‘You need to be a fighter’
By Kirsten Dall Hjøllund
Jack was standing facing the ocean. He felt the air on his skin and recognized the familiar smells of the sea. He was blindfolded. Behind him, he could make out the sound of a shovel working its way through layers of sand. In his pocket was a small scrap of paper with his name on it. He was expecting to be executed.
Before his abduction, Jack worked tirelessly to bring positive change to his Philippine community. He fought for the rights of the poorest of the poor, the so-called illegal squatters by the riverbanks. He taught them about their rights, and put their problems into a broader, political perspective.
- Maybe that is why the police came for me. Because the authorities do not like it when people are educated about the things that are happening around them.
Today, 57-year old Jack is back in his small, newly renovated home in the poor area of Bagong Silang. With over 500.000 inhabitants, Bagong Silang is the biggest barangay, or municipality, in the Philippines, situated about an hour’s drive from Manila. Here, he is telling the story of his enforced disappearance.
Abused and tortured
Jack was abducted by the police on the 11th of January, 2000. Outside of a friend’s house, he was attacked by twenty men, who blindfolded him, tied his hands with packing tape, and threw him in a car.
The policemen accused him of bombing a building in Makati, the financial hub of Metro Manila, and for 16 days, the police abused and tortured Jack to make him confess the crime.
His captors beat him, kicked him, smashed a chair against his back, poured gasoline over him, and verbally abused him. Jack was blindfolded during most of his abduction, and moved from place to place.
Throughout his abduction, his captors subjected him to mock executions. They threatened him with a rifle, and several nights he was pulled from his cell blindfolded, fearing he would be shot.
- They constantly threatened to kill me, and they threatened to kill my wife and my children. That was the worst part of it, Jack says.
It was during one of the mock-executions he found himself standing by the shore, listening to the waves, and the sound of his own grave being dug.
- At that point I had accepted that I was going to die, and I had managed to find a small piece of paper and write my name on it so that people would be able to identify me.
But for some reason, the captors decided to let Jack live.
He himself believes that his friends and family played a huge part in his release. Because Jack was well-known for helping his community, he had many friends and acquaintances who were willing to not only search for him all over Manila, but also plead the case for his release to the local politicians.
When his captors informed him that they would let him go, it was with the comment: you seem to be a very popular man.
‘I think I’m lost’
On the night of the release, Jack’s captors blindfolded and handcuffed him once more. They put him in a car, and drove him around for about an hour. He could hear traffic at first – then silence.
- They let me out, took off the handcuffs and the blindfold, and told me to walk straight and never look back. It was dark, and I couldn’t see anything at first. I thought someone would shoot me.
Jack was at the campus of the University of the Philippines. He walked towards the lights from a restaurant, and sat down. Beat up and dirty, a vendor approached him and asked what had happened. ‘I think I’m lost’, Jack responded.
The vendor gave him three apples, and put him on a jeepny* towards his home in Bagong Silang. Inside, family and friends were gathered to pray for him by the house altar.
Still holding the apples, he entered.
- My oldest son ran towards me and hugged me. He had been told that I was dead.
Jack puts one foot on the trunk and pulls himself up to reach the ripe papaya. A rooster crows in the distance, and laughter enters the garden from the neighboring playground.
Gardening is one of the chores that keeps Jack busy. He also tends to the house when his wife is out working, reads books about self-help, and stays up-to-date with the latest news.
His level of activity today stands in stark contrast to when he was released. Jack was bedridden for two months, and was constantly afraid that he or his family members were in danger.
- It was very difficult for me to go from being productive and active, to not be able to move or go out the house.
Confined to his house, negative thoughts, nightmares and anxiety consumed his mind.
- I wanted to die. Especially when the kids were off to school or my wife was working, and I had no one to talk to.
Jack needed help. Thanks to friends, Balay (the Philippine partner of DIGNITY) was made aware of his situation and stepped in. With a holistic approach to rehabilitation, Jack and his family got the help they needed. Counseling, medical treatment, social- and financial support.
- The counseling was very helpful in making me deal with my fear and my emotions. You need to be a fighter and really deal with it, he says.
The financial aid was given to ensure the further education of Jacks three sons.
- It used to be a burden thinking about how I would get my sons through their education. Balay’s support lessened my anxiety and worry for my children.
After all he has been through, Jack still contributes to his community. For instance, the neighboring playground was built on Jack’s initiative.
He contacted the local authorities with his proposal, and a month later there was a playground with swings, seesaw and monkey bars where an old laundry site used to be.
- I saw children playing, scattered around, so it is good to have this space for them. And I love the sound of them laughing and being happy right next to my house.
Apart from contributing to his local neighborhood, he has also spoken in public about his experiences, and delivered important inputs to the development of the comprehensive rehabilitation program under the Philippine Anti-Torture Law.
And though Jack physically can’t do as much as he used to, and doesn’t leave the house as much as before, he recently managed a six-hour trip to visit a friend in a northern province.
- I love the sea, and we went swimming. I was very happy about that.
jeepny*: A special bus for public transportation in the Philippines.