In search of the Philippines' desaparecidos
One woman's story of life since her father's abduction
A year ago, someone posted a link on my Facebook page about a desaparecido – a victim of involuntary disappearance - in Guatemala. When his body was exhumed from a former military camp, he was identified by the scraps of Levi’s jeans he was wearing when he died, more than 20 years ago.
My father Leo Velasco is a desaparecido since 2007. It struck me that I should remember what he was wearing when he disappeared. But sadly, I didn't see him that day.
Fast forward to this July and the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace, in Manila. I was there to write an article about Samuel Villatoro, a conference delegate and the son of a desaparecido. As I was interviewing Samuel, who speaks only Spanish, he mentioned the word "Levi's." I pounced on it.
"Was that your father? The one wearing Levi's jeans? I read the article!" I told him. We had an interpreter with us, who was trying hard to keep up with my words as they tumbled out excitedly.
Samuel’s father, Amancio Samuel Villatoro, was abducted by the Guatemalan army during the civil war in 1983. His body was the first of many desaparecidos from that era to be identified and returned to his family.
Although they never knew each other, never even shared the same continent, there are so many links between the two men. They both belonged to movements that opposed the repressive systems in their own countries. Because of their political beliefs, they both became desaparecidos. And through all those years of searching, Villattoro’s family has suffered the same pain as mine and other families of the disappeared.
So meeting Samuel felt like meeting a brother. More than that, it felt like meeting a comrade.
As we said goodnight at the end of our chat I cried, giving our very gracious interpreter the emotionally draining task of translating my heartfelt words.
I cried because every time I meet someone like Samuel, or other families of desaparecidos or other victims of rights abuses, I am reminded that I still bear the same pain I had six years ago when Tatay, as I call my father, was abducted.
I cried out of anger toward the Philippine government, the Guatemalan government and all others who continue to commit this heinous crime.
I cannot deny I felt some jealousy that Samuel has been able to locate his father. But much more that, I have the utmost respect for him and his family.
The Villatoros could have chosen to live a quiet life after they found Amancio. It would have been enough for them to give him a proper burial and remember him with candles and flowers on All Saints Day. But they opted to speak out, to expose themselves to the public glare, just to give a ray of hope to someone like me.
At their behest, Amancio's remains are displayed in public for every Guatemalan to see.
Getting to know Samuel has only sharpened my yearning to find my Tatay. To forget those who disappeared is not only a betrayal but a surrender. To forget my Tatay is to let those who took him think they have succeeded in their evil intentions.
As long I have love for my Tatay, as long as I miss him, which I doubt will ever go away from a daughter's heart, I will be part of this struggle. Through this, I feel closer to him.
As Samuel says: “We just have to keep on looking."
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