By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – In a perfect world, Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan never would have met. The atrocity that befell them, a most horrendous fate, never would have happened. And they never would have stood now as a testament to the rot that is eating away at the core of this country.
Three years ago, on June 26, the two students from the University of the Philippines were abducted by suspected military men in Hagonoy, Bulacan, a province north of Manila. Their disappearance took place at a time when Central Luzon was being riven by a fierce conflict between the government and the communist New People’s Army.
Prosecuting this war on the government side was then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who had brought to Bulacan and its nearby provinces the same anti-communist zeal – some say madness — that he had wrought on Oriental Mindoro, his previous assignment. The target of his campaign were not just the armed communists but anybody who was suspected of having even a hint of sympathy to the guerrillas. It is a policy replicated in other parts of the country, one that has resulted in the death, torture and disappearance of thousands of Filipinos, mostly activists.
According to testimonies of witnesses, it was Palparan’s men that abducted, tortured and raped Sherlyn and Karen. They killed a farmer, Manuel Merino, who was abducted along with the two women.
Raymond Manalo, a farmer also from Bulacan, had testified in court and before the United Nations Human Rights Council that he and his brother, Reynaldo, had been abducted in February 2006 and tortured by Palparan’s men in a military camp. There, he saw Merino being burned alive by soldiers. In that same camp, Manalo said, he came to know Sherlyn and Karen and had heard their cries as they were being shackled, tortured and raped by soldiers.
Sherlyn and Karen remain missing. The murderers of Merino are still scot-free. Manalo has yet to see behind bars any one of those who tortured him and his brother for 18 months. Palparan, the fair-haired boy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her campaign to wipe out the communists by next year, is now a congressman.
In a perfect world, this never would have happened.
Karen Empeño: Young Radical
Karen was born an activist.
Her father, Oscar, had been a leader of the union at a branch of the Bank of the Philippine Islands in Zambales. When the workers held a strike, Karen went with her father to the picketline. She was only two years old at the time.
“She was holding a placard while her father was carrying her,” Connie, Karen’s mother, recalled. At home, Oscar would play progressive songs on the karaoke and Karen would memorize them.
Connie said they had noticed Karen’s intelligence early in her childhood. In kindergarten, she already knew how to read, flipping through the pages of Malaya and the Philippine Daily Inquirer at a very young age.
It was Oscar who taught Karen how to read. In their modest home, they had plenty of books. While Connie was off teaching at the local school, Oscar, who worked the night shift at a BPI branch in Zambales, taught the Empeño children at home, reading to them tales about heroes and revolutionaries who, despite the odds, vanquished repression.
“Her father had the greatest influence on her studies and on her activism,” Connie said.
Karen is the third in a family of five children and it is Karen’s gift to lighten the day of her siblings and the people around here. “Her friends would always tell me that they miss Karen’s playfulness,” Connie said.
During summer and semestral breaks, Karen would invite her friends to their home in Masinloc, Zambales. “We were so happy to see her happy around her friends,” her mother said.
At the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where Karen studied sociology, she became a member of the League of Filipino Students (LFS).