Saturday, January 30, 2010

Untold Stories Of Forced Disappearance In Bicol

Major Harold M Cabunoc (Inf) PA 
One pleasant afternoon on 26 January 2010, I was reviewing my routine paper works when our military phone line rang.

When I picked the phone, the soldier on the other line said, “Good afternoon sir! You have visitors from Albay. They are the relatives of a missing person.” This will be another special day for me, I said to myself. “Let them come to my office here in DPAO.” I told the caller.

Moments later, I heard some knocks in our main door. Raul, my office assistant greeted the visitors who showed up, guiding them directly towards our receiving area. I had for visitors; two of them are women.

As I approached them, I can see that they looked very tired. They must come from a long trip. As I approached them, I shook their hands one by one with my ready smile. “Welcome to the 9th Infantry Division, the home of your Philippine Army in Bicol Region”, I uttered my familiar phrases as I ushered them to our comfortable sofa.

“You must be the relative of that missing person. I heard about him from my superiors in Manila”, I said, as I signalled my soldier to prepare some refreshments for them.

“I am Major Harold, the Division Public Affairs Officer. I am ready to help you as long as I can.”, I told them with an assuring look. I was aware that they were frustrated, stressed and confused. “To ensure that I get all the details of this meeting, I am asking your permission to record all our discussions”, I explained. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Please introduce yourself”, I asked them. As they mentioned their names, I recorded the conversation using my digital voice recorder. Bob, my cameraman, was taking pictures as we talked.

“We have a very big problem and we are asking for your help.”, said Faustino, a middle aged man who looks like the eldest of the four siblings. “Our brother, Ananias Cardiente Jr is missing.”, he added. Another victim of this insurgency problem, I assumed. “Please give me the background and relevant details about your problem”, I told them. “Let me be the one to narrate the story to you”, the woman who identified herself as Imelda said.

That was the start of our 2-hour long conversation which I patiently facilitated.

“My brother went missing on January 15, 2010 at around 11: 00am. It happened a day after one of your soldiers was killed in an ambush in our baranggay in Taplacon.”, said Imelda. Something reminds me when I heard about the baranggay that she mentioned. This is where the gravesites of the victims of extra-judicial killings of the CPP-NPA-NDF are discovered in August-September last year. The late Pfc Michael Sarza was also killed there when they were ambushed by NPA rebels on January 14, 2010.

“I am listening, please continue.”, I replied. She told me that his brother tends their small farm in Bgy Taplacon. The farm is planted with coconuts and fruit trees most of which are the labor of love of his late father.

“A part of this farm is originally owned by a certain Mr Samson from Manila.”, Faustino declared. I asked them if they are tenants of Mr Samson. Faustino nodded in confirmation. “Did you ever have problems with the landlord regarding the sharing of the products or income from this land?”, I asked. “Not really.”, Faustino sighed and added that “We noticed some problems in the past when some group of people sent a letter to Mr Samson regarding their demand for “tax” collection”. Deep inside me I knew he was referring to the extortion demand of the CPP-NPA-NDF to the poor farmers in the countryside.

“Do you mean the CPP-NPA-NDF demands an amount from your farm product earnings?”, I asked Faustino. I can see that he was very hesitant. He cannot look straight into my eyes. He seemed to be hiding something. When I repeated my question, he said that the rebels were asking for money from them as “revolutionary tax”. “How much? How is it computed?”, I pressed for detailed answers. He cannot mention the exact amount because “it was only his brother who knew the correct figures”. “I am aware that this is happening in the remote baranggays. I am not blaming you. You are victims of these extortionists who are too lazy to work in the farmlands.”, I replied.

In our further exchange of information, he also confirmed that his brother is always demanded an amount every time their copra products are sold in the town of Camalig.I am not really surprised by this revelation. I know the CPP-NPA-NDF in Bicol strongly denies the existence of extortion despite the rising number of people who complained about this selfishness. This is what they call their noble cause. “Pinagkakikitaan na nila ang kanilang sinasabing ipinaglalaban.”, I told Faustino as I sighed in frustration. I pity my visitors. They are helpless against these bandits.

