Davao rebel’s kin in hiding, fear military reprisal

DAVAO CITY — Dry leaves litter the grassy alley leading to the house in Bago Galera, Toril District here that once belonged to the Pitao family. Beyond the open gate that displays a blue poster of a local candidate in the last elections, the house remains closed, its concrete walls wet from a recent rain, reverberating a stony silence.

The Pitaos don’t live here anymore. Not since Rebelyn was abducted, tortured, raped and killed two years ago.  She would have turned 22 on Sunday, March 20.

“All of them have left and rarely come back,” said the payongpayong driver who led VERA Files to the Pitao home midway from the highway.

Payongpayongs or umbrella-covered tricycles like this one used to take Rebelyn to and from her work as substitute teacher at Saint Peter’s College in Toril.

She was the daughter of Leoncio Pitao, also known as Kumander Parago, the head of the New People’s Army Pulang Bagani Command that operated in the Davao area. Despite years of intensive manhunt by the military, Pitao has eluded capture.

Failing to get Kumander Parago, the military instead targeted members of his family. Aside from Parago’s daughter Rebelyn, his brother Danilo was also shot and killed by, human rights groups believe, military elements hunting Parago down.

The deaths of Rebelyn and Danilo and the threats on other relatives cast serious doubt the government could protect vulnerable family members against such harm. The International Humanitarian Law (IHL), or Republic Act 9851 in the Philippines, specifies that family members of combatants not taking part in the armed conflict be considered civilians. They should thus be given protection and spared from the armed conflict.

Rebelyn was not. She was riding a payongpayong on her way home on March 4, 2009, when two burly men blocked the stretch of road isolated from the highway. The men told the driver to stop and, with the help of two men on the tricycle, dragged Rebelyn, screaming for help, to a white van parked nearby.

Her body was found barely 24 hours later, dumped in an irrigation ditch in a village in Carmen town, Davao del Norte, about 55 kilometers from where she was abducted.

Two years after she was killed, Rebelyn’s family has gone into hiding.

“They have changed places so many times, we could no longer keep track of where they are now,” said Erlin Balinton, senior paralegal officer of the human rights group Karapatan. “They are now living like nomads, transferring from place to place.”

Nagabalhin balhin og balay (They frequently transfer houses) because they know they could never be safe and secure,” said Ritchell (not his real name), a young relative also forced into hiding because of his relationship with Parago.

“The last time they rented a duplex apartment in an enclosed compound, they were followed by suspicious men they later found out belonged to the military,” said Ritchell. “When they learned that the men had been asking questions about them, the family packed up and left.”

In Rebelyn’s village, even neighbors turn suspicious of strangers who, before Rebelyn’s death, used to find their way here, plying all sorts of goods, to get information about the family.

“We felt that we were constantly being watched and followed,” Ritchell added. “It’s a really difficult life.”

More deaths and threats

Nine months before her death, Rebelyn’s uncle Danilo Pitao was gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of Tagum City by men his relatives believed were members of the Military Intelligence Group (MIG) tasked to siphon out information to be used for the capture of Parago.

Danilo was a seaman who earlier changed his surname to “Santiago” to avoid the questions that his family name might pose in his desire to work abroad.

But back in the country and a year before he was killed, Danilo had been receiving death threats on his cellular phone, reportedly because of his relationship with Parago. When he went to Camp Panacan to clear his name, he was recruited into the MIG.

“It was his birthday, May 20, 2007,” recalled a relative. “We were worried he would be killed then and there.”

But Danilo managed to come home for his birthday that year and started his “friendship” with MIG men, who frequented his home for talks and cups of coffee.

On the day Danilo was killed in June 2008, the MIG man who came to fetch him blurted out how he pitied Danilo’s children once he is killed.

“Yes,” Danilo’s wife replied, “It was good that you did not execute him as you planned to do last year.”

That night, he did not come home. Danilo’s family received a call telling them to go to Tagum because he had an “accident.” Later, after a brief stop at the hospital, they were brought to the funeral house, where they learned Danilo was dead from 13 gunshot wounds.

“They killed him after failing to get any information about Parago,” said one of his children.

The driver who was with Danilo when he was killed told the family that before he was shot, he smiled back at the two men on motorcycle following them.

After the first shots and Danilo was running toward the Fatima Church to ask for help, he shouted back at his killer: “Unsa man ni, Bay (What is this, Bay)?”

The fact that he smiled, and that he called his assailant “Bay,” a Cebuano term of endearment for a friend, only showed that he knew his killer,” a relative pointed out.

Pitao reached only as far as the door before bullets felled him.

Military and police as suspects

That the public inquiry conducted by the Commission on Human Rights barely a month after Rebelyn’s murder failed to yield results is another cause for dismay.

Of the 13 suspects summoned by the CHR to testify, only nine appeared on April 1, 2009, the first salvo of the high-profile inquiry on the Rebelyn case.

This prompted then CHR Chair Leila De Lima to issue a strongly worded order requiring the summoned absentees to show cause for their failure to appear in the investigation.

In the following hearing in June that year, only one of the 13 suspects appeared. Rebelyn’s mother, Evangeline Pitao, expressed disappointment that not one of the suspects appeared for the third and last hearing.

Among the Military Intelligence Bureau personnel (MIBs) who testified in a CHR inquiry, Helvin Bitang, one of the first four people that Parago charged with the abduction and killing of his daughter, had admitted having known in Panabo town a certain Danilo Santiago, a neighbor he described as his “best friend” and an “asset.”

When De Lima asked him how he defines an asset, he replied that an asset is a friend who gives information about what was happening in his area of responsibility.

When he was asked where Danilo Santiago was then, he said, “Patay na (he is already dead).

“Who killed him?” asked De Lima.

Bitang said he did not know.

“How is Danilo Pitao related to Danilo Santiago?”

“They’re brothers.”

“How can they be brothers, they have different names?”

Bitang did not reply.

Bitang and a certain Orly Pedregosa identified themselves as the MIBs in the Panabo and Paquibato areas where Parago operates.

Ritchell noted that the white van used by the men who took Rebelyn had been frequently seen in a police station in Panabo, oftentimes when there are “special operations” to carry out.

Another family forced to flee

When Rebelyn was killed in March, Ritchell’s family was already in hiding. He was the last to flee.

He was still staying in the area when he noticed suspicious strangers follow him on three occasions, all when he came home late at night or early dawn.

“We decided to leave the house, had it rented out, and we could no longer go wherever we want to go without thinking of our safety,” he said.

“We no longer have peace in our family,” he added. “We were torn apart, went our separate ways.”

Ritchell said he also saw a poster of Ryan, Rebelyn’s elder brother, on the military’s “Wanted” list. Ryan had decided to join his father after the threats he received.

“It almost felt like the military itself had recruited him to join the rebel side.”

(Germelina A. Lacorte/MindaNews and VERA Files. This story is part of the VERA Files project “Human Rights Case Watch” supported by The Asia Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development.)