“I hope she is still alive.”
By DANIEL BOONE
It was 2 a.m., the dead of the night, when military men forcibly entered a farmer’s home in Hagonoy, Bulacan. “Do not be afraid,” they said. “We will not hurt you.” But they lied.
They grabbed the residents by the back of their heads, pointed their guns, and accused them of being rebels.
By the end of the hour, the soldiers were gone, but so were the three guests of the house: farmer Manuel Merino, Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, the latter two are students from the University of the Philippines (UP) conducting a study in the farmers’ community.
This was the sworn statement of Wilfredo Ramos, an eyewitness to the abduction and whose revelations have been very crucial to the court case filed by the families of Karen and Sherlyn against the military. The three victims have been missing for the past 11 years.
Ramos was only 14 during that time. He is 25 now, with two children, yet Karen and Sherlyn are still missing, and the case filed by their families in court moves at a snail’s pace. Justice in this country again proves to be elusive.
A number of UP students have kept the annual tradition to remember Karen and Sherlyn on the day of their disappearance every June 26, and they did so again this year, with a candle-lighting activity at the Dap-ayan, College of Mass Communications.
The identified “mastermind” of the disappearance, retired Major General Jovito Palparan is charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention. He has been detained for three years, his two other co-accused military officials even longer. Still the families of the victims’ decry the delayed justice due to the frequent postponement of hearings.
The last hearing was scheduled on June 1 at the Bulacan Regional Trial Court in Malolos. It was rescheduled, however, because Palparan failed to attend, said Nanay Connie Empeño, Karen’s mother. Before that, several other hearings were also postponed due to different reasons.
“Wala ang abogado, inoperahan sa appendicitis; wala ang abogado, may LBM … mga ganoong dahilan na teknik lang nila para ma-delay (The lawyer was purportedly absent because of a surgery for appendicitis; they do not have a lawyer because of LBM [loose bowel movement] … reasons like these are just their delaying tactics),” said Nanay Linda Cadapan, Sherlyn’s mother.
For the past 11 years, the two mothers in search for their missing daughters have been called “Nanay,” or mother, by many, especially UP students.
Nanay Linda said they have heard all sorts of alibi, especially the one repeatedly used by the camp of Palparan: their witness could not come.
Since Palparan’s trial started, the military has listed a total of 10 witnesses, Nanay Connie said, but none of them have been presented. Palparan’s camp even tried to get Ramos to refute his previous sworn statement, but they were unsuccessful, said Nanay Linda.
But justice will remain as abstract as it is so long as Palparan and his co-accused gets unlimited second chances from the court. And while justice is being delayed and denied, Karen and Sherlyn’s family are forced to deal with despair. Nanay Connie and Nanay Linda’s stories of struggle paint a gloomy picture, which becomes even more depressing when looked from afar and from a larger scale. That is, Karen and Sherlyn are only two of the many who were victims of enforced disappearances.
Enforced disappearance: worst form of human rights violations
They are called “desaparecidos,” a Spanish term which translates to “the disappeared” — a term so appropriate for the likes of Karen and Sherlyn, who have gone missing.
International human rights groups acknowledge enforced disappearances as the “worst kind of
human rights violation,” as it victimizes both the disappeared and their loved ones who are left inside a vacuum of emotions, not knowing what to feel: primarily, fear for what happened, then anxiety and worry about the fate of the victim, but also hope, for not having a dead body presented at them.
“Kahit ga-hibla na lang ng sinulid ang pag-asa, kakapitan ko. Pag-asa pa rin ‘yun na mahahanap namin si Sherlyn, at mayayakap ko siya (Even hope as thin as thread, I will cling to. That is still hope that we will find Sherlyn, and I can embrace her),” said Nanay Linda.
Since 2001, there have been a total of 236 documented cases of enforced disappearances in the country. Of which, 206 were during the nine-year term of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
With 1,206 victims of summary executions and 2,059 of illegal arrests under his reign as military chief, Palparan has well-earned the nickname “The Butcher.” These inhumane acts ideally mean no forgiveness from the law, but Palparan actually gets special treatment in his detention cell.
“Nasa Fort Bonifacio siya, andun ‘yung mga militar niya. Tapos kapag hearing, ang daming sundalo ang kasama niya (He is in Fort Bonifacio with his old subordinates. During hearings, he is accompanied by many soldiers),” Nanay Connie said. However, despite seemingly lopsided, Nanay Connie and Nanay Linda believe that soon, justice will be served for Karen, Sherlyn, and other desaparecidos.
A plea for justice
Eleven years since Karen and Sherlyn were abducted, their families miss them and wait for their return.
“Ubos na ang luha ko, pero naghihintay at naghahanap pa rin … Ayaw ko ng sa kabilang mundo kami magtatagpo [ni Sherlyn] (I’ve run out of tears, but I still wait and search … I don’t want to meet Sherlyn in the other world),” said Nanay Linda, appealing to the government for any help they could give.
“Sana [makatulong ang gobyerno na] maipalabas na [si Karen] at mabigyan ng agarang hustisya … pero umaasa pa rin akong buhay siya (I hope the government could help surface Karen and justice be served urgently … but I still hope she is alive),” Nanay Connie plead.
The next court hearing is scheduled on July 17, and the mothers hope it will be the last hearing that they will attend. Every hearing entails meeting the perpetrators to their daughters’ disappearance and reliving every memory since they were taken away. One can only imagine the intensity of the pain Nanay Connie and Nanay Linda feel, topped with physical fatigue and dwindling resources to go to court.
This court decision is a crucial part of moving on, said Nanay Linda. But they cannot more forward so long as the accused continues to play with the legal process.