Human Rights

Erlinda’s Odyssey

It was the day before the first year anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance. Still, Erlinda Cadapan had not lost hope. Throughout the past year, she had been through hell and back, looking for her Sherlyn in army and police camps, joining mass rallies and prayer vigils, speaking at forums, talking to reporters, politicians and anybody who cared to listen.

“I never imagined that my life will turn out this way, but I am here. I will continue my search for Sherlyn,” she said.

When Sherlyn, fellow UP student Karen Empeno and farmer Manuel Merino disappeared on June 26, 2006, Erlinda, together with Karen’s mother Connie Empeño, sought Karapatan’s help. Both mothers knew of their daughters’ activism – as volunteers for Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (AMB) – but had little knowledge of their politics.

Immediately, Erlinda had to learn to speak publicly about her daughter. She also had to learn about the human rights situation in the country. Overnight, from being a small entrepreneur in Los Baños, Erlinda became a speaker for the cause of desaparecidos. And though she initially did it to look for her daughter, now she has come embrace human rights advocacy.

“While we were looking (for Sherlyn), I came to understand what the activists are fighting for. They are not bad people. What they say are true and they do work that the government fails to do in the countryside,” she explained.

Early in the morning of June 25th, she was off to Balanga City, Bataan to once more look for Sherlyn. With her were Karapatan officer Fr. Dionito Cabillas, IFI, Desaparecidos spokesperson Ghay Portajada, Health Action for Human Rights’ Dr. Reggie Pamugas, Commission on Human Rights representative Dr. Jay Jimenez, some supporters and relatives of other desaparecidos, and this writer.

Erlinda had strong reason to be in Balanga. Trusted sources saw Sherlyn exiting a Philippine Army camp in the city in December 2006 and entering it in January 2007. She was said to be two months pregnant at the time of her abduction. Erlinda believes her daughter probably already have given birth between December and January.

“Now it is not only my daughter who is hostaged by the Army. Probably, my grandchild, too,” Erlinda quipped.

The office of Balanga’s city mayor, Melanio Banzon Jr., a local career politician, was her first stop. In her searches throughout Bulacan and Central Luzon, Erlinda had come to know the unwritten protocols and processes in conducting such high profile searches. Most searches for missing activists are started with a courtesy call to the mayor. Both for their own sake and the searchers’.

As turned out, Mayor Banzon was out of town, but his assistant referred Erlinda to the local police station, who then 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 militar camp of the Army 24th Infantry Battalion. “Even our officers here can just enter their camps. We have to get clearance from their higher ups.”

It was as if Lopez was complaining as much as he was trying to explain the situation to Erlinda. He had the rank equivalent to the Army’s colonel, but he still had to ask permission to the camp’s officer, one Lt. Garsuta.

The group then proceeded to the 7th IB Army camp a few kilometers away from tne PNP headquarters, with Erlinda asking the stationed soldiers to allow us to enter. To the surprise of everyone, most of all Erlinda, the group was easily allowed in, ushered in, that is, to a cottage far away 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 “communist” and therefore “the enemy”.

“I may get in hot water for this,” said Metran. Erlinda, too, was uncharateristically 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, understandably, was equally circumspect, launching 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 who refused to admit his son who was sick and almost died. He was close to filing a case against the hospital, he said, which would mean giving up his military career because in military they are not allowed to complain.

One guesses that it was his way of eliciting pity from an otherwise hostile group. He was a rebel, he said, but he cannot go beyond the “rule of law”. He had to go by the “process”. 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 circumpsectly answered: “We cannot say that 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 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. 56th IB also gained notoriety for being accused – with the help of witnesses – of abducting Jonas Burgos last April 2007.

Before going back to Manila, the group decided to pass by Bulacan to see about a woman who had personally seen Sherlyn. Cora (not her real name), said to be Sherlyn’s mother-in-law, was recently paid a visit by Sherlyn, escorted by two men and two stern-looking women. Sherlyn said she was there to get some clothes and said nothing more. Before leaving, one of her bodyguards said to Cora: “Don’t involve yourself in this. It will only get you into trouble.”

Since then, Cora has been continually visited by soldiers asking about Sherlyn’s husband. Neighbors observed the presence of suspiscious-looking men near her house. Cora feared for her safety, but nevertheless told Erlinda about the incident. “It bothers my conscience,” said Cora. “But I also fear for myself and my family.” She gave to Karapatan her sworn statement but still fears to come out publicly about the incident.

“I understand, of course, why you have to do this,” Erlinda told Cora. “But you have to take extra precautions because the military knows for sure that you are talking to us.”

Erlinda and the group left Bulacan with greater hope of finding Sherlyn, Karen and Manuel. But for Erlinda, it has now become much more than just finding her daughter.

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