As International Human Rights day approaches once again we are reminded to remember. And remembering, to us families of victims of enforced disappearance, means recalling that we have failed in our search. The failure brings an intensified longing to end the uncertainty. The torment of not knowing is one of the most difficult miseries to experience. And yet, International Human Rights Day reminds us not to forget. This day, we give the disappeared the chance to be seen and heard.
If they were to “speak” to us, what would they say? If we were to “speak” to them, what would we say? Would these be messages of love or messages of agony seeking justice? If we were to speak for them we would have the license of candor.
I want to be as faithful to what Jonas Burgos, my stolen son, was and is now and speak the words in his heart. To do this, I must first acknowledge that he is not with me right now. To acknowledge that he is not with me is easy, but to acknowledge that he will never return is not. The uncertainty of what to think compounds the acceptance. Should it be to accept the reality that he could be gone, which brings about a feeling of giving up or abandoning the lost, a betrayal of trust? Or should it be to hope against hope that he will be returned or that he will find his way home?
One swings from a nagging dread of finding him dead, bones scattered in a shallow watery grave, or beneath raging waters of a river in the mountains with only his white t-shirt with St. Therese’s portrait to identify him, or to a distressing discovery that is he is alive but forever damaged from years of torture. The fear of finding him in a pitiful condition evoking a “panic” state is amplified by the thought of what this would trigger among his brothers.
Up till now, a knock on the gate at an unlikely hour, would elicit an impossible expectation that he could be the one knocking. And that I had to prepare his favorite dish. So there is still that small thread of hope.
It has been more than 15 years since Jonas was taken. To be in a suspended state of waiting 15 years is not easy. At every incident of the search, I would either feel a throbbing anxiety that starts in the heart and ends with a dry throat and trembling hands or have that numb sensation where even the heart does not feel. This happens as we are about to view a recovered heavily tortured victim’s remains.
Then a natural reaction of unbelief and anger that a human being could be so cruel as to subject a fellow human being to unimaginable tortures nags the conscience reminding me that I am Christ’s disciple and should never be condemning even towards someone such as the torturer.
It is exacted of this mother to maintain a calm demeanor fitting to the wife of a Press Freedom hero, to a mother of five, a grandmother to 10 and a daughter of the Church. I cannot even find relief in talking about these pains because verbalizing these terrors might crystalize thoughts into reality and the fact that a mother, a grandmother should not, should never be a bad example or a scandal to her children and grandchildren.
Preparing for Human Rights Day commemoration, we had to pause. How did we endure the 15 years of injustice?
One dominant reflection surfaces. That the strong bond of Jonas and his siblings has remained despite the years is affirmed. The truth is that the disappearance has even strengthened the bond. Many have observed a forged pact among his siblings and family, two sisters, two brothers, their partners, his wife, and their children who celebrate together, laugh together, grieve together, and cope together. Jonas’ physical absence does not mean he is deprived of participation. Always, one sibling or nephew or niece would bring up what he would have liked, what he would have given, what he would have eaten, what he would have said. Everybody remembers.
One objective of the perpetrators of enforced disappearance is for the left behind to forget about the stolen life of the disappeared. They will never accomplish this objective in this family. Each memory is precious treasure, guarded and remembered.
On this International Human Rights Day, we look to the persons of those who were disappeared. We celebrate their lives. We look at the person of Jonas, a happy, gregarious and thoughtful son, a responsible father and husband, a practical jokester to his friends, a surrogate father to other people’s children, a partner in crime to his brothers, teacher to his nieces and nephews, a farmer lover, and most of all an activist with a missionary spirit for the poor. And remembering, we pledge to emulate all that he was.
His memory will live on in the lives we live.
“Now that I am old, somebody else dresses and girds me and leads me to where I do not want to go” (John 21:18). If it is to continue to search then it shall be so. I hasten to “feed His sheep” among the families whose rights have been violated. Confident that I share in Christ’s prophetic mission by simply being Jonas’ mother amidst other mothers looking for their own, I acquiesce that “What did not lay in my plans lay in God’s plans.” (Edith Stein)
At the end of the 15 years I realize that we have fallen much too often, blundered and committed mistakes so many times simply because a mother, regardless of her limitations and deficiencies, cannot stop and give up especially if she is looking for a missing son. We still haven’t found our Jonases, and there are so many human rights abuses that we are confronted with, but this should only encourage us to place all in God’s hands. He will know what to do with our humanity and in His hands Jonas will be found.
On International Human Rights Day we remember that enforced disappearance is the most cruel among all human rights violations.
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.