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The stones cry out

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“Where are they?” That stark question, painted on top of the Redemptorist Church’s bulletin board, jolted people as they filed in for Sunday mass.

The wife and I studied the faded black-and-white photo of the smiling priest, on a motorcycle at the church’s bulletin board. Newer photos, some in color, were of even more youthful faces. “They’re younger than our children,” she noted.

The one-day exhibit marked the 25th anniversary exhibit of Redemptorist Fr. Rudy Romano’s abduction in Cebu. Other “disappeared” (desaparecidos) were also remembered: activist Jonas Burgos, Benedictine deacon Carlos Tayag, UP students Erlinda Capdapan, and Concepcion Empeno Levi Ybanez, among others.

Under Marcos’ dictatorship, the Philippines “became a gulag of safe houses”, Amnesty International noted. “Members of the Armed Forces…were responsible for acts of unusual brutality”. Over 35,000 men and women were savaged.

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Years after the dictatorship collapsed, vulnerable mothers of the disappeared still scour morgues, hospitals, prisons, looking for their children. Military camps stonewall with denials, despite the new writs of amparo and habeas data.

As always, “the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” the Czech writer Milan Kundera said.

“Partly hidden from view by dirt, clay pots, and ornamental plants, the marker in Cebu City reads: “Here marks the place where Fr. Rudy Romano, a Redemptorist father and human rights fighter, was abducted by armed men of the deposed Marcos regime on July 11, 1985.”

“The day the marker was installed, 6,000 watched the reenactment of the priest’s abduction,” Sun Star’s Lorenzo Ninal writes. “Occasionally, somebody stops by, says a short prayer, and drives on.” But most of the time, the place is where jeepneys stop to pick up passengers.”

Back in July 11,1985, a white Cortina sporting a government license plate, blocked Father Romano. Armed men on two other motorcycles swerved in. They bundled the priest inside the car and sped away.

There has been no trace of Father Romano since, like most other of the “disappeared”. None has been convicted. Filipino communists shrug aside pleas from relatives of victims in their pogroms.

What does this all mean?

“A nation in search of Father Rudy, is a nation in search of itself,” Mary Aileen Bacalso of the Asian Federation Against Disappearances wrote earlier. Over 1,716 similar cases, spanning five administrations…is a wounding reminder of our callousness.”

Yet, hope is resurging. At his first military command conference, President Aquino underscored respect for human rights.

“With the new Aquino administration, there’s fresh hope that justice will be served and truth will finally come out,” Fr. Ricky Acero said. There had to be “closure” for the Redemptorist community to move on in their work among the poor.

Forgiveness, however, does not extinguish accountability. “Men are unable to forgive what they can not punish,” Hannah Arendt stresses in her essay on Nazi terror.

Was Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez listening? She’s reeling from charges of misusing her office to shield former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and spouse against sleaze charges: from the ZTE broadband scandal, to rigged road construction bids. Early July, she absolved her patrons, plus 16 others in whistleblower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada’s abduction.

But listen to what UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Execution Philip Alston says: “The Ombudsman’s office… failed to act in any of the 44 complaints alleging extrajudicial executions attributed to State agents submitted from 2002 to 2006.”

“There is a passivity, bordering on an abdication of responsibility,” Alston added. “(It) affects the way in which key institutions and actors approach their responsibilities in relation to such human rights concerns…”

We do not have permanent memorials. Cambodia’s Choeung Ek contains the graves of 8,895 in what were once its killing fields. Yet, “nations are constructed on the basis of great rememberings and great forgettings,” Ernest Renan wrote.

The Redemptorists have forgiven Fr. Romano’s abductors. So has Edith Burgos, whose son Jonas is still missing.

“The weak can never forgive,” Asian statesman Mahatma Ghandi once said. “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong…(Even when violence appears) to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent…”

A culture of impunity — where traitor, abductor or torturer go free — does not emerge full-blown overnight. It builds up incrementally, stoked by official support, tolerance, and silence. “A man begins to die the moment he remains silent about things that matter,” Martin Luther King warned.

That’s precisely the point of Let the Stones Cry Out, published by the Protestant National Council of Churches here, this 83-page report documents 836 politically motivated killings since 2001.

We do not have permanent memorials. Yet, in a nation of deaf leaders, there are signs the new administration is aware that here, “the stones cry out”.

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