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Refusing to live in fear: Portrait of a human rights defender


It has been almost three decades since the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, but Maria Isabel Aurelia Aquino’s psychological wounds caused by her experiences during those dark days remain as fresh as if they were inflicted yesterday. In her day to day dealings, however, she is able to be sincere to her facade of cheerfulness and calm.

A human rights activist, she knows that fighting for human rights takes courage and persistence.

“But it also takes much personal strength. It’s not always easy to put up a brave face when your work is about defending other people’s rights to live in dignity and to stop physical abuse and exploitation. It can take a toll on you, the knowledge of how so many Filipinos are forced to live not knowing their rights or having their rights violated in a myriad of ways. And then when you consider your own experiences, it’s sometimes gets even harder,” she said ruefully.

Born in Manila to an upper middle class family, Ma. Isabel grew up in an old Spanish house along Severino Street near Claro M. Recto Avenue in Manila. It was an area that saw many street protests and battles between anti-Marcos activists and the Metrocom (now the Philippine National Police), and a stone’s throw away from Don Chino Roces bridge, or more popularly known as Mendiola bridge. She attended a private school nearby, and in the countdown to martial law and in the beginnings of the First Quarter Storm Movement, she became an activist leading students in the struggle against the dictatorship.

“There are those who would say that the days of dictatorship are long gone; but from the state of human rights in the Philippines these days, it is impossible to dismiss the truth that much remains to be desired by way of bringing genuine justice in the country,” she said.

Data gathered by Karapatan human rights organization for the second quarter of the year show the same growing list of human rights violations under President Benigno Aquino III’s Oplan Bayanihan (OPB), his administration’s counterinsurgency program which is deemed no different from the previous Macapagal-Arroyo regime’s Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL).

From July 2010 to June 2011, a shocking 48 activists have fallen victim to extrajudicial killings while three others have become victims of enforced disappearance.

Maria Isabel herself almost became a statistic back in March 2010.

On March 10, 2010, armed men arrived at her parents’ house in Severino street looking for her. She was able to elude them because her sister and a caretaker were able to immediately warn her and she was able to leave the house undetected through a separate, back exit. Her elderly parents were shaken and feared for her life but begged her to not raise the issue to the media.

“My family has been through much in the last years. In 2009, my brother Tomas Aquino disappeared and we strongly suspect that his disappearance was courtesy of the military. He was not an activist, but he was openly supportive of my human rights advocacy and very critical of the government,” she said.

Now Maria Isabel has found temporary sanctuary, and enough security to tell her story. From experience she knows that she has to assert herself and speak out about her own circumstances and the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines.?

“It’s never right to live in fear. Those who attack the civil, political and human rights of the Filipino people thrive on fear and persist in their attacks because of a culture of impunity. To remain silent is to play along with your own victimization,” she said.

In 1985, her husband Venerando Villacillo was abducted by a dozen armed men while he was standing with Ma. Isabel in front of her parents’ house. She was only able to get away with the help of relatives who saw the commotion and pushed and pulled against the assailants.

Venerando disappeared and has not been found since. He was alleged to be a high ranking official of the revolutionary movement in Isabela and Cagayan at the time he was abducted.

Her life has since then been a long series of hours waiting and searching for her husband and any news of him. She did not allow grief and worry to defeat her and instead used both to strengthen her own commitment to defend human rights in the country. She became a co-founder and consultant of Karapatan, Desaperacidos and other human rights organizations in the country including those based in Mindanao and Cagayan Valley.

Through the years, too, she has had constant reminders that to be an activist in the Philippines is to be a target of those who violate human rights. She has received death threats via cell phone messages; been followed by strange men; and almost became a victim of a hit and run. She has considered all these as part and parcel of a live devoted to fighting against human rights violators.

“I have had co-workers, colleagues and friends abducted, tortured and killed. I have known how it is to constantly look over my shoulder and be suspicious of people I sit next to on the bus. How I have survived through the years is through sheer luck, but also because of the constant support of fellow activists and the people we seek to always serve,” she said.

When in the cities, she wore veils and other disguises. In the provinces where her light skin easily stood out among the sun-darkened skin of the local residents she wore shirts with long sleeves. She’s had more names than she cared to remember and changed the number on her cellphone as frequently as possible.

“I am most grateful to the friends, comrades and ordinary folk in the provinces who have helped me through the years. They have kept me alive with their vigilance and their concern for my safety,” she said. But like other activists, she is also human, too.

“Sometimes things can be too much to bear. I remember my husband and my brother, and my heart bleeds as I imagine what happened to them. I fear for my own parents, my relatives and my colleagues and their safety and security. My worries for myself come last, but there are days when I am so shaken by what could happen to me that I have to struggle hard to keep from completely breaking down,”she said. Sometimes she gets intense headaches, and has attacks of extreme acid reflux.

According to the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), psychological torture includes verbal abuse, threats against family, friends and loved ones, false accusations, forced choices, mock executions, and being forced to witness torture, mutilation and murder of others.

The CVT says that psychological torture can be more damaging and cause more severe and long-lasting damage even than the pain of physical torture. It cited a 2007 study that concluded that degrading treatment and psychological manipulation cause as much emotional suffering and long-term mental health harm as physical torture. (Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. Basoglu et al. Archives of General Psychiatry, Volume 64, March 2007).

Ma. Isabel has also undergone a tumor operation on her knee and is less mobile. Despite this new handicap and the threats to her own safety and security, she still wants to continue her work as a human rights worker and contribute to efforts to transform society. This, however, can only be done if she is able to come to terms with the emotional stress and mental anguish she suffers at the constant knowledge that she is a target. (http://bulatlat.com)

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