45 years too long: Families of desaparecidos continue fight for justice

Bianca Dava, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 16 2022 06:30 PM | Updated as of Sep 16 2022 08:56 PM

Martial Law victim Louie Crismo, brother of desaparecido Romeo Crismo, during an interview with ABS-CBN News in Quezon City on September 13, 2022. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Martial Law victim Louie Crismo, brother of desaparecido Romeo Crismo, during an interview with ABS-CBN News in Quezon City on September 13, 2022. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Why was he abducted? Was he killed? Where is he now?

These questions linger in the mind of Jose Marie “Joey” Faustino, a long-time advocate of justice for desaparecidos and their families, and secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).

His brother, Gerry Faustino, was a 21-year-old graduating student from the University of the Philippines Los Banos when he was abducted in 1977.

“‘Yung brother ko, si Gerry Faustino, was a student of UPLB in the 70s. He was a graduating student of agricultural extension. Sa UPLB, he was active in the student Catholic action that was an organization of students. Dumating na lang ‘yung araw na hindi na siya nakabalik sa amin. Sa Los Banos siya and kami nakatira in Quezon City. He would go home weekly,” Faustino told ABS-CBN News.

“I remember during that weekend, and this was the weekend after we celebrated the birthday of my father. That was the last time na nakita namin siya,” he said.

Joey said his brother was a student activist, vocal in discussing the ills of society and introducing him to concepts such as fascism. Joey was only 13 at the time.

“He’d talk about fascism. Sabi ko, what do I care about fascism? Ako’y nasa elementarya, nanonood lang ako ng cartoons tuwing tanghalian,” he said.

The discovery of Gerry’s ransacked dorm room in UPLB led to his family’s frantic search for him. It was also then when they learned that nine other teachers and students from the university were also abducted during the same period. This was later on called “Southern Tagalog 10”, the single biggest case of involuntary disappearance during martial law.

“Nang hindi siya nakauwi, naalarm na ang parents ko so we checked UPLB, ang kanyang mga kaibigan at kaklase, and ang sabi nga ay hindi siya nakita at hindi siya nakabalik,” Joey recalled. “Pinuntahan namin ang dorm nila. My father found the dorm in shambles. Lahat nakabaligtad, nakahalungkat, pati ang typewriter niya sa room ay nilagyan ng tracing paper at shinade ng pencil para makita ano ang nakamark. Pati toothpaste niya nakapiga nang maayos. Apparently, may hinahanap na info. Hindi na namin siya nakita.”

The search for Gerry brought his family and the families of other missing individuals to two mass graves in Mauban, Quezon Province. There, soldiers had what they described as “young rebels” buried after being killed in a supposed encounter with authorities.

“Months later, nakabalita ang father ko na merong young rebels na na-encounter sa Southern Tagalog, in Quezon Province. Sabi ng father ko, ‘Hindi kaya may koneksyon sa pagkawala nila?’ Hindi lang kapatid ko ang nawala sa UPLB, 10 sila on the same period… Nang mabalitaan ng father ko ang news item, he went to JPE [Juan Ponce Enrile], who was then defense minister. Enrile was a batchmate [of my father] in UP Law. My father tells me na tinanong niya na nawawala ang aking anak, sagot daw sa kanya, ‘Aktibista ang anak mo, kaya malamang wala na iyan.’ So he asked na kung wala na, edi ituro niyo kung nasaan para pwede namin man lang mabigyan ng disenteng burial. Hindi naituro pero what the minister did was to allow us to exhume ‘yung reported sa news articles,” Joey detailed.

“We went over to Quezon, dumaan muna sa Camp Nakar, where all of the older people were interrogated. We came with 5 families. Lahat sila ininterrogate. I was very young at that time. Ayaw nga ako isama ng father ko. Baka raw hindi ko kayanin ang mararanasan ko. But then, feeling ko, kapatid ko iyon eh at gusto kong malaman ano ang nangyari. Sa interrogation, sabi ng father ko, pinakitaan sila ng mga litrato ng mga patay na bata pa, nakalagay sa carriage ng kalabaw at nakaalambre at ipinaparada sa communities sa Quezon. Hindi naman daw niya nakita ang kapatid ko doon,” Joey added. “After nun, with the military, sinamahan na kami sa Lucena Public Cemetery at itinuro sa amin ang bantay doon kung saan niya inilibing ang isang batch ng mga bata pa raw na napatay ng military.”

