Bugged, Burdened, Broken: The Burgoses and their life less ordinary
28-Apr-11, 2:55 PM | By Annie Ruth C. Sabangan, Interaksyon.com Tweet
Growing up during the Martial Law years with a crusading journalist for a father—one whose fearless articles made then President Ferdinand Marcos go ballistic--was definitely a life less ordinary for Jose Luis “JL” Burgos, 37.
But JL, son of press freedom icon Joe Burgos Jr. who ran the alternative newspapers Malaya and WE Forum and got detained during the dictatorship, didn’t expect that he and his family would continue living a life way beyond the norm.
While it’s no longer the Martial Law days when everyone in the house was paranoid of persecution, JL’s household remains the same with certain self-gagging rituals.
“Parang silent movie kami sa bahay. Kumakain kami ng pamilya ko na magkakasabay pero bawal magsalita, lalo na sa maseselang isyu. Kung may gustong sabihin, nag-e-exchange na lang kami ng notes, tapos sinusunog namin ‘yung notes, para talagang sa pelikula,” said JL .
[We are like a silent movie in the house. My family and I eat together but talking is prohibited especially about sensitive issues. We just exchange notes if we want to say something to each other and then we burn the notes just like in the movies.]
That strange ritual became routine after a member of the family, Jonas Joseph, was abducted in 2007 allegedly by military agents at a restaurant inside a mall in Quezon City and has remained missing, despite an international outcry and countless inquiries. Following the incident, the Burgoses felt being watched and followed again just like during Marcos’s authoritarian rule.
CELL PHONE RITUALS
Part of the Burgoses’ suspense movie-like ritual after Jonas went missing is to make sure that their cell phones are bug-free.
At first, JL did not believe that cell phones could be tapped until he and his family became the subjects of surveillance allegedly by government agents.
“Yung surveillance sa cell phone na dati ay kinukwento lang sa amin ng mga kaibigang aktibista ay kami na mismo ang nakaranas. Now, hands-on na talaga ang training namin sa counter-surveillance,” he said.
[We experienced being put under surveillance through our cell phones, which before were just stories told to us by friends. Now, our counter-surveillance training is already hands-on]
JL and his family have learned to remove the batteries of their cell phones and put them back again just before they talk to each other to make sure nobody can eavesdrop on their conversations.
After his brother disappeared, JL, a short filmmaker, also realized that a script for his film, which he started working on just a few weeks before his brother was abducted and which he coincidentally titled, “Surveillance,” had ironically become outdated.
“I was doing the film for the victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, not knowing that my brother would be the next victim. Pero luma na pala ang script, ‘yung part about bugging devices. Akala ko via landline lang. Di ko alam na kaya nilang gamitin ang cell phone na bugging device.”
[But I realized that my script, the part about bugging devices, was already out-of-date. I thought it was only done via landline. I didn’t know that cell phones can be used as bugging devices.] ”
JL also learned that the microphone of a high-end mobile phone can be used as an eavesdropping tool by remotely activating it. “Pag na-identify na nila ang phone number mo, gagamitin nila ‘yung microphone no’n para makapag-bug [When they have already identified your number, they would use the microphone of your phone for bugging].”
A few days after Jonas’s abduction, JL and his elder sister discussed how they would tell their eldest brother, who was then staying in Bulacan, about what had happened to Jonas. The two were in their family residence in Quezon City, and JL said he and his sister were sure that their house wasn’t bugged.
To make sure that no one else would hear what they were talking about, JL and his sister spoke in a low voice. They agreed that they would be sending their brother text messages through the cell phone of JR, a farmer who just arrived at the Burgoses’s farm in Bulacan from Bacolod.
“Kakadating lang ni JR from the province, so naisip namin, malinis pa ang cell phone niya [JR just came from the province so we thought his cell phone wasn’t bugged yet],” JL said.
JL was surprised when, after talking to his sister, he received a text message from an unknown cell phone number saying that, “Nakita ko si JR, kakadating lang niya galing Bacolod [I saw JR, he just arrived from Bacolod].”
“Imposibleng may nakarinig sa pag-uusap namin ng sister ko. Pero naalala ko na habang nag-uusap kami, nakabukas ang cell phones namin. At walang ibang way para malaman ng iba ang pinag-usapan namin except sa cell phone,” JL said.
[It was impossible for someone to have heard what my sister and I were talking about. But I recalled that while we were talking, our cell phones were turned on. And there was no way they could know what we talked about except through the cell phones.]
JL surmised that he was sent that text message for the Burgoses to know that state agents were keeping track of them.
The Burgoses also experienced being tailed many times since Jonas disappeared.
“Talagang nagpapakita sila, nagpaparamdam, nananakot…Halimbawa, pag susunod sila, susunod talaga sila. Pag umikot ko ng tatlong beses sa isang kanto, iikot din sila," said JL.
[They make sure that we see them, feel them, and make us feel threatened. For instance if they want to follow you, they will really follow you. If you go around a street for three times, they would also do the same.]
Because of the tailings and the tappings, JL learned to use his paranoia to protect himself from the supposed “watchers.”
