Filipino mothers search for their disappeared children

MANILA (Reuters) - A group of men, widely thought to be an army “black squad,” abducted Edita Burgos’s son while he ate lunch in a Manila shopping mall last year.

Protesters wearing masks of activist Jonas Burgos protest in a busy street in Manila August 6, 2007 to commemorate the 100th day of his abduction. Jonas, an activist, has been missing since April 2007 when a group of men, widely thought to be an army "black squad", allegedly abducted him from a shopping mall in Manila.Hundreds of activists have been shot dead or are suspected to have been abducted over the past seven years in what is viewed internationally as a "dirty war" by the army against groups it sees as fronts for a violent communist insurgency. Picture taken August 6, 2007. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/Files

More than a year after the event, many believe Jonas Burgos is dead. His mother has heard from her own sources that Jonas was badly tortured but she refuses to accept that her son is dead.

“It makes the search easier,” she explains.

Across the Philippines, other parents adopt a similar stoic approach.

Hundreds of activists have been shot dead or are suspected to have been abducted over the past seven years in what is viewed internationally as a “dirty war” by the army against groups it sees as fronts for a violent communist insurgency.

The number of killings, usually carried out during the day by masked men on motorbikes, has dropped since a United Nations report last year said the military was responsible for many of the shootings.

Amid conflicting reports, at least 33 people were allegedly victims of political killings in 2007, compared to at least 96 in 2006.

But the murders have continued and according to a local human rights organization, Karapatan, a further 13 have been killed this year and at least one activist was abducted.

Despite President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s assurances that her government would prosecute soldiers guilty of murder or abduction, no military personnel have been convicted and families of the disappeared have been given no help in finding their kin.


Erlinda Cadapan spends most of her time searching for her 31-year old daughter Sherlyn, who according to witnesses, was snatched around 2:00 a.m. from a house north of Manila where she was staying while doing research work on local farmers.

Sherlyn’s friend Karen Empeno was also taken. They have been missing for two years. Sherlyn, who was meant to get married on her mother’s birthday in September 2006, was reportedly two months pregnant when she was abducted.

“When I’m alone, at night, that’s when I cry. I think about how she’s doing now. What the perpetrators are doing to her,” says her mother, who wrote a letter to Arroyo asking for help but didn’t get a reply.

Cadapan fears that her daughter has miscarried and says that witnesses who have escaped detention have told her that Sherlyn, a former sprinter, has been beaten, electrocuted and denied food.

“It’s very painful to know that she is suffering at the hands of people who I expect to give protection to her and to us.”

Cadapan says her daughter was an activist, not a communist rebel, and should be given a chance to prove that.

“If they are suspicious of my daughter, why not bring it to court for due process?”

A military spokesman said the armed forces were taking steps to raise soldiers’ awareness about human rights and he denied the army had anything to do with the kidnapping of Burgos or Cadapan and Empeno.

“We’re not trying to hide something. We’ve opened up our camps and we’ve allowed some of our troops to testify in the courts and investigation bodies to shed light on these two controversial cases,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres.


Many of the victims of human rights abuses in the Philippines come from poor families who can ill afford to campaign for their release or travel the archipelago to identify unearthed corpses.

There is also the fear of retaliation

Siche Bustamante Gandinao, a member of a left-wing political party, was killed in March last year. The previous month, she had testified before the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings about the murder of her father-in-law, also an activist.

Edita Burgos says military agents followed her, her daughter and her son for a while after Jonas’s abduction. But the 64-year old grandmother is not afraid.

During the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown in 1986, Edita and her late husband, Joe, ran an anti-regime newspaper.

Joe, who was imprisoned for a week in 1982, died in 2003 but he is still revered as a hero of press freedom.

Today, Burgos runs the “Free Jonas Burgos Movement” from the same small office where she and her husband once worked.

Media awards line the shelves along with old clippings, including a headline from a pro-Marcos newspaper about Joe Burgos’s arrest that reads: “Burgos linked to terror plot.”

“It is ironic that the freedom that we fought for is the freedom that is being deprived for my son,” she said.


Like other relatives, Burgos is hoping the legal system can help her find her 38-year-old son, an agriculturalist who was an affiliate member of a farmers’ organization that the military has tagged an “enemy of the state.”

Last year, the Supreme Court granted magistrates broader powers to force the military to provide evidence and open up their camps to inspection in an effort to halt the killings.

A handful of people have been released from military custody following the Supreme Court’s move, including Ruel Munasque, an activist who was freed in November last year after two weeks.

But Munasque’s lawyer has not been able to contact his client this year and suspects he has gone underground.

“I tried to explain to him that he would not be killed by the military because he already has the protection of the writ of amparo (which holds public authorities more accountable to the people),” said Tirsendo Poloyapoy.

“He seemed not to understand, probably because he was suffering mental torture all the time when he was in the possession of the military.”

Burgos, a devout Catholic, relies on her faith to help her deal with what has happened.

“I’m not angry at those that tortured him and those that abducted him because they are just following orders. In fact, I pity them because they have allowed themselves to be used by the dark side.

“You do not torture a human being without being a devil yourself.”

Additional reporting by Manny Mogato; editing by Megan Goldin