By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — For Jesus Cuartero Jr., it seems there is no escaping the dark forces looming over the country.
He was only 18 years old when martial law was declared by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Young as he was, he and his friends took the martial law imposition nonchalantly. It was not long before he learned of its atrocities – most especially the abuses of soldiers in their community in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.
“Drunk soldiers would strip naked the teens in our community and make them walk on their knees. The soldiers would even hit them with the butt of their rifle,” he told Bulatlat.
This was just among the abuses he witnessed, urging him to ask more questions. Answers to which he found from student activists who are part of exposure programs.
“Martial law stole my youth,” he said.
Forty seven years later, he has found himself linking arms with church people and peace advocates. This time, the government once again stole a part of him – his son, a “collateral damage” of President Duterte’s war against illegal drugs.
His son, his namesake, was among those killed in a purported police operations on March 25, 2019. Jesus III was out with friends and cousins when he gave two of them a motorcycle ride. All three were later found dead, accused of peddling illegal drugs.
He was only 26.
“I am still struggling to accept his killing until now,” he said, “this government, too, stole his youth.”
Church struggling with the people
Cuartero’s family, however, is not alone in their plight.
On Friday, a day before the 47th year since the imposition of martial law rule under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Cuartero joined a forum at the Sta. Isabel College in Manila, where religious groups gathered to “draw parallels between Martial Law then and now.”
They were joined by students, clergy, lay, and families of victims of human rights abuses, including those of Duterte’s war against illegal drugs.
“We are living ‘dark days.’ Many Filipinos are feeling the shrinking democratic space as killings, militarization, and corruption expands. Evil is evil,” said Catholic nun Ma. Lisa Ruedas of the ecumenical group “One Faith. One Nation. One Voice.”
As of now, Mindanao remains under martial law rule while more soldiers have been deployed in the provinces of Bicol, Negros, and Samar per the Memorandum Order 32. These have resulted to rampant human rights violations.
Under such dire human rights situation, Ruedas said the Church, both clergy and lay, must “stand up for what is right” and “become light and hope for others.”
After the short program, participants marched to Rizal Park, where a bigger protest was organized to commemorate the martial law rule imposition.
Finding solace amid injustice
Without a doubt, Cuartero said he found solace in linking arms with church people and peace advocates even as the judicial process to attain justice for his son’s killing prove to be challenging.
He told Bulatlat that his family has yet to secure a copy of the investigation report of the Commission on Human Rights over his son’s killings.
This, he added, is one of the stumbling blocks in their search for justice as the CHR report can serve as basis for the charges they can file before an appropriate court and identify those behind the killing.
They are also having difficulties securing testimonies of witnesses.
“They are scared of repercussions,” he said, adding that even the CCTV footage of where the killing allegedly took place was already “unavailable.”
Tomorrow, Sept. 21, Cuartero will celebrate his 65th birthday with a pang of grief and longing for his son. But he remains hopeful knowing there are people out there to support him and their family in their quest for justice.