Filipino farmer tells of enforced disappearance ‘nightmare’

Raymond Manalo is a warm, softly-spoken young man with an infectious smile that belies the horror of his recent enforced disappearance and torture at the hands of Philippines security forces.”I have lived a nightmare that will always haunt me and my family’s life has been destroyed, yet the government has done nothing to help me,” Raymond tells Amnesty International at the start of a 73-day trip to raise awareness of his case in Europe.”I need to expose the human rights violations taking place in the Philippines and help others who have been forcibly disappeared.” The 29-year-old farmer is one of the very few living victims of this crime. He was abducted from his family home by armed men in February 2006 along with his brother Reynaldo. During 18 months in secret detention, he was subjected to repeated torture by his military jailers until the brothers made a daring escape. They have since been reunited with their family but their struggle goes on. No one has been punished for the abuses suffered by the brothers, who were accused of being members of Communist armed group the New People’s Army (NPA), despite them having denied any such affiliation. After being taken by the security forces, they were held in a cell in a military camp with 12 other abductees, where they were starved and regularly tortured.”We lived like their slaves. I still have scars where they branded my skin with searing hot tin cans. They kicked me, smacked me with wood, beat me while pouring running water into my nose,” recalls Raymond. “But I didn’t want to die. I knew my parents would be looking for me and that thought kept me going. Both me and my brother – whatever they wanted to do, we withstood it.”After surviving the ordeal, Raymond was introduced to a man known as “The Butcher” – then a military commander – who has been prominent in the fight against Communist insurgents. The commander allowed Raymond to go with military escorts and see his parents.  He ordered Raymond to ensure that his family would not tell anyone about his detention, bring their case to court, or to speak to human rights organizations. In the weeks that followed, Raymond was offered the possibility of becoming a soldier, as his captors were apparently impressed by his hardiness.  The brothers were moved to an officer’s farm in Pangasinan province, northern Philippines.  There they tilled the land as unpaid workers for the officer. Raymond went along with the plan, while all along waiting for his moment to escape. “One day, our chance came. Our ‘guards’ were all completely drunk and while they slept, my brother and I fled by the side of the farm where there were no houses and made it to the highway.”But the brothers’ story of salvation is rare. Raymond’s gruesome testimony from his time in detention indicates that other victims of enforced disappearance may never be reunited with their loved ones. Among them are students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, who were abducted in Bulacan province, near the capital Manila, while they were doing research on peasant farmers’ communities as part of their university thesis.”I heard a woman screaming for mercy…it was Sherlyn. She was hanging upside down and the soldiers were hitting her in the stomach, playing with her genitals and poking a piece of wood in there. Karen was rolled up near Sherlyn, almost naked, and her skin was covered with cigarette burns,” says Raymond.Karen’s mother, Concepcion Empeño, is one of those joining Raymond on the trip to Europe after being invited by Amnesty International. She has received no news of her daughter since she disappeared in 2006 and maintains a hope – however faint – that she may be alive.”When I heard what Raymond had witnessed it shattered my dream for Karen,” says a tearful Concepcion, who is calling on the Philippine authorities to punish the perpetrators of the crimes suffered by her daughter and others.”Before this I was not an activist, but this has made me an activist. Whatever work Karen started, I am going to continue. I have learned about what she was fighting for.

“If you are an activist or you go to a protest in my country, you become an enemy of the state. I want to shout to the world about the human rights violations taking place in the Philippines.”Concepcion is now the vice-chairman of Desaparecidos, a group of families of victims of enforced disappearance.”I am very hopeful that the international community can help because my government is not doing anything. There is a great denial from the military and those in authority. We just want to see justice.” In the three years since Raymond’s escape, that justice has been elusive. His attempts to file a criminal case against soldiers who subjected him to abuses have been delayed or dismissed by the courts, while he lives in constant fear that he could be abducted again.”I am free, but I am not really free. The soldiers can take me again any time, all they need to do is take off their uniforms and do it anonymously,” says Raymond.”I’m very angry because I was abused and I don’t even understand why. I have found the strength to speak out because I want justice for the abuses I experienced, and for those suffered by others who have disappeared. “It is also a way of protecting myself. I can’t go back to my farm. Whatever small amount of land I had before, my parents had to sell it in order to take my case to court and to look for me when I was detained. I can’t live a normal life. I’m always in fear for my life and my family’s life. I am not sure what the future holds…” Images: © Amnesty International