He then continued, “Unang hinukay ang pito—tatlong board lang ng kabaong at apat na katawan na nakapaligid sa tatlo pa. Gusto kong makita ‘yun kasi ang brother ko had a very unique, matulis na ngipin in front. I wanted to check ang dentures. Shocking lang kasi walang bungo na buo, lahat ng skulls ay durog. Hati ang pakiramdam ko noon. The other side of me says gusto ko nang makita ang denture para tapos na ang paghahanap; the other side of me naman was telling sana wala doon para buhay pa. Ganun ang pakiramdam ng hindi mo alam ano ang nangyari.”

In the end, they did not find Gerry in the mass grave.

For Joey, it was the loss of his brother that had opened his young mind to the horrors of martial law.

“It was quite difficult for a 13-year-old. Ang nagstrike sa akin, pag nag-usap kami ng brother ko noong nandiyan pa siya, kinukwestyon ko siya, ‘Bakit ang busy busy mo sa university, pero ang pamilya natin is not in good shape. Why don’t you give it time?’ Ang sagot niya sa akin, ‘Joey, pag tumanda ka, maiintindihan mo rin na hindi lamang tayo mga anak ng ating magulang; anak din tayo ng ating lipunan, so you’d understand kung ano ang ginagawa ko,’” Joey said.

“When I was right there in the grave na hinukay, wow, I knew what fascism was like,” he added, remembering what his older brother had taught him about fascism. “Durog lahat ng skulls. Died due to multiple gunshot wounds. Binibilang ko ang multiple na ‘yun. Pinakamababa na siyam with one body from the ankle to the temple. Paano nangyayari ang ganun? These people must have been tortured bago sila pinatay at nilibing for no one to see. I am afraid at that time na dinaanan din iyon ng kapatid ko.”

Joey’s mother and father have passed on. Like his parents, at the very least, all he wants is to give his only brother a decent burial—if he is indeed dead—for closure.

“Lumipas na ang aking father at mother, wala kaming nakita, hindi na namin siya nalocate. Sumali na kami sa organizations na ganun ang karanasan para magsama-sama sa laban na ito. ‘Yung ganitong klaseng pangyayari, you’ll carry it for a lifetime. Walang pagkakataong isara ang sugat na idinulot ng ganitong pangyayari. Hindi dapat nangyayari ito kahit kanino at ano pa ang condition. Ito ay pahirap, hindi lang sa biktima, kundi sa pamilyang iniwan,” he said.

NO END TO SEARCHING

Church youth leader Romeo Crismo was the eldest among seven siblings. His family lived in Quirino Province.

At a young age, he became heavily involved in ecumenical organizations, including the National United Methodist Youth Fellowship of the Philippines and the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines.

“Noong nasa Manila siya, aktibista talaga siya at involved sa pag-oorganisa ng mga kabataan, particularly sa mga kabataang simbahan, the church youth, kung saan siya ay involved kasi siya ay officer ng United Methodist Youth Fellowship of the Philippines. Officer din siya ng Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, na at that time, isang progresibong organisasyon. Involved siya sa pag-organize ng young people, making them aware of social issues and urging them to take actions sa mga nangyayari,” Louie Crismo, Romeo’s brother, said.

In 1977, Romeo became a certified public accountant and went on to work for the government. Even then, he was already critical of the Marcos dictatorship.

Romeo moved to Tuguegarao City in 1980, where he taught accountancy classes at the St. Louis College.

“Pumasok muna siya sa gobyerno, sa Department of Local Government and Community Development, Commission on Audit, at nagturo siya ng accounting subject. CPA siya. Noong nasa school siya, involved pa rin siya sa faculty union,” Louie recalled.

But just months after moving to Cagayan, Romeo was abducted by suspected members of the military on August 12, 1980.