In trying to dig up for more details, I asked him about their possible “enemies”. Imelda the younger sister of Faustino, quickly replied: “Yes, one of our maternal uncles, Mr Artemio Moradillo, had been trying hard to claim our land, especially the portion which has many fruit trees.” She also mentioned about the heated altercation between his father and his uncle a few years ago. “Some of our neighbours are witnesses to this event. My uncle is indeed very greedy.”, she added. Based from her revelations, I have realized that they also have a perceived threat from among their family members. I also considered this as a possible angle behind the disappearance of “Dayo” (nickname of Ananias Jr).

“Now, please tell me the events that transpired leading to the disappearance of your brother Dayo”, I asked them. I was expecting the start of the sad story. I can see the tears that welled on their eyes. I know it is very painful to lose one’s dear brother. I have heard a similar story like this from Mrs Musa whose husband’s remains were unearthed in this same baranggay sometime in September 2009. Francisco Musa was a victim of the extra-judicial killing by the CPP-NPA-NDF.

Getting back to the story, I requested Imelda to continue with her detailed account about the alleged abduction.

I listened carefully as she shared her story.

It was a calm sunny day on 15 January 2010 when Florentina Aquino, Imelda’s aunt, met some strangers while on her way back to home from the town of Camalig. She was with Melvin Magdasoc, a 13-year old boy, during that time.
“They were wearing basketball jerseys and they carried heavy calibre rifles with them.”, Imelda narrated the revelation of her aunt. The heavily-armed men who introduced themselves as NPA rebels, were asking if the cigarettes she was bringing was for the Army soldiers. When she told them that the cigarettes were for his husband, the armed men searched her belongings. Finding nothing except receipts of her copra products, they left and proceeded towards the houses of their relative, Wilfredo Nidea.

Nidea was in his house when the armed men approached him. “Where does this trail leading to?”, asked one of the armed men. Nidea told him that the next house was owned by Vicente Moradillo. Hearing that, the man cautioned him saying, “Don’t go with us anymore. Stay in this place.”. Nidea saw that the armed men went straight to the house of Moradillo.

Seeing that some armed men were approaching his house, Moradillo met them outside his house. “We come to find Dayo. Do you know where he is?”, asked the leader of the group. “I think he is in his house now. I will fetch him.”, said Moradillo.

Manay, the mother of Dayo was preparing lunch when Vicente arrived. “I’m here to take Dayo to my house. We have some visitors waiting there.”, said Vicente. The mother asked Vicente if he knows the visitors. Learning that Vicente knows no one among the armed men, Dayo’s mother refused to tell him the whereabouts of his son.

Insisting to find for Dayo, Vicente roamed around the farm. He headed towards the rice paddies where Dayo was. Though frustrated to see that Moradillo found his son Dayo, Manay just let them go. She knows that Moradillo is a good man. She hopes that her son will come back in time for lunch.

That was the last time she saw her son.

Dayo never came back. Vicente was also missing. Manay couldn’t contain her sorrows. Dayo is the only son which remains in their farm to keep their livestock and small farm. He has plans to marry soon. That fateful day was the last time she saw her beloved son. Since then, she had been shedding tears as she prayed for his safety. She weeps every moment she remembers her son. She couldn’t accept that this is happening to him. Another sad story, I murmured to myself. Everytime I met people (family of soldiers or NPA rebels) who are victims of this conflict, I can’t help but sympathize with them. I also have a brother and a son. Personally, I don’t believe that killing people will end the problem about communist-terrorists in our country.

“Sir, please help us find our brother.”, Faustino said in between sobs. “I am sorry to say that I also suspect the CAFGU (paramilitary personnel) because they were there during that same period.”, he explained. “Let us be open-minded about this. This could also be the handiwork of the NPA bandits. They can always make it appear that the military is engaged in abuses like this.”, I told him.

I recounted how the CPP-NPA-NDF waged a murderous killing spree in CY 2009, victimizing not only AFP and PNP personnel, but also hapless civilians and even members of the communist organization themselves. Thirty-four of them were killed last year; and, the last one to be murdered was Private First Class Romeo Daza who was gunned down in the town of Pamplona, Camarines Sur. In many instances, Ka Greg Banares, the rebel group’s spokesman, boasted about their successful murders in the name of their “cause”.

