, the people principally responsible for these heinous acts have either died, retired, or otherwise faded into obscurity, and yet, the scars inflicted by them remain on the souls of the spouses, children, relatives and dear friends of those who were forcibly disappeared. With these decades-old dossiers having been disclosed it would probably go a long way towards our collective healing if all concerned, the security sector, the Commission on Human Rights, civil society and the families and loved ones of the desaparesidos worked together to piece together the information necessary to trace the whereabouts of the disappeared, even if that only means unearthing shallow, unmarked graves in the remotest areas of the country.

When that has happened, for better or worse, the families of the disappeared, many of whom have been waiting for the better part of four decades to learn the truth, will know with finality the fate that befell their loved ones, thus ending the greatest evil wrought by these atrocities and taking a significant step towards making EID a thing of the past.