Romeo, then 24 years old, was last seen by his students just outside the campus. It was later found out that some students saw men in plainclothes forcibly taking Romeo inside a car.

“Ito ay nangyari sa St. Louis College, ngayon ay St. Louis University, habang papasok siya ng gate dahil siya ay may klase ng hapon, around 6. Mga 5:30 nakita na siya sa gate. Habang papasok siya ng gate, kumakaway pa siya, kinakawayan din siya ng mga estudyante niya sa veranda ng building. Pagkatapos makita ng mga estudyante ‘yun, pumasok na sila sa kanilang classroom, kaya lang, after a few minutes, hindi naman siya dumating sa classroom… ‘Yun ang huling balita at huling pagkakita ng mga estudyante sa kanya,” Louie told ABS-CBN News. “It turned out later, mayroong balita na may apat na estudyante na nakakita ng pagdukot. Dinukot siya at isinakay sa isang sasakyan ng mga naka-plainclothes. Ang mga estudyanteng iyon, noong una narireach pa namin, kaya lang later on, hindi na rin sila maabot. Siguro natakot.”

“1980, kasagsagan ng mga protest actions laban sa Education Act at iba pang isyu tungkol sa welfare and rights ng mga estudyante. So, ang kanyang involvement na iyon, iyon ang inaakala naming dahilan,” he added.

What followed were years of endless searching.

Romeo’s wife, Phebe, visited military camps in Cagayan and Isabela every single day in the months following his disappearance but all yielded nothing.

Louie shared that their mother often went out of the house and walked aimlessly in the hopes of finding Romeo.

“Ang pinakamahirap noong una—unang weeks, unang taon and even a few years after. Naalala ko ‘yung kanyang asawa ay talagang naghanap. Sabi niya araw-araw siyang pumupunta sa mga kampo,” Louie said. “‘Yung mother ko naman, nung unang mga linggo at buwan, naglalakad lang siya nang hindi niya alam saan pupunta. Tapos sinusundan lang siya kasi baka hindi makauwi. Aimless ang kanyang paglakad.”

In one instance, the Crismo family received a lead that Romeo was allegedly buried in a university campus in Cagayan. However, the family had to drop the search because of a lack of details.

“Merong mga natatanggap pero unverified. Halimbawa, mayroong nagsasabi na nakita siya sa ganito, hindi verified information. Pero maraming efforts sa paghahanap talaga. ‘Yung father ko na hindi naniniwala sa mga medium na makausap [ang spirits], nagseek din siya ng help doon,” Louie said.

He went on, “Pagkatapos ng kanyang enforced disappearance, may kasamahan siya sa progressive movement na sinabi raw sa kanya ng isang military personnel na siya ay inilibing sa isang campus sa Cagayan. Minention ang Cagayan State University. Problema, wala namang detalye. Kung meron lang sana, ipupursue namin.”

Romeo’s father died in 1996 and his mother in 2015 without ever seeing their son again.

The pain of not knowing the fate of their loved one still feels fresh for Louie and his siblings.

“Sa aking mga kapatid, masakit pa rin hanggang ngayon, lalo sinasabi noong elections na hindi naman totoo ‘yang human rights, human rights violations [noong martial law]. Walang acknowledgement ng mga ginawa,” he said.

Even though their lives did not stop, Louie said there will always be something—or someone—missing.

“Natutunan kong tanggapin ang nangyari, pero gusto kong alalalahanin. Hindi ibig sabihin na pag tinanggap mong nangyari iyon, hindi mo na siya alalalahanin. Masakit pa nga pag sinasabing ang mga ito ay pasaway kaya sila winala at dinukot,” Louie said.

Romeo and Gerry are only two of the many who disappeared during martial law.

In 1985, nine families, including the Crismo family, created the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND), an organization that documents the cases of the disappeared and fights for justice.

Louie Crismo is currently the acting secretary-general of FIND.

ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCES ACROSS ADMINISTRATIONS

The Philippines has a long history of enforced or involuntary disappearances.

