By Nuel M. Bacarra
In the morning of September 19, a press conference organized by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) was held to present two new trophies, young “surrenderers” to the public. But the presscon blew up in the face of NTF-ELCAC personnel when Jonila Castro bravely revealed that she and Jhed Reiyana Tamano were abducted by the military forces and were forced to surrender because of the threat to their lives.
The presscon was broadcast live on a local government unit public information office Facebook page as well as on SMNI, galvanized church, rights defenders and activist groups to troop to Plaridel, Bulacan to demand for their immediate release.
I joined them to cover the event. We arrived past lunchtime, finding several Bulacan State University students already protesting in front of the municipal hall, faced by a phalanx of police personnel. The students took off their footwear and placed these in between themselves and the police, symbolizing the two sandals left behind when Jonila and Jhed were abducted in Orion, Bataan on September 2.
Upstairs, in front of the mayor’s office, I waited with fellow journalists, waiting for further developments. Jhed and Jonila were being kept at the mayor’s office as the local chief executive was deciding on her next move as the military did not want to surrender the two victims to her custody. Jhed and Jonila are Plaridel residents.
Minutes before three in the afternoon, I heard loud voices at the ground floor. I rushed downstairs and saw the police personnel dispersing the protesters. A protester was shouting “Huwag kayong manulak!” (Don’t push us!). I saw a young girl got hit by a policeman randomly punching the protesters. The youth pleading with the officers not to push was also hurt.
The police failed to disperse the protesters. Soon, they reasserted their place in front of the building’s main door and resumed their protest. This time, they faced the onlookers, some of them approaching and explaining what is happening at the mayor’s office. By then, Jonila’s parents have arrived with their lawyers and Makabayan bloc Representatives Arlene Brosas and Raoul Manuel to negotiate with the mayor.
I tried going back to where Jonila and Jhed were being kept to get more direct information but was no longer allowed by the police. We soon received information that the two would be brought to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) where the turnover of Jhed and Jonila to their families and supporters would take place. I asked to myself, “Why not turn them over now as family and lawyers are already there?” Then I thought, the mayor must be covering her behind because of the military’s objection to the victim’s release.
Minutes later, we saw Jonila and Jhed coming out of the building with their lawyers and family. We ran to our vehicles to join the convoy to Quezon City. As we approached the CHR headquarters after a mad dash from Bulacan, we saw activists lined up along Commonwealth Avenue who rushed into the compound as soon as our vehicles arrived.
We were allowed to take photos inside the conference room where the victims and their supporters were ushered in. We were asked thereafter to leave as the meeting would be closed door.
I made my way out of the building to take photos of the protesters. It was past six in the evening and I was really hungry at the time. A protester offered me a snack which I wolfed down as we waited for further developments.
After a while, we were told that Jhed and Jonila would be addressing the crowd.
The two thanked their supporters, saying their freedom is also because of the clamor for them to be surfaced. They said they knew people were looking for them and reiterated the correctness of what they are fighting for: a stop to the reclamation projects at Manila Bay.
The saga of Jhed and Jonila are far from over, however. The military and the NTF-ELCAC are doubling down on their canard that the two voluntarily surrendered. I think, though, the sandals left behind when the victims struggled during their abduction could not have been staged. And between two young girls and the NTF-ELCAC, who do we immediately see as liars?
That Tuesday had been the longest and most tiring day of coverage that I have had so far since I joined Kodao. I am a senior citizen with many bodily aches and pains associated with my age. I did not know I could still do it. But the significance of the events made me forget all these.
Jonila Castro and Jhed Reiyana Tamano, young as they are, showed us how to deal with state terrorism. They spoke the truth and turned the table around on their captors. Their courage is a shining example, showing the world how people’s rights are violated in the Philippines and how these are asserted and won. #