“Hindi na ko naglalakad sa kalye ng nakatalikod sa sasakyan. Pag pumunta ako sa bar, alam ko kung ilang tao ang nasa gilid. Ganun ako ka-paranoid dahil di ko alam kung anong pwedeng gawin nila sa amin,” he said.
[I no longer walked on the street with my back towards oncoming traffic. When I go to the bar, I make sure that I know how many people are on both sides. I’m that paranoid because I don’t know what they can do to us.]
The Burgos family observed there were lulls in the surveillance. But every time the surveillance resumes, the Burgoses understood that a new development on Jonas’s case is close at hand, according to JL.
Among the last alleged surveillance of the Burgoses happened a few days before the Commission on Human Rights released an investigation report last March. The report implicated former 1st Lieutenant and now Major Harry Baliaga Jr. of the Philippine Army as one of those who directly participated in the April 28, 2007 abduction of Jonas.
JL said an unmarked van boarded by unidentified persons suddenly entered the Burgos farm in San Miguel, Bulacan where Jonas used to stay. He said his family also believed that their landline was bugged again because they heard echoes on their telephone.
‘NIGHT AND FOG'
When he went to Europe with his mother Edita to seek international support for the family’s demand for the government to surface Jonas, JL learned more about surveillance and how authoritarian states systematically carried out enforced disappearances and employ psychological warfare on the families of the disappeared.
He learned from some of his European activist-friends why some states since the Second World War found extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances as effective tools in silencing not just their supposed enemies but also the latter’s families.
For instance in Germany, Adolf Hitler’s 1941 decree, called Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) resulted in the killings and disappearance of many political activists. JL learned the idea behind the decree: to neutralize them, keep the families of the disappeared in the dark, blur their minds by not telling them what really happened to their missing loved ones, make them ignorantly silent and acquiescent.
Hitler’s order indeed employed such an immobilizing strategy. Opponents of the Nazis vanished and their families were denied any information about their missing loved ones.
Four years since Jonas disappeared, JL is now all the more convinced that states intolerant of dissent and criticism indeed have a hand in the escalation of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and that the Philippine government is among such states.
“Masasabi ko na talagang alam ko na ang mukha ng tinatawag nilang repressive state [Now I can say that I know the face of what they call a repressive state],” said JL.
It was certainly painful to lose his father to cancer in 2003. But JL said losing Jonas was doubly painful for the family.
“Pakiramdam namin namamatay kami araw-araw. At least si Erpats alam naming nawala kasi namatay. Pero ang nawawala kong kapatid di namin alam kung ano ang nangyari o nangyayari sa kanya ngayon.”
[It feels like dying every day. At least we know that my father is gone because he died. But we don’t know what had happened or is happening now to my missing brother.]
JL said their mother handles the grief and the worries mainly through prayers and through leading human rights campaigns by a group of families whose loved ones also disappeared, while his sister makes writing poems her outlet.
Jonas’ young daughter, meanwhile, understood that her father was taken by bad people.
“It’s really traumatic for her growing up without Jonas. Pag tinatong siya kung ano ang nagyari kay Tati (Jonas), sinasabi niya kinuha ang tatay n’ya ng bad men [When she’s asked what happened to Tati, she says bad men seized her father],” JL said.
JL had many dreams about Jonas, some of them frightening, some made him feel he would melt in pain.
“Minsan nanaginip ako, kasama ko Nanay ko. Nasa isang bahay kami, parang isang old school na kahoy ang bintana na parang jalousie. Nandoon ‘yung isa kong nakababatang pinsan. Habang nag-uusap sa kusina ang Nanay ko at ang nanay ng pinsan ko, tinanong ko ang pinsan ko kung nasaan ba ang kuya Jay niya. Tapos biglang may nalaglag na lapis at bumukas ang bintana. Naramdaman ko nandoon si Jonas pero hindi ko siya nakikita. Tapos sinabi ko sa kanya na ituro niya kung nasaan siya. Tapos umandar ang lapis, tumuro sa isang wall na bagong semento. Gumising ako, iyak ako nang iyak.”
[I once dreamt that my mother and I were in an old house that looked like an old school with windows of wooden jalousie. My younger cousin was also there. While my mother and the mother of my cousin were talking in the kitchen, I asked my cousin where could Jonas be. Suddenly, a pencil fell on the floor and the window opened. I felt that Jonas was there but I couldn’t see him. I asked him to tell us where he was. Then the pencil moved and pointed to a newly cemented wall. I woke up and cried hard.]
While constantly living in grief and fear, JL said he and his family have chosen to continue their fight for Jonas and for other families whose loved ones also disappeared.
“Hindi puwedeng manahimik na lang, hindi puwedeng magpakain sa takot. Umaasa pa rin kaming makikita namin ang kapatid ko [We can’t just choose to be silent, we can’t just allow ourselves to be overcome by fear. We are still hoping that we will see my brother],” he said.
BELOW IS A VIDEO OF JL BURGOS READING A LETTER FOR JONAS.