According to data from FIND, as of June 2022, there are 2,520 reported cases since the administration of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

Only 2,066 of these cases are documented. Out of this number, 1,163 remain missing; 627 surfaced alive, and; 276 were found dead.

The victims were usually activists and labor organizers—people who are regarded as “political dissenters.”

Of the reported cases, most were recorded during the Marcos Sr. regime with 1,022. The years 1983 to 1985 have the highest number of disappearances. This was the peak of the campaign against the Marcos dictatorship.

This is followed by the number of incidents reported from 1987 to 1989 under the administration of former president Corazon Aquino with 825.

FIND saw a decline in the number of missing persons during the administrations of former presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada with 80 and 64 cases, respectively.

Under the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, there were 353 victims as a result of her all-out war against communist insurgents and terrorists.

The group recorded 32 desaparecidos under former president Benigno Aquino III.

Meanwhile, 144 disappearances were reported during the term of former president Rodrigo Duterte. Most of the cases were alleged to be drug-related.

“Sa kabila na halos kalahati nito ay naganap sa panahon ng dating pangulong Marcos, mahalaga ring ilinaw na sa halos lahat ng administrasyon ay patuloy na naganap ang enforced disappearances,” said Melchor Cayabyab, training unit head of the Commission on Human Rights’ Education and Promotion Office.

For Crismo and Faustino, enforced disappearances still persist in the country as an administration’s way to instill fear or as perpetrators’ way to evade persecution.

“Nagpapatuloy ang enforced disappearances… Nagpapatuloy ‘yan habang itinuturing ng mga nasa awtoridad na ang dissent, protest o paglaban sa hindi makatarungang polisiya o pinaglalaban mo ang kapakanan ng naaapi, ang tingin nila diyan ay enemies of the State. Talagang gagawin sa iyo ‘yun kasi hindi naman ang demokrasya dito ay nadevelop kang maging free talaga na magsalita at magprotesta,” Crismo stressed.

He went on, “‘Yun ang paraan nila to stifle dissent. Enforced disappearances and iba pang human rights violations, ang purpose niyan is to stifle dissent. Silence the political opposition. Suppress resistance and sow fear and terror among the populace.”

“I think it’s the feeling of power. The crime of enforced disappearance is State-perpetrated. Para patahimikin ang sinumang kritiko o umaangal laban sa may hawak ng poder. It starts with a lot of human rights violations, tapos it leads to enforced disappearance pag itatago na nila ang ginawa nilang karumal-dumal,” added Faustino.

The prevailing climate of fear has likewise made it harder for groups like FIND to document and pursue the cases.

‘DESAPARECIDOS’ LAW NOT PROPERLY IMPLEMENTED

For 16 years, the families of victims of enforced disappearances have been lobbying for a ‘desaparecidos’ law.

When former president Benigno Aquino III signed into law the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012, they saw a glimmer of hope in their quest for justice.

Republic Act 10353—the first of its kind in Asia—makes the crime of enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment.

The law states that a crime of enforced disappearance is considered committed if (1) a victim is deprived of liberty via an arrest, detention or abduction; (2) the perpetrators are state agents or working with the “authorization, support or acquiescence” of the State, and; (3) there is a conscious effort to conceal information on the whereabouts of the disappeared person.

It also ensures the absolute right of any person deprived of liberty “to have immediate access to any form of communication available in order to inform his or her family, relative, friend, lawyer or any human rights organization on his or her whereabouts and condition.”

However, ten years since its passage, the landmark law has yet to achieve its full potential, said the Commission on Human Rights. So far, no one has been meted life imprisonment and cases rarely progress.

Cayabyab pointed out that the lack of proper understanding of the concept of human rights hinders the proper implementation of the law.

“Totoong hindi pa ganap na nayayakap ng duty-bearers, particularly ng mga nasa gobyerno, ang buong konsepto ng human rights at pagiging non-derogable ng enforced disappearance. Sa kabila na mayroon nang batas, sa totoo lang, wala tayong napapanagot eh. Nananatili ang kultura ng impunidad, ang culture of impunity, sa usapin ng enforced disappearances. 2012 pa ang batas, walang napanagot o naparusahan ni isa ng habambuhay na pagkakakulong,” Cayabyab said.