To educate them about the deception techniques used by the CPP-NPA-NDF, I reminded them about an incident which transpired on 19 May 2009, when the Lubigan Junior CAFGU detachment was attacked by the NPA bandits. I presented them the facts which are verifiable by evidences. In that particular scenario, the bandits abducted five farmers along their route of withdrawal. They ordered the abductees to carry the wounded and the armaments which were taken away from the detachment which they overran. I told them that about 3-4 hours later, Karapatan Bicol, represented by Mr John Concepcion, accused the military of human rights violations by “abducting poor farmers in retaliation to the overrunning of the military detachment”. Then, by the stroke of luck, those fleeing bandits were encountered by government troops headed by 1LT Armando Bohol, resulting to the killing of some bandits and the recovery of high-powered firearms. The five abducted civilians were also able to escape when the rebels scampered in disarray.

Finding those civilians, the ABS-CBN Naga was able to interview them. “We were taken hostage by the CPP-NPA to carry their wounded comrades and their belongings.”, says one of the hostages. “This video footage taken by the media is my material evidence that the CPP-NPA-NDF is indeed very good at the art of deception.”, I clarified to Faustino and his siblings. “Please don’t come at a hasty conclusion that the military is behind this. Let us not be biased.”, I added.

Deep inside me, I am not convinced that the military is stupid enough to commit this atrocity. Gone are the days that the military is branded as “utak-pulbura”. We have more professional soldiers and leaders nowadays. I am very proud of this transformation in the military.
Analyzing the events that transpired that day, I couldn’t imagine that a soldier or CAFGU personnel is brave enough to show his face before committing a crime. I tend to believe that the uneducated bandit who is also deceived by their leaders, is probably behind this. I immediately rang the phone of LtCol Leo Cirunay, the Battalion Commander of the CAFGU. I told him the allegations against the CAFGU; I also narrated to him the background of the story and my analyses of the situation. “I will let them come to the CAFGU detachment in Camalig to show them our transparency. I will direct the Company Commander to gather all troops tomorrow at 9am.”, he confidently declared. Hearing that, I arranged a meeting with them in Camalig Municipal Police Station the very next day (January 28). I told them to accompany Mrs Florentina Aquino, the eyewitness who can pinpoint the perpetrators.

It was exactly 9:00am when I arrived in the police station to meet them. I brought with me one guy from the media to witness the event as well as three officers from the 22nd Infantry Battalion which is the supervisor of all CAFGU personnel in Bicol Region.

Thirty minutes later, we arrived Bgy Taladung after negotiating many potential ambush sites along the way. The Detachment Commander was well-prepared when we came. All CAFGU personnel were already present when we entered the camp. They were all unaware that I brought with me an eyewitness that could possibly pinpoint anyone who might have participated in the abduction of Cardiente. I directed the visitors to a small hut which serves as a receiving area. “Please play fair Aling Florentina”, I whispered to her ears. “Be sure about the identity of your suspect. I can compare this with the roster of troops which went out for patrol during that period.”, I reminded her.

Lt Ryan Braza introduced me to the CAFGU personnel. He told them that I was there to remind them about their election duties and how to avoid partisan politics. Delivering my “piece” was easy. Behind me, approximately ten meters, was Aling Florentina, analyzing the faces of each and every soldier and CAFGU personnel who were in formation in front of us. In fifteen minutes, my TIE (troop information and education) was finished. In one way or another, I also performed an important duty to our personnel. After all, their commanders are supposed to visit them regularly to disseminate some important directives from higher headquarters.

Getting back to my main task, I approached Aling Florentina and asked her if she had identified someone as among those armed men whom he met. “No one among them sir.”, she said. “Okay, to be fair, you must also consider appealing to the CPP-NPA-NDF to release your nephew.”, I said. I can see that all of them were frustrated. “I will personally request from the unit commanders to help in the investigation.”, I said.

As I headed back to my camp, I can’t help but think about Dayo. He became another victim of this unsettled insurgency problem. I prayed that all responsible leaders will be awakened about their shortcomings. Definitely, soldiers alone, cannot solve this problem. Personally, I want to be part of the solution. I prayed that there will be no more unwilling victims of this conflict-----no more Dayo, an innocent farmer, no more Ka Eli, the NPA medic ng masa; and no more Pfc Sarza who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

I will just do what I think is part of the solution. I always hope for the best to come.

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