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Philippines

Touching reunions and brutal deaths at Christmas

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, people from faraway places brave threats of all kinds to celebrate Christmas with their families

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Updated: December 24, 2020 04:38 AM GMT
Touching reunions and brutal deaths at Christmas

Mathieu and his mother Dona Rufina embrace during a sweet reunion after 35 years of separation. (Photo: Pro Búsqueda)

Advent, the time of expectant waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth, is drawing to a close. During these last four weeks, the wreaths and candles used as an integral part of our spiritual preparation for Christmas are visible in Catholic churches and online masses. 

These candles are meant to prepare our hearts for the birth of the Child Jesus. While the wreath, a circular garland with evergreen branches, signifies the continuity of life and God’s eternity, the colors of the four candles lit during each of the four Sundays of Advent have varying meanings.  

The Prophesy candle, colored purple, means prayer and penance. It symbolizes the hope that the birth of Christ has brought to humanity. The second candle, also purple, called the Bethlehem candle, signifies faith, a recollection of Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey to Bethlehem. The third, called the Shepherd’s candle, is colored pink, symbolizing the immense joy that the nativity brings to humanity. The fourth, called the Angel’s candle, again purple, conveys the angel’s message of peace.  Finally, on Christmas Day, the white candle in the middle, symbolizing purity, is the candle of our Savior, the center of the Christmas celebration. 

As humanity commemorates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, family reunions are most awaited. 

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, when people’s movement from one place to another poses risks infection, especially in huge crowds during holidays, people from faraway places brave threats of all kinds, including the wrath of nature signaled by typhoons, flooding, earthquakes and other disasters, in order to celebrate Christmas with their families. 

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In our present world, the most awaited celebration of the birth of our Lord in a manger in Bethlehem that is associated with bright multicolored lights, Christmas trees, Christmas carols, fancy gifts, delicious food and many other wonderful things.  But the pandemic has made this Christmas very different from previous celebrations due to the difficulties, the suffering and deaths that it continues to bring to humanity.

The most precious of Christmas gifts for families of victims of enforced disappearance is the long-cherished dream for the reunification of long-lost disappeared loved ones with their biological parents. In more than three decades of work with families of the disappeared in my country the Philippines, in Asia and in the rest of the world, I am fortunate to have met many of them. 

In 1999, a mother I met in El Salvador’s war-torn village of Guarjilla, Chalatenango, shared that while excruciatingly pained to witness her child snatched and transported by a helicopter to an unknown place, many years later, with the assistance of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos, she was so overwhelmed with joy that she felt like she was floating on a cloud when reunited with her long-lost child. 

Two weeks before Christmas, in the same Central American country of El Salvador, ravaged by a civil war that occurred from 1980-92, Mathieu, separated from his mother in 1985 and sold for adoption to a family in France who had no knowledge of the situation, had a beautiful reunion with his mother, Dona Rufina. With the help of Pro-Búsqueda, Mathieu’s case is now the 443rd resolved case of disappeared children in El Salvador. 

A couple of months earlier, on Oct. 3, in El Salvador’s neighbor Guatemala, after years of tireless efforts, the Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental conducted its 509th reunification when Pedro Bac and his younger brother Roberto were reunified after 28 years of forced separation caused by an army operation in Sta. Inez, Chicar, San Cristobal Verapaz, Alta Verapaz.

The 510th reunification followed on Oct. 15. Before the armed conflict saw its hardest years, Don Melesio, father of Timoteo, decided to migrate to the south coast in search for better opportunities. Yet the war in Guatemala prompted Don Melesio to get involved in the revolutionary movement –- a situation that caused their separation for almost three decades. Don Melesio never had the opportunity to return to San Martin Jilotepeque where the armed conflict resulted in innumerable deaths and disappearances. With the help of the Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental, Don Melesio and his 94-year old brother, Don Cecilio, together with many other relatives, embraced Timoteo with overwhelming happiness.

Sadly, however, in my own country, the Philippines, this last narrative is in stark contrast to the beautiful stories of reunification in these two Central American countries. Barely four days before Christmas, little did this ordinary family know that while the Filipino people were anticipating a happy Christmas despite the pandemic, that fateful day would bring the tragic end of a mother and son -- killed in broad daylight by an angry policeman in front of their neighbors in Tarlac.

About one foot away from the mother and her son, the policeman, Jonel Nuezca, said that he would finish them off, and without batting an eyelid instantly killed the white-haired woman hugging her son. Barely a second after the mother fell, the policeman also killed the son.

I have no words to describe this atrocity committed in front of the policeman’s 12-year-old daughter and their neighbors.  No situation whatsoever can justify such a heinous killing. Lamentable it is that 52-year-old Sonya Gregorio, hugging her 25-year-old son, Frank Anthony Gregorio, whose one-year-old daughter is waiting for his return on Christmas Day, will never ever make it to the much-awaited birth of Christ.

As the birth of our Lord is near at hand, in these difficult times, together let us imbibe the true spirit of the nativity manifested in humility, love, compassion, truth, justice and inner joy. In the words of Pope Paul VI: "We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice."

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

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