A woman lights a candle to remember a missing loved one during a Day of Remembrance for victims of enforced disappearances in Manila in November 2018. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
Even in the most excruciating and treacherous situations, people do selflessly give of themselves. Isn’t this the most concrete proof that God is within us?
We will never be short of "living" heroes from whom we can draw inspiration especially from this kind of vocation to which we have dedicated our lives, fighting for a world without enforced disappearances.
If one is a victim of enforced disappearance, the first reaction is fear, paralysis, silence, or escape, which is very natural as survival and self-preservation are innate in every living thing. The second reaction, not so common, is courage and catalysis to action.
In my engagements with various victims and defenders of human rights, I have seen women, as ordinary as myself, who have transformed into defenders as a result of being victims.
Shui Meng Ng, wife of Sombath Somphone, a victim of enforced disappearance in Laos, is a retired UNICEF worker who devoted the best years of her life to helping children. Before the abduction, this gentle, kind-hearted and mild-mannered lady, lived quietly in retirement in Laos supporting her husband's projects.
Sombath, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee for community development was abducted on Dec. 15, 2012, in front of a police station in Laos.
More than six years later, Shui Meng's voice is heard in various international fora condemning enforced disappearance. She continues to live in Laos, in spite of her being a Singaporean, enduring the unspoken threats from an unfriendly government, holding on to the hope that Sombath would be returned to her.
Asked if she was afraid, she responded: "What else can they do to me? They already took the one thing that really mattered. That is the worst thing that they can do, the worst thing that they already did."
Shui Meng would not have been as courageous as she is now, to speak the truth in a country where freedom of speech banned if Sombath were not taken from her. This courage is now a voice for the voiceless victims of enforced disappearances in Asia.
We heed Martin Luther King: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."
Ding Zilin of China like Shui Meng, is a voice born out of oppression.
Amidst the communist Chinese government's muzzling of the voices of its people, the Tiananmen Mothers group was born, led by Ding Zilin, a retired university professor whose teenage son was shot and killed by government troops during the June 4, 1989, massacre.
You can imagine the rage within as Ding watched in horror as her son was beaten by the police, stripped, then pushed into a van and taken away. Nature has created a mother to protect her young but she could not help and protect her son.
For Ding, a mother’s grief was transformed into courage and now expresses itself in her advocacy and activism.
Her voice rings out loud: "I cannot turn a blind eye to those who suffer my same fate. As a group, they have been forgotten and forsaken by society. I made a firm decision in my mission of locating and helping June Fourth families until the government itself takes up this project and there is no longer any need for our efforts."
Starting as a one-woman effort, the Tiananmen Mother's group now counts relatives of 125 victims killed in the 1989 massacre as members.
Ding's public campaigning and petitions have earned for her, surveillance, harassment, occasional detention by authorities, expulsion from the party, and being forced into retirement along with her husband. She is now known as the "advocate for the dead."
Just as frail looking and refined and educated as Shui Meng and Ding, is Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand. Angkhana’s husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent human rights lawyer, then chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand, was disappeared at a time when he was representing five people accused of rebellion.
Somchai alleged that the confession of his clients was extracted from them while they were being tortured, thus turning the tables against the police. The next day, he was disappeared.
Before the abduction, Angkhana lived a quiet life as wife to her husband and mother of her five children. Now she is chairwoman of the Justice for Peace Foundation and Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
Recognized for advancing human rights, democracy and peace she was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. Threats to her life have not deterred her from helping young girls who were allegedly raped by soldiers and victims of forced child marriages and enforced disappearance.
Amina Masood Janjua, a painter and a poet, is now well known for her struggle against enforced disappearances in Pakistan. As chairwoman of rights group Defense of Human Rights — Pakistan she appears regularly on local and foreign media.
Before her husband was taken, she cherished her role as homemaker to her husband Masood Ahmed Janjua and their three children. Masood Ahmed, a successful businessman, was abducted on July 30, 2007. He was last seen by a fellow detainee in a "safe house" after the abduction.
In her search for Masood, Amina learned about countless people who were victims of enforced disappearance as well, but unlike her, were forced to remain silent for fear of repercussions from the military. This led her to co-found Defense of Human Rights along with other activists in Pakistan.
Today she fearlessly stands before courts and in public rallies defending fellow victims' families.
Shui Meng, Ding, Angkhana, and Amina have one thing in common. They are women whose grief were transformed into courage.
I wonder, does the government not realize that for every enforced disappearance victim, a hundred converts will take his place? My son Jonas was only one person but now after his abduction, the whole clan along with friends, numbering not less than 100, are "converts," active in various causes. The government and the military should realize that this is not the way to win the hearts of people.
We feel God's hand every time we witness how an injustice gives birth to a person who responds to other similar victims with compassion. There is something in a disappearance that spurs a victim not only to seek justice for herself or her loved one but sensitizes her to extend a helping hand to other victims.
Could be that this reflective understanding from Francis Thompson is so true. "I have searched for my soul, and I have not been able to see it. I have searched for my God, and he has escaped me. I have searched for my brother, and I have found all three."
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen, believed to be soldiers, abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.