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New year brings rays of hope for families of disappeared

On the brink of despair, humanity must be convinced that losing hope is a blunder

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Published: January 01, 2021 03:47 AM GMT
New year brings rays of hope for families of disappeared

Vendors wearing face masks amid concerns about Covid-19 sit near a bucket for donations on Christmas Eve in Manila. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)

The year 2020 ended with humankind on bended knees in supplication for the long-awaited end of the coronavirus that continues to plague the world.

The official number of deaths worldwide had reached 1,824,716 at the end of the year. The number of spouses widowed, children orphaned, companies closed and jobs lost demonstrates the enormity of human suffering.

Aside from cold statistics, the devastation signifies the excruciating pain suffered by Covid-19 patients; the torment of dying alone, almost without the presence of loved ones during cremation; the shock of sudden loss of lives; the pangs of hunger caused by joblessness and worsened by natural calamities; the intensification of pandemic-related human rights violations; the pain of separation between and among family members; and the absence of clear government responses.

In every nook and cranny of the world, devastation is expressed in varying forms and degrees. The pandemic has made the disparity between the rich and the poor more pronounced. The “wretched of the earth,” who have less or almost nothing in life, bear the brunt of its destructive consequences, not to mention their vulnerability to human rights violations. 

In the Philippines, these are manifested, among many forms, in the red-tagging and indiscriminate killings of human rights defenders reaching its peak, thus inviting international scrutiny before the community of nations. 

Even as Christmas Day was approaching, a policeman killed a mother and a son in front of their house in broad daylight while his daughter and neighbors were watching. With the head of state encouraging violence in the name of his war on drugs, and assuring protection to the violators, callousness and apathy among many supposed civil servants are the order of the day. 

Humanity does not and will never miss the year 2020.

Former Akbayan party-list representative Walden Bello described 2020 as the year science fiction became a reality. 

“The year a virus brought humanity to its knees, like the bacteria did to the Martians in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. This year brought us back to our beginnings as a species, when we looked at nature with fear, respect and wonder, and sought to live with her as a partner instead of approaching her as an object to be dominated and abused. Covid-19 is nature’s way of restoring the Grand Equilibrium, which she has to do occasionally when one of her elements goes haywire with hubris and thinks he is the master of the universe,” Bello wrote.

As 2021 ushers in some rays of hope, physically distant from families of the disappeared, with whom I have been dedicating more than three decades of my life with, I think of their situation and of the continuing imperative to erase this malady from the face of the earth.

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In its slogan during the pandemic, the Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental, which facilitated 510 cases of reunifications of children (who disappeared during the 35 years of Guatemalan civil war) with their biological families, declares: “Covid-19 won’t last for a lifetime, but the search for the disappeared will.”

Adopted by the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED), which is mandated to campaign for the universal ratification and implementation of the treaty against enforced disappearances, the same slogan remains relevant at the beginning of 2021 even as the pandemic continues to afflict humankind.

While the pre-pandemic period already saw the battered lives of families of the disappeared, the pandemic has brought further hardship to their situation. Already economically dislocated due to the disappearance of breadwinners, many victims who rely on meager or irregular income have a hand-to-mouth existence. 

Emotionally shattered by their loved ones’ disappearance, they could not help but worry about their disappeared loved ones’ predicament in these extremely difficult times. Wherever the disappeared loved ones may be, are they fed?  If detained, is their social distancing among inmates?  Are they not infected with the virus?  If ill, are they provided proper medication? These are some questions without answers haunting families of the disappeared with each passing day. The mental torture is unbearably distressing. Owing to the social, economic and psychological impact of the disappearance, their empowerment is all the more imperative as we enter 2021.

After the long darkness, when will we ever see the light?

Requested to give a hopeful note for the New Year, Horacio Ravenna, Latin American member of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, had this to say: “The horror of disappearance is the permanent anguish of why, how, where. It is brought about by the impossibility of mourning for an indefinite absence. Families of victims must struggle for life. The clamor to surface the victims is a legitimate claim, which in itself is a source of hope.”

Erlinda Timbreza, the wife of a disappeared Filipino and former secretary-general of the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND), clings to God as her anchor. “No matter what happened in 2020, God was always there, always is and always will be. His presence is never-ending even before we ask for it.” Her source of hope for 2021 is her and her sons’ belief in “the tremendous love of God.”

Amina Masood from Pakistan, the wife of a disappeared and chairperson of the Defense of Human Rights (DHR), said the sources of hope are many. Believing that 2021 will manifest kindness to families of the disappeared, she leaned on best practices such as road protests and social media campaigns. In 2020, DHR uploaded many case profiles with videos, which were greatly appreciated and covered by the mainstream media.

She counted on the achievements of the release of 12 disappeared persons in 2020 due to DHR’s organizational pressure. Amina believes that “for as long as the public and civil society vibrantly play their role of standing up with the victims of enforced disappearance, hope is present.”

In distant Argentina, Ma. Adela Antokoletz of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Linea Fundadora was thankful that her colleagues are being protected by their young followers during the pandemic.  However, she lamented that in 2020 there was the need to search for new desaparecidos because the security forces remain repressive. 

Ma. Adela looks forward to the commitment of some democratic Latin American governments to human rights. She likewise anticipated the strengthening of the ICAED and her regional organization, the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM), which will launch campaigns for the universal ratification of the treaty against enforced disappearances.

As we say goodbye to 2020 and welcome 2021 with faith and hope, let us ponder on Pope Francis’ 2020 Easter message: “Indifference, self-centeredness, division and forgetfulness are not words we want to hear at this time. We want to ban these words forever … May Christ, who has already defeated death and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, dispel the darkness of our suffering humanity and lead us into the light of his glorious day, a day that knows no end.”

The reality of the Resurrection proclaims that on the brink of despair, humanity must be convinced that losing hope is a blunder. Hope springs eternal.

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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