“It was only in 2012… na nagkaroon ng batas na ginagawang krimen ang enforced disappearance. Now, it’s 2022, 10 years after, wala kaming ni isang kaso na naramdaman na nagprosper dahil sa batas na ito. Maganda sana ang batas kasi una, it’s an admittance ng State na nangyayari ito at nagagawa ito ng agents of the State, then the law states this is a continuing offense, lalo na sa mga still disappeared,” Faustino, for his part, added. “Ang pinakamalaking bagay, the State recognizes na hindi dapat nangyayari ito at hindi dapat pinababayaan. Pero sampung taon ang nakalipas, ang nakikita pa rin namin ay impunity, wala pa ring napaparusahan.”

Among the agencies tapped as implementers of the law, the CHR is responsible for the investigation of enforced disappearance cases. Aside from pursuing their own cases, many families of victims also work with the CHR.

“Hindi ko masasabi kung ilang kaso na ang idinulog sa CHR, pero meron—maging sa region man ‘yan o dito sa central office,” FIND’s Crismo noted. “Usually, pupunta kami diyan kapag may mga immediate na pangangailangan ng investigation. Halimbawa, may dinukot ngayon. Nagpapatulong ang pamilya. Una, lalapit sila sa FIND. I-eendorse namin sa FIND para makatulong ang CHR. Sa imbestigasyon, sumasama na rin ang FIND, lalo pag search sa loob ng mga kampo. Mas maganda kung may kasamang CHR kasi mandato nila iyan.”

“Ang pangunahing responsibility namin ay ang magsagawa ng investigation. ‘Yun ang main task namin, tapos tumulong sa pagsasampa ng kaso. Hanggang doon lang kasi wala kaming kapangyarihang magprosecute,” Cayabyab added.

The human rights official said, funding for the implementation of the law is also a problem.

“Lumalabas na funded lang ito noong mga unang yugto. Isang problema ay ang kawalan ng pondo para sa proper implementation nito,” he said.

RA 10353 also provides restitution and compensation to the victims and their families, as well as rehabilitation services.

Under the law, various agencies, including the Department of Social Welfare and Development, can assist the victims and their families in the form of psychosocial support. The carrying out of these, however, remains a challenge due to budget issues.

“To the credit of the DSWD, of all the implementing agencies na kaugnay ng implementation ng law, siya lang may report. Meron kasi silang Paghilom Project, addressing ang pangangailangang rehabilitation ng mga victims ng enforced disappearance at torture. Separate dapat iyon eh, kaya lang pinilit nilang pagsamahin iyon. Sabi nga namin sa kanila, dapat hiwalay’ yun kasi iba ang pangangailangan ng mga pamilya ng disappearance,” Crismo said. “Tumakbo nang tumakbo ang Paghilom, nasa stage siya ng piloting sa ilang regions, pero hanggang piloting lang. Hindi ko lang alam kung may funding ba.”

SIGN ICPPED FOR MORE OPTIONS

The CHR and families of victims are urging the government to accede to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), a United Nations instrument that states that there is no situation or circumstance that justifies the forced disappearance of an individual, not even in times of war or public emergency.

According to the United Nations Treaty Collection, 98 countries have signed the treaty, of which 68 have ratified it so far. The Philippines has neither signed or ratified it.

“Mahalaga rin kasi sa pagpapatupad nito ay may, hindi lang sa Pilipinas, kundi mahalagang may tulak din ang international community para masigurong mawala ang enforced disappearances sa bansa. Malaking bahagi sana kung state-party ang Pilipinas sa International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Hindi pa rin tayo state party sa ngayon sa kabila na mayroong batas na domestic law na counterpart mismo ng International Convention na ito,” Cayabyab said.

He believes, should the Philippines become a state-party to the treaty, families of victims will have another option to report their cases of enforced disappearances. This will also put pressure on the Philippine government to act on the cases.

