Now months after, I still wonder if he would have that look whenever he was in possession of one of his victims? Was the rage expressed in the torment his captives had to endure? I shiver and try not to let the tears fall. My son is a disappeared, but I fail. I heard the testimony of a victim of enforced disappearance who escaped. He summarized his experience in one sentence: "They were like crazed beasts. We were treated like animals." The tension was palpable. Conversations in hushed tones. Greetings were made with just a nod. The two mothers were trying their best to stay composed. At one point one mother whispered, "I am perspiring profusely. My blouse is already soaked." Then the other mother whispered, "I have butterflies in my stomach. My migraine is acting up." I was fondling the rosary beads in my pocket to keep my hands from shaking.
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I was seated beside Concepcion Empeno and Erlinda Cadapan, mothers of abducted university students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan, waiting for the ruling in the kidnapping and arbitrary detention case against Jovito Palparan
, a retired army general. Activists stage a protest outside the Supreme Court building in Manila in this 2011 file photo to call for the arrest of army Major General, Jovito Palparan, who was then in hiding. (Photo by Vincent Go)
We sat on the left side of the fourth row. The first row was the judge's, the second and third the lawyers'. To our right in the fourth row were uniformed men and plainclothes security people. Directly behind us were journalists and our friends from human rights groups. Palparan
was hidden from sight behind big uniformed men in a corner on the last row. Obviously some uniformed men were trying to recognize the faces of those inside the room. One particularly big army man with a protruding stomach kept passing in front of us, each time pausing to stare rudely. His pause, stare and his name (let us call him Santos) did not go unnoticed and one of the mothers whispered to me, "Look Mother Edith, he is provoking us." She was smiling but there was a nervousness in her tone. I slowly pulled my rosary out of my pocket and held on to the cross. The next time Santos passed, I lifted the cross in front of me and, as discreetly as I could, made the sign of the cross, as if to bless him (or exorcise him?). This time he didn't pause and just walked past us. I am not sure if it was the cross or the blessing, but I am sure he saw the sign of the cross. When our friends, relatives of disappeared victims at the back saw me pulling out my rosary, they took their rosaries out too. Later one of them told me that praying eased their tension. Then the clerk ordered all to stand, the judge walked in. The words came loud and clear: "Guilty beyond reasonable doubt," "Reclusion perpetua
." The verdict and sentencing was over in a few minutes. As if the heavens opened. As the American poet and Carmelite nun Jessica Powers
would have said, "... the wind came pouring through. A bird flew up exultantly out of my breast, it seemed. I knew its emptied nest in me." The room was electrified. I was aware that every fiber in my body was trembling, everyone in the room was moving, the media trying to get pictures, the soldiers tightening their circle around Palparan, the mothers and victims crying, hugging and praying, the lawyers trying to get a copy of the ruling, my daughter shielding me from the pushing crowd, other human rights defenders trying to get us out of harm's way. Then a voice cut across the room, trying to get everyone's attention. Even as the sentence was read the voice continued, louder and louder. "Judge, you are a coward! You be ready. You are stupid, judge. You are a stupid, senseless fool." I looked up and got a glimpse of who was shouting. His voice had the effect of sending chills down my spine. It was loud, intended to scare, but his eyes could not disguise the fear. I tremble as I recall the look of hate and fear. There was rage and so much anger. "Clouds gave a blue bold threat of wind frenzied with freedom; overhead, where the great dome of day inclined, a slow black terror spread," said Jessica Powers. The blue bold streak marked by the flight of the bird or a black mist spreading? When we are suddenly confronted with the real truth without warning, we react in the most authentic manner. With no time to put on our masks, our real selves are exposed. The mothers stood with dignity in spite of the pain. They could only utter prayers of thanks. But the guilty screamed out expletives, curses and threats, so unbecoming an officer. The truth is pronounced. "Guilty." The next logical step to being found guilty of kidnapping is to return the kidnapped. The question is: How does one return the stolen years, the stolen dreams, the stolen life? To this day, Sherlyn and Karen remain missing. The Supreme Court resolved that Jonas, my son, was taken by the military and ordered the Philippine army to return him. That was more than four years ago. Jonas is still missing. 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.