Visiting the Morong 43

The first time I heard about the Morong 43, I was outraged. It seems that serving people who are in need has become a crime. These are simple health workers; doctors, nurses, medical assistants. What possible threat could they be to the government? The Morong 43 were participating in a health training seminar on February 6, 2010, when the police and military stormed in the seminar and arrested them. They weren’t even read their rights. It wasn’t until they were all handcuffed and blindfolded when they were told why they were being arrested, which does not fit the rules of engagement in law enforcement. The 43 are accused of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and were attending a bomb-making workshop. After hearing the testimonies of their families and loved ones, and the lack of evidence, I know fully well that this accusation is not true. Nevertheless, regardless of political affiliation, no one should be treated this way by the government.

When I went to visit them at Camp Bagong Diwa for the first time, I was briefed by members of Karapatan and their relatives about what to expect. Now, even though I used to be a reckless menace during my younger days, I’ve never been caught for the petty crimes I did nor have ever been to a detention area. Honestly, I was pretty nervous. What would I talk about with them? What kind of questions should I ask, if any?

I first visited the women’s holding area, where the women of the Morong 43 are being detained. To my surprise, they were all smiling and happy to see us. These women were all very approachable and easy to talk to. After our introductions, they asked if I have any questions, and I replied, “Wala po. Nandito ako lamang makinig sa iyong mga kwento” (I don’t have any. I’m just here to listen to your stories). The first woman I talked to, Dr. Merry, shared with me that it wasn’t until they were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa, a camp of the Philippine National Police (PNP), that they were all able to share their stories. They were previously detained at Camp Capinpin, a camp of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). At Camp Capinpin, they were handcuffed and blindfolded for the first 36 hours. They were also constantly tortured; slapped on the head, forced to urinate while still blindfolded and handcuffed not knowing if they’re being watched by a man or a woman, constantly told they were going to die, etc. They all took turns sleeping so they could hear what was happening to their colleagues. They were put into cells for 2 people or in solitary confinement. They weren’t allowed family visits, and when that was granted, they could only visit for 5 minutes.

It wasn’t until the aggressive outcry of progressive and human rights organizations in the Philippines and internationally, that 38 of the 43 were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa, where they experience no torture at all. Unfortunately, 5 are still detained at Camp Capinpin because they were forced to admit they were NPA. The 38 still support them and understand their admission was forced, and still fear for the safety of the 5. Nevertheless, they are still considered part of the Morong 43. The conditions at Camp Bagong Diwa, while not ideal, are still far better than Camp Capinpin. They get family and friends visits for up to 4 hours on visit days, families and friends can bring them food, books, pens, art supplies, newspapers etc., all which were denied to them at Camp Capinpin.

The other women of the 43 I talked to were Mariel, Maria Teresa, Linda, Delia, and Jaq. They were all very animated and smiling. They say it’s because the conditions are better where they are now and their experience only made them stronger. Their detention only meant that they were doing something right. They are also happy and hopeful because of the support they have locally and globally. They continue to fight and struggle not just for themselves, but for all victims of human rights violations. To them, each day is one day closer to freedom. They also shared with me how it was hard to speak on their experience at first and couldn’t do so without crying. Now that they have constant visitors, it’s become easier to share.

When I went to visit the men of the 43, I got a bad taste of my human rights being violated. In order to visit the men, you must first go through a strip search. We were forced to take off our clothes in small private rooms while they took a look at EVERYTHING we had. Since I forgot I had my cell phone, I had to go back out and put it in the car, and when I went back in, I had to go through the strip search AGAIN. Now, I usually have no shame, but I thought this bullshit strip search was just too much and very unnecessary. It robs the visitors of more than their dignity. The strip search is something we’re going to protest.

When we finally got to see the men of the 43 in their cells, they were also happy to see us, but not as animated as the women. They all had an easy going demeanor but didn’t talk as much. Only one, Franco, was very animated and liked to talk. He serves as the spokesman for the 43. They also shared with me the same stories of torture as the women, with the addition of getting hit in the testicles while they urinated. I was warned about talking to Dr. Montes, the oldest of the group. I was told he was visibly depressed and standoff-ish. But when I talked to him, he opened up. He shared with me his years of work as a doctor and his hope for justice to prevail. His visiting grandson was hugging him the entire time we talked.

The second time we visited the Morong 43 was on the 4 month anniversary of their detainment. We staged a short rally outside with speakers from Bayan, ILPS, Migrante International, Free the Morong 43 Alliance, and League of Filipino Students. Joining us inside were Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casino from Bayan Muna, Liza Maza and Emmi de Jesus from Gabriela-Philippines, and other congress representatives from Anakpawis and Kilusang Mayo Uno. I was surprised Ka Satur remembered me from our first meeting at the Kabataan Party-list victory party. Once again, I was caught off guard as I was introduced as the speaker on behalf of Bayan-USA. Since everyone else spoke in Tagalog, I wanted to challenge myself and speak in Tagalog. I started off with a disclaimer: “Una, pasenya na ako, kasi ang aking Tagalog hindi mas magaling. Pero, I will try just for you” (Apologies first, because my Tagalog isn’t that great. But, I will try…). I basically said in Tagalog how we all felt in the US when we heard about their case and the work we’re doing to address it. I ended off by saying how they all inspire us with their strength and continued fight and hope. Ka Satur was the first to shake my hand and say how good that was, and everyone else thought so as well, even though I know I messed up on some grammar. Taritz, in her blunt honesty that I always love, said I need to practice more.

Currently, their file for writ of habeus corpus is still yet to be heard by the supreme court. Hopefully, with the ending of the highly unpopular President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term on June 30, 2010, the next president, which at this point looks like it’s going to be Noynoy Aquino, will release the Morong 43 and all political prisoners, just as his mother Cory Aquino did when she became president.

The inspiration and resolve in the struggle for human rights in the case of the Morong 43 is truly two-way. They say they have strength and hope because of our work and support. But really, they also inspire us by their resilience in the face of injustice. These very special kasamas have really done nothing wrong. Their only crime was serving the people. Echoing the words of the late Filipino freedom fighter Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran, “If helping the poor is a crime and fighting for freedom is rebellion, then, I plead guilty as charged.”


3 Responses to “Visiting the Morong 43”

  1. Wow, Ryan… I’m really in awe of these patriotic Filipinos, these courageous human beings who care enough about justice and decency that they are willing to put their lives on the line again and again by speaking out, by doing the work that the government won’t… and I’m really proud of you just for being there and representing for all of us in the U.S. Keep doing what you’re doing, and keep us posted with this blog. Blessings your way…

  2. […] 5. Visiting the Morong 43 in their detention center in Bicutan, Philippines. You can read about my experience visiting them in my blog here. […]

  3. […] Visiting the Morong 43 June 2010 1 comment and 1 Like on, 4 […]

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