“Hindi tayo state-party kasi nauna ang domestic law. Sabi noong panahon ng DFA [under PNoy], hindi na kailangan kasi mayroon na tayong batas. Pero, sa tingin namin, mayroong kulang doon. Una, walang pressure na nanggagaling sa international community. Second, dahil walang pressure sa UN, hindi obligado magreport ang gobyerno kung ano ang kanyang ginagawa, so lalabas, pag ganyan ang sitwasyon, ang mismong pagpapatupad ng batas ay nakadepende kung sino ang lider at ano ang priority ng lider,” Cayabyab explained. “Pero pag state-party ang Pilipinas sa isang international treaty, obligado itong ipatupad ang batas regardless sino ang presidente at administrasyon. Mahalaga rin ito sa mga pamilya ng enforced disappearance dahil pwede nilang iakyat sa UN ang kaso nila, sa UN mechanisms and procedures na hindi rin nagagawa kasi nga hindi tayo state-party.”

“Political will. Ang problema kasi, kung hindi ka state party, walang tutulak sa’yo ng international obligation,” he said.

CONTINUED FIGHT FOR JUSTICE UNDER ANOTHER MARCOS

It has been 45 years since Gerry Faustino disappeared and 42 years since Romeo Crismo was abducted, and life has been nothing but cruel for the families with the Marcoses back in power.

But Joey and Louie use the pain and grief to continue calling for justice, not just for them, but for other desaparecidos and their families.

Their challenge to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.: to stop historical distortion, reveal the truth behind all enforced disappearances, and end impunity and injustice.

“There’s great apprehension kung ano ang mangyayari sa files na hawak ng gobyerno dahil nagpapakalat ng kasinungalingan, hindi man sila, pero ang kampo nila. Absolute power corrupts itself. If you don’t have checks and balances, ‘yun ‘yun. Another apprehension is kikitid pa ulit. Kaming mga gustong magsalita tungkol sa katotohanan noong Batas Militar ay sisikilin ba sa panahong ito? But we will continue hangga’t hindi natitigil ang sapilitang pagwala. Alam namin ang sakit at hirap, at hindi pwede na magtuluy-tuloy ito hanggang sa mga susunod na henerasyon,” Faustino said.

“Mahalaga na kailangang patunayan ng gobyerno na seryoso siya doon sa pagpapanagot ng mga perpetrator. Mahirap na kapag may kultura ng impunidad at kawalan ng pananagutan ng perpetrators, lalabas na paulit-ulit lang ang paggawa ng ganito,” CHR’s Cayabyab noted. “Lagi kaming hopeful. Nagsabi naman ang kasalukyang administrasyon na magbibigay ng paggalang sila sa karapatang pantao. Hopeful naman kami sa ganoong bagay. Pero ang panawagan: Kailangan patuloy na magbantay at mag-advocate ng usapin ng karapatan laban sa enforced disappearances.”

The families acknowledge the pain in recalling the disappearance of their loved ones, but said it is important to keep on telling their stories to the next generation.

They urge Filipinos, especially the youth, to reject any effort to forget what happened during the country’s darkest period, and not to bury the memories and sacrifices of those who were killed and tortured and are still missing.

“Mahalaga ang pagkukwento. Hindi naman natin alam ang kwento ng Katipunan at mga guerrilla noong unang panahon kung walang nagkwentong mga lolo at lola. Ako marami akong natutunan sa mga kwento ng panahon ng Hapon doon sa aking lolo at aking tatay. Experience nila ‘yan eh. Ganito rin kahalaga ito kasi history ito at may saysay sa ating buhay, kaya kailangan talagang kahit masakit ikwento ay kailangan pa ring magkwento nang magkwento. Kung hindi tayo magkukwento, ang nakakatakot diyan ay mawala na lang ito. Itong generation ng Martial Law activists, it’s a dying generation. Sila ang living witnesses ng atrocities at human rights violations noong panahon ng Martial Law. Eh paano kapag wala na sila?” said Crismo.

“Ako nagkukwento pa rin ako kasi gusto kong mapanatili at malaman ng mga tao, lalo ng kabataan, ang ganitong mga kwento in the face of this situation na mayroong historical distortion at binabalewala ang kasaysayan, binabaluktot ang kasaysayan.”

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