Remembering the days of fear, celebrating courage

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It was in the dead of night that the soldiers came, forced themselves into the hut of a peasant family, dragged the poor farmer out into the yard, and in the presence of his terrified wife and children, shot him dead and walked away laughing. On a desolate field a man’s body lies half-buried, his clothes soaked in blood, the flesh showing tell-tale signs of torture.

Scenes like these happened during Martial Law and they kept playing back in my mind as our vehicle rolled toward Butuan City last weekend. Almost 30 years had passed since the civilian-back military mutiny that ousted the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, yet like a bad dream the memories of that dark period in the nation’s history would keep coming back. Maybe they haunted me again because that trip was a walk down memory lane; former colleagues in Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, the human rights group I worked with during Martial Law, had organized a reunion in time for the 82nd birthday of Sr. Letty Daral, an MSM nun who headed our office in Butuan.

Sr. Letty Daral, MSM, former coordinator of TFDP-Butuan at the mass during the reunion of TFDP workers in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Sr. Letty Daral, MSM, former coordinator of TFDP-Butuan at the mass during the reunion of TFDP workers in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

Teri and Nene, who started the idea of holding the reunion, kept the whole thing a secret from Sr. Letty, who never knew something was in store for her birthday. “Sigeg balik-balik ni silang Teri diri sa MSM (convent) pero wala gyud koy kalibutan bahin ani,” (Teri and company often came here in MSM but I never knew about this) she said smiling.

The rest of us had our share of surprise too. No less than Bishop Zacharias Jimenez, retired auxiliary bishop of Butuan, came to celebrate the mass that opened the reunion. And in lieu of a homily, Bishop Jimenez asked Sr. Letty to say something about what the situation was during the Marcos era. Aided by a steel cane, she walked from her seat at the back of the chapel to the front and narrated a vivid recollection of the abuses she witnessed, as well as her own experiences of being harassed and threatened by security forces.

“The military said the people we’re helping were NPA (New People’s Army) members. Maybe some were really NPAs, but most of them were just ordinary people who were accused of fighting the government. But for me, it’s not important who you are. If people ask for help, we should help,” Sr. Letty said.

“At first, you would feel afraid. But as you go along and do what you should do, you’d find the courage and overcome fear,” she emphasized.

Retired Butuan Auxiliary Bishop Zacharias Jimenez shares his experience with TFDP-Pagadian during martial law during the reunion of TFDP workers in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Retired Butuan Auxiliary Bishop Zacharias Jimenez shares his experience with TFDP-Pagadian during martial law during the reunion of TFDP workers in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

Bishop Jimenez, who was a priest in Pagadian City during Martial Law – he was later appointed as bishop of Pagadian where he served from 1994 to 2003 – recalled that TFDP personnel often asked him to help intervene in cases of human rights violations. He lamented though that some of his fellow church officials shied away from helping the victims of military abuses. “This is supposed to be our duty but others are doing this for us,” he would admonish them.

The bishop said those who committed abuses resorted to name-calling or labeling against people who come to the defense of the victims. He added such practice has remained to this day. “Tawgon kag bisan unsa na lang – komunista, subersibo – aron lang matabonan ang tinood nga isyu” (They would call you by any name – communist, subversive – in order to hide the real issue).

Siblings Edgar and Neneng, both of whom were assigned in Pagadian, could only smile as Bishop Jimenez recalled what life was as a priest in an era marked by repression and wanton abuse of power. They had worked closely with this prelate they fondly called “Father Ite” and were only too glad to see him again in an unexpected time and place.

Tessie, a pioneering staffer in Pagadian, confirmed that indeed, it took time before the churches in Mindanao opened their doors to TFDP. She said that when they started they had to put documents inside a “kaban” (wooden box) that they often carried with them anywhere they went. “Aside from having no permanent office, we had no filing cabinet then,” she recalled almost laughing.

But amusing accounts like Tessie’s were rare. What prevailed in those times were stories of how TFDP workers dealt with harassment and some instances of arrest and detention.

Former TFDP personnel recall their experiences as human rights workers during their reunion in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Former TFDP personnel recall their experiences as human rights workers during their reunion in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

One of those who experienced arrest was Zwingli. Originally assigned in Tandag in Surigao del Sur, he moved to Cagayan de Oro City in early 1985. Later that year, he went to Claveria in Misamis Oriental to interview barangay residents who bore the brunt of a food blockade imposed by the military. At a checkpoint, however, he was accosted by elements of the 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion and brought to their commander.

The battalion commander, Zwingli recalled, screamed angrily upon knowing that he was with TFDP. He underwent interrogation complete with mental and psychological torture almost all night long, and the battalion commander himself kept watch on his detainee.

The next day, the battalion commander, unable to get any information from Zwingli, ordered him to dig a grave. Thinking he was going to be “salvaged” (summarily killed), Zwingli recited Psalm 23 from the Bible while digging. “When he heard me reciting Psalm 23, the battalion commander barked ‘Dili ka komunista, religious radical ka’ (You’re not a communist, you’re a religious radical) and told me to come up from the hole I have dug,” he said.

Zwingli was released shortly without any case filed against him. But for a few days after his release military agents would tail him.

Zwingli experienced another scare of his life during a fact-finding mission to Lantad, a hinterland village in Balingasag, Misamis Oriental. Darkness caught up with us, and the guide told us not to use any flashlight for our own safety. But since he’s suffering from night blindness Zwingli took out his flashlight and switched it on. A few seconds after, stalk mortars fell around us in rapid succession. I think I counted at least eight explosions, and as it happened I was thinking if I would die right there and then without seeing my wife, Jean, also a TFDP worker then, who was pregnant with our first child.

The soldiers manning a base near the highway must have spotted the light and fired the mortars thinking we were rebels. Nobody was hit but the guide could not help shouting expletives at us.

Former TFDP workers pose with retired Butuan Auxiliary Bishop Zacharias Jimenez during their reunion in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Former TFDP workers pose with retired Butuan Auxiliary Bishop Zacharias Jimenez during their reunion in Butuan City on Aug. 29, 2015. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

Earlier, in a fact-finding in Karomatan (now Sultan Naga Dimaporo) in Lanao del Norte a fragmentation grenade was thrown at us while we were sleeping inside the Catholic convent. Another close call except that the grenade did not explode. Three other TFDP workers were with me at the time – Sol, Chris and Becky (deceased).

Yet it wasn’t just the perils of our past vocation that filled the conversations. All had pleasant stories of how life has been after leaving TFDP such as having children who have become professionals. Teri’s son has become a physician. One of Myemye’s sons is a lawyer.

As for my former colleagues, some are now in government either as employees or as elective officials. Pol, who could not attend due to another commitment, is a vice mayor and Joe is a city councilor. Others are working nongovernment organizations.

Sadly, some have gone ahead of us – Joel, Atan, Jethro, Bebing and others whose names I could no longer remember. But like the others who also raged “against the dying of the light” they have left behind a legacy to the unending quest for a humane social order. [H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)

(The author served as regional director of TFDP-Northern Mindanao.)

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