DAVAO CITY (MindaNew/11 July) — On 28 July 1985, 28 years ago, I was in Bacolod City. I had joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (CSsRs or the Redemptorists) after I was released from prison three months earlier. We were then assigned to work among the sakadas of a sugarcane plantation in La Granja in the island of Negros at the height of the hunger season.
A week before that, Fr. Rudy Romano CSsR, who was then Chairman of Bayan-Visayas had come to Bacolod to address their assembly. He stayed overnight at the convent and gave us an update on what was happening across the country in terms of the worsening repression under the Marcos dictatorial regime as well as the increasing militancy of the mass movement. Fr. Rudy had been very active in the solidarity movement providing support to the organizing of the urban poor, laborers, peasants and the youth across Cebu. He had taken a very high profile in this movement and naturally attracted the ire of right-wing government bureaucrats, businessmen and the military. There were already threats on his life, but he paid no attention to the threats and vigorously pursued his advocacy.
After his brief visit to Bacolod City, Fr. Romano returned to Cebu. Then the inevitable happened, which had been happening to many human rights advocates and activists of that era. A week later, he became a desparecido, a Spanish word for the disappeared, or those who were abducted by soldiers in many dictatorships across Latin America especially in Chile and Argentina. The military in Cebu City made plans to silence Fr. Romano and finally were able to set a plan in motion to ensnare him with their vicious net.
They caught up with him as he rode on his motorcycle on yet another journey to do his work among the poor. It was not under the cloak of darkness and in a deserted road that the military forcibly abducted him. Fully confident that there wouldn’t be any witness who would have the courage to testify in court, those tasked by the top brass of the military to abduct Fr. Rudy did their dastardly act in full view of motorists and bystanders along a busy street near downtown Cebu City. Of the hundreds who did saw the abduction, there was one man who courageously volunteered to be a witness, but he too got victimized.
After 28 years, there is still no closure to the case of Fr. Romano. He remains a missing person. His family, confreres and friends have never found out what happened to him after he disappeared. There have been all kinds of conjectures as to what the military did to his body but for all the efforts of those who searched for the truth, there is only the blank wall. Like so many others who were victimized by martial rule whose remains were buried in unmarked graves, no one could pinpoint where Fr. Romano was laid to rest.
On 11 July this year, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), the organization closely linked to the memory of the late Sr. Marianni Dimaranan SFIC who for a number of years was its Director, decided to hold fora across the country with the theme REMEMBER REPRESSION… REMEMBER COURAGE… REMEMBER RESISTANCE. In Davao City, it was held at the Ateneo de Davao University, since it was co-sponsored by the Ateneo Public Interest and Legal and Advocacy Center (APILA), headed by Atty. Romeo T. Cabarde, Jr. This forum also served as a venue to respond to queries of human rights victims and/or their heirs regarding the filing of claims under the recently-approved Republic Act 10368 in which the State “recognizes the heroism and sacrifice of human rights violations victims during the Marcos regime and to acknowledge its moral and legal obligation to recognize and provide reparations to the victims”.
TFDP and APILA thought that only around 50 people would come to the forum. In fact, more than 300 came and so the room reserved for this event got jampacked. A bigger venue had to be identified quickly so that the standing-room-only crowd could be accommodated comfortably. Both Atty. Cabarde and Mr. Roldan Gonzales of TFDP spoke at the forum to pledge support to the claimants. TFDP’s Virtual Museum of Courage and Resistance was also presented to the participants.
As keynote speaker, I spoke about what led to the disappearance of Fr. Romano, the context of the human rights violations of the martial law period, the extent of the violations, how human rights advocacy in Davao City arose with the setting up of the Citizen’s Council for Justice and Peace (CCJP), how CCJP connected to TFDP when it set up its Mindanao office in Davao City and the role of TFDP in helping to protect the rights of the citizenry as it defended the rights of human rights victims, especially the political detainees.
In the end, I reiterated the need for everyone to be on guard and not allow apathy and indifference to give birth to martial rule again. If Madame Imelda Marcos’ wish that the Marcoses return to power will come true and a collective amnesia will infect the citizenry – especially those born after EDSA 1 – the ills of martial rule will be forgotten. Instead, quoting the Irish poet Dylan Thomas, we all need to “not go gently into the night, but to rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (The author was one of the longest-held political detainees during Martial Law.)