Published: September 24th 2008September 21st 2008
James Balao was forcible disappeared on September 17. 2008 sometime after 7 AM by elements of the Intelligence Security Unit of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who had been surveilling him for months. James is an active member of the Cordillera People's Alliance (CPA) and a long time advocate for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera.
It has been bad days here. Not a bad day, but bad days. A member of the CPA, a man named James Balao, who has spent his whole adult life working for the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, has been abducted. He left his house on September 17 at 7am and has not been seen or heard from since. Our office was informed of his disappearance on Friday, ironically just after we hosted a morning tribute to the human rights defenders of the Martial Law period. As the human rights group in the network we had to take the lead.
Immediately we began our search for James, all other work forgotten, except for the other events planned for the weekend commemoration of Martial Law, which had to be muddled through with a bitter taste in everyone's mouth. It was not lost on anyone that we were commemorating the fight for democracy in the Philippines with one more victim of state terrorism on our list. As soon as it was possible all of the human rights staff shifted to the Balao case. His family informed us that James had been under state surveillance for months. And so the conclusion we had been dreading and expecting was confirmed, James Balao was forcible disappeared.
Forced Disappearance is: a politically motivated, illegal and/or forcible kidnapping, by unidentified public officers, of a person whose whereabouts and fate are concealed in order to intimidate, obtain information, physically assault or kill this person. The reality of the political situation in the Philippines gives 3 options for James. He is either alive and unharmed in custody somewhere (my emotional distress over this situation and my need for some peace of mind forces me to add that option though it is extremely unlikely), he is alive and being/has been tortured, or he is dead.
I have never met James. But many of the people I work with knew him. The air in my office has become thick this weekend - full of fear, worry and anger. It is suffocating. But somehow, at the same time, the same office has been buzzing with action and courage. The people here have lost a friend and coworker, but they are still the human rights staff, they still have to be the lead on the campaign to have James resurfaced. All around me people with no sleep, skin dark with exhaustion, cloths wrinkled from hours in the office are courageously holding themselves together in order to get their jobs done. Today two information gathering teams were pulled together and were dispatched to James' community. They posted missing person posters, they talked to his neighbors, and still found no new information. It has been 5 days now.
When I went to bed last night all I could think about was his family: parents, sister and brother. They had to go to bed without James in the house. Or they sat up all night, not knowing if James is dead or alive. I couldn't stop myself from imagining how that would feel. How scary that would be. How angry they are. And even imagining it, I know that I still can't understand how horrible it must feel.
I don't know what to do is this situation. I sit on my hands. I stare at my keyboard... or my tv. Whenever I think about it to deeply I have to fight back tears. But I can not allow myself to break. I did not know this man. The people around me who are working harder then me, who are glued to their cell phones, who have barely left our office since we found out two days ago, who haven't slept... they know him, and they have not broken. And so I just keep staring, keep taking deep breaths, keep thinking about other things, and do whatever they ask of me. I have no other recourse but to work whenever I am needed. Because when I am not working, when I am not occupied, I can't keep myself from think about how this isn't right... how this can't be possible. This can't be happening. This can't be life.
I urge everyone to sign the petition calling on the Philippine Military to immediately surface James Balao at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/CPAjamesbalao/