It was the day before the first year anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance. Still, Erlinda Cadapan had not lost hope.
University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño and farmer Manuel Merino were abducted in Barangay San Miguel, Hagonoy, Bulacan June 26 last year by armed men believed to Army soldiers. Erlinda, Sherlyn’s mother, and Karen’s mother Connie sought the help of the human rights alliance Karapatan and they have been to various military and police camps in Bulacan. But their search yielded nothing as military and police officials denied any knowledge of the three’s whereabouts. The families of the UP students filed a writ of habeas corpus and were able to present a witness who testified that he saw the there in a military safehouse but still the three remain missing up to today.
But on this early morning of June 25, Erlinda was preparing again for another search, this time to Balanga, Bataan where Sherlyn was reportedly sighted. Accompanying Erlinda were Fr. Dionito Cabillas, IFI, of Karapatan, Desaparecidos spokesperson Ghay Portajada, Dr. Reggie Pamugas of the Health Alliance for Human Rights, Commission on Human Rights representative Dr. Jay Jimenez, some supporters and relatives of other desaparecidos, and this writer.
Karapatan’s sources reportedly saw Sherlyn being brought out of the Army camp in Balanga, Bataan December 2006 and being brought back in January 2007. Erlinda believes her daughter, who was two-months pregnant at the time of her abduction, probably gave birth between those days in December and January.
“Now it is not only my daughter who is being hostaged by the Army. Probably, my grandchild, too,” Erlinda quipped.
The first stop of the search team was at the office of Mayor Melanio Banzon Jr. of Balanga City, Bataan. High profile search cases usually began with courtesy calls to local government officials.
As it turned out, Mayor Banzon was out of town, but his assistant referred Erlinda to the local police who, in turn, accompanied the group to the Bataan Provincial Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in the city.
“You have to understand, the police protocol is different from the Army protocol,” explained Police Superintendent Mario Lopez Jr., the province’s deputy police director, after Erlinda asked if she could visit the camp of the 24th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army. “Even our officers here cannot just enter their camps. We have to get clearance from their higher ups.”
It was as if Lopez was complaining as he was trying to explain the situation to Erlinda. He had the rank equivalent to an Army colonel, but he still had to ask permission from the camp’s officer, a certain Lt. Garsuta.
Awkward but cordial
The group then proceeded to the 24th IB camp a few kilometers away from the PNP headquarters. Erlinda approached the soldiers guarding the camp. And to everyone’s surprise, the group was immediately ushered in. But we were led to a cottage in a remote corner of the camp, far from where the offices and troops – and probably detained activists – were.
The most senior officer present in the camp was Major Segundo Metran, who looked strangely familiar. He is executive officer (Ex-O) of the camp and second in command to Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado, who was away at the time. Metran was surprisingly cordial, though obviously uneasy at the fact that he had just let in a group his organization had resolutely called as “communists” and therefore “the enemy”.
“I may get in hot water for this,” said Metran. Erlinda, too, was uncharacteristically apologetic for the trouble the group may have caused the officers, yet proceeded to ask in a rather circumspect way if the soldiers had chanced upon her daughter. Metran launched into a lecture on why Karapatan had been “banned” in Army camps for “looking for people that are missing, those civilians fighting the government.”
Metran then waxed eloquent about his vision for the country, where “those advocating democracy” and “those pushing for communism” can mingle freely and people can freely choose which side they prefer. “If you like communism, then go with the communists. If you like democracy, then go with those preferring democracy. It should be simple as that,” he said, without the tinge of irony.
“I am a rebel, too,” Metran explained, because he went up against a military hospital which refused to admit his son who was sick and near death. He was close to filing a case against the hospital, he said, which would mean giving up his military career because in the military they are not allowed to complain.
Apparently trying to get the sympathy of the group, he said he was a rebel but he cannot go beyond the “rule of law”. He had to go by the process. He said he was first and foremost, a uniformed man, whose allegiance lies in his organization “all the way up to the President.”
This writer pointedly asked Metran, “Can you, sir, categorically say that Sherlyn Cadapan is not in this camp nor was she ever here?” To which he once again circumspectly answered, “We cannot say whether she was here or not…because my companions (in the Army) may get in trouble.”
Metran advised Erlinda to look for Sherlyn in Army camps whose troops operate in Bulacan, where her daughter and Karen and Manuel were abducted. “Try the 56th IB,” said Metran, again without the slightest hint of irony. Erlinda, of course, had been to the 56th IB camp, as she had been to every other camp in Bulacan for the past year. The 56th IB also gained notoriety for being accused of abducting Jonas Burgos last April 2007 when the license plate of the van which took Burgos was traced to a vehicle impounded by the said unit.
Visit to a relative
Before going back to Manila, the group decided to pass by Bulacan to talk with Sherlyn’s mother-in-law. Sherlyn’s mother-in-law, whose name was withheld upon her request, informed Erlinda that Sherlyn visited her just recently. But she said she was not able to talk with Sherlyn. Sherlyn, who was then escorted by two men and two stern-looking women, told her that she was there just to get some clothes. Before leaving, one of the men escorting Sherlyn told her, “Don’t involve yourself in this. It will only get you into trouble.”
Since then, Sherlyn’s mother-in-law got regular visits from soldiers asking about Sherlyn’s husband. Neighbors observed the regular presence of suspicious-looking men near her house. Sherlyn’ mother-in-law fears for her safety, but nevertheless told Erlinda about the incident. “It bothers my conscience,” she said. “But I also fear for myself and my family.” She gave a sworn statement to Karapatan but still fears to come out publicly about the incident.
“I understand, of course, why you have to do this,” Erlinda told her daughter’s mother-in-law. “But you have to take extra precautions because the military knows for sure that you are talking with us.”
Hope and transformation
Erlinda and the group left Bulacan with renewed hope of finding Sherlyn, Karen and Manuel. But for Erlinda, it has now become much more than just finding her daughter.
Throughout the past year, she had not only been to army and police camps. She has also been joining rallies and prayer vigils, speaking at forums, talking to reporters, politicians and anybody who cared to listen.
Erlinda had to learn to speak in public about her daughter. She also came to understand the human rights situation in the country. Her life changed almost overnight. From being a small entrepreneur in Los Baños, Erlinda became a speaker for the cause of the desaparecidos (the disappeared). Although she initially did these things as part of her efforts to look for her daughter, now she has come to embrace human rights advocacy.
“I never imagined that my life will turn out this way, but I am here. I will continue my search for Sherlyn,” she said.
She and Connnie, Karen’s mother, knew that their daughters were volunteers for the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (AMB, Alliance of Peasants in Bulacan). But they didn’t nor cared to know about their politics.
“While we were looking (for Sherlyn), I came to understand what activists are fighting for. They are not bad people. What they say are true and they do the work that the government fails to do in the countryside,” she explained. Bulatlat
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Also see this photo report by Arkibong Bayan: