Thursday, May 31, 2007


Today, in observance of the International Week of the Disappeared, a gathering of human rights advocates, relatives and friends of desaparecidos (Spanish for disappeared) will take place at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani. Commemoration rites will be held at 5 p.m. at the new Salonga Building’s Yuchengco Auditorium.

If you have not been to that hallowed place, then go some time. It is at the corner of EDSA and Quezon Ave. You can’t miss the Castrillo bronze landmark, a soaring monument of a mother lifting up her fallen son from the ground. Quietly explore the place, light candles and run your fingers on the names of contemporary heroes and martyrs etched on black granite. (The desaparecidos as a group have their own Bantayog in the Baclaran Church grounds.)

Today is also the 30th anniversary of the disappearance of lawyer and activist Hermon C. Lagman. He is one of the many activists who disappeared and believed to have been summarily executed during the dark years of martial rule. The Lagman family and the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) are the organizers of today’s affair.

The search never ends even as new names are added to the list today, an era supposed to be far removed from those terrifying Marcos-dominated years. But dark forces continue to stalk the land, defying laws and values that are meant to put in place justice and humanity in this country.

We have not really put the past behind. The mourning continues. Sadly, politically and ideologically motivated abduction and disappearances have become part of our culture. And no one side has the monopoly of victimhood or of glaring impunity.

Numbers are cold. Behind the numbers are names. Behind the names on the list are real persons. They had lives, they have families, friends and communities that grieve for them and have become diminished because of their disappearance.

Here is a story I wrote more than 20 years ago, about two mothers who found the remains of their sons. I exhumed it, so to speak, while my thoughts were flying to the families of the missing, especially the family of Jason Burgos who disappeared last April. Jason is the son of the late Joe Burgos who fought for press freedom.

Here are excerpts from the story. Was this so long ago?


“Dig here!” she ordered. “Dig! My son is buried right here where I stand.” No one quite believed Henedina Portugal, but when the men shoveled the earth and turned it over, there was her son, Celso, slowly becoming a part of it all.

The place is called Gethsemane, somewhere at the Umalag Crossing…and many refer to it as the place where “salvage” victims are buried.

Manang Dina herself could not quite explain how she knew her son was buried right there. In prayer she had begged that her son to be returned to him. “Where is he? Return him to me,” she pleaded.

Her boy Celso was all of 16, in his third year in high school, when he disappeared. He had been missing for two years along with three others…

It had been a long, painful search. There had been prayer rallies on behalf of the missing, habeas corpus hearings, a letter to military authorities, but all these had yielded minimal results. She then had to find her own leads, track down possible witnesses.

Her two older sons are military men, one a corporal and the other a draftee. They had been very upset about the fate of their younger brother…

Looking back on the day of the exhumation in Gethsemane, Manang Dina said she was grateful to a lot of people, especially those witnesses who had given her leads…

In her home are prominently displayed photographs of Celso. But, she said, “When my older sons in the military come home, I hide the photos. It hurts them to remember their dead brother. Revenge is not yours, I tell them.

“Whose side am I on? I don’t know. All I know is that we have not broken any rules. But they call us rebels. If that is what we are, then we are Christian rebels. The church is full of us on Sundays. Who are the rebels—the ones who steal or the victims?

Manang Dina’s thoughts turned to Celso: “I raised him, took care of him. When he burned with fever I would rush him to the hospital. But they made him into a raw dish.”

In another scene…another mother.

Cry, cry, the women urged her. It is better that you cry. But she wouldn’t. Only much later would she let it all out, her sobs intensifying with every thud of the shovel that would give her some pieces of her son.

Ay anak, pastilan anak…she called out, ever so softly… She was weeping now, painfully beautiful in her sorrow as all mothers are. (I have her lamentations on tape and photographs of her while she waited.) The nuns gently led her to the shade of a coconut tree, while her husband held her close to him.

It rained that afternoon, making exhumation even more difficult. The air reeked with the stench of rotting flesh. Here were lumps of hair, then a piece of bone with flesh on them. Whose were these? Where were the skulls? The limbs?


Parang kailan lang, as the song goes. Persons still disappear and are never found.

FIND is an organization of families, relatives, friends and colleagues of the disappeared victims and surfaced (yes!) desaparecidos.

Founded in 1985, FIND continues to protest against so-called involuntary disappearances worldwide and helps in the search of the missing. It also helps ease the pain of the bereaved by helping them through livelihood programs and counseling. Contact FIND at or 9210069.