We were fortunate to be there with the detained health workers when the announcement was made. I went in the detention facility with Atty. Jules Matibag, counsel for the detainees, and Dr. Beng Rivera, HEAD Sec-Gen and doctor for the health workers on hunger strike. We were joined by staff from the office of Rep. Neri Colmenares.
December 10 was the day set by the Morong Court for media interviews for the detained health workers. We were able to get a court order that allowed some media outfits to conduct one-on-one interviews on the condition that these interviews would not touch on the merits of the case.
We came in the detention facility early. I talked to the female detainees first and they all seemed anxious about what would transpire during the day. I told them that there was an activity being held in Malacanang and we too were anxious of what announcement will be made, if ever there was one. I asked them if we had a radio so we could monitor.
Jules and Beng came in next together with the media outfits. When the media came in, the female detainees stood and raised their clenched fists. They were still on hunger strike and were so physically weak they couldn’t even sing their usual “Awit ng Pag-Asa”.
The media activity started at 9:43am. The detainees prepared a short statement for Human Rights Day that was read by Yollly. Teresa, a midwife, then read a poem she wrote for the birthday of her child last July. She said she was sorry she couldn’t be there for the birthday, and explained the sacrifices she had to endure in serving the people. The detainees started shedding tears. We too were moved. Any parent could readily empathize.
Seven of them then introduced themselves as the persons who would be interviewed. They were Delia, Doc Merry, Yolly, Jane, Mama Del, Teresa and Angela. Delia was first to speak, expressing her sadness that she couldn’t be with her child who is facing a serious ailment. The detainees had their individual interviews. Mama Del, who was 62 and the most senior in the group, was overcome with emotion. Her blood pressure shot up. Jane, a fellow detainee, took her BP. Beng had to monitor Mama Del during her next interviews. Some interviews were just heartbreaking to watch, many of the detainees being mothers or grandmothers separated from their families because of their detention.
We waited for an announcement from the radio. None had come at that time. Jules was already arguing with the BJMP officials who were insisting we wrap- up even if the media activity hadn’t reached an hour.
The interviews ended and no announcement came. We told the detainees to keep monitoring the news when they got back in their cell. Before we left, the female detainees posed for a group shot, did their “Palakpak 43”, four claps and three stomps, and chanted “Free the 43!”.
We then proceeded to the male detention facility. At first the deputy warden said we couldn’t proceed because the time set had already lapsed. Jules again had to argue with the jail officials. We were then given 30 minutes to do everything.
When we and the media entered the chapel in the male detention area, we were shocked to see the detainees in handcuffs. We protested this and said we will not allow them to be interviewed under such conditions. Deputy Warden Heje ordered the handcuffs removed.
The male detainees were missing 4 members. Three had opted to stay in their rooms, because they felt weak. One was taken to a hospital earlier because of the effects of the hunger strike. Nurse Gary Liberal, who worked as the head nurse at the operating room of the Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital, gave the opening statement. The individual interviews came soon after.
We had no radio to monitor any announcement from Malacanang. We were growing restless. Then, I got a call from Karapatan. Aquino had announced the withdrawal of the charges against the 43. I had to contain my own emotions and get clarification. Again, another call came, and this time a clearer explanation of what just happened.
As I announced this to the detainees, instantly they clapped, cheered and cried. Their 10 month ordeal would finally be coming to an end. We hugged each other, happy for the positive result of our struggle. Jules and Beng had to go to the cells of the 3 other detainees to tell them the good news. The three, including Doc Alex already knew, and were waiting at the gates.
Back at the female detention facility, the Morong detainees were huddled inside their cramped cell, monitoring the news on TV. Upon hearing the announcement, they erupted in cheers of joy, almost as if their cell was going to collapse.
Other detainees in the compound also shared their happiness. Unknown to many, some 400 other detainees in BJMP had signed a petition calling for the release of the 43.
At the hunger strike center at the Philippine Independent Church in Manila, where the relatives of the 43 were gathered, it was the same scene of jubilation. Judilyn and Mercy, who were at the PGH nursing their babies, also monitored the announcement. Franco, who was hospitalized during the hunger strike, apparently was also watching the news at the time.
We got to talk with the female detainees after the announcement was made. They were all so happy. Those who felt weak earlier were now energized. Some of them still couldn’t believe it. “Kasama ba ako (sa lalaya)?” asked Mama Del. Jaq wrote a short statement on a page of a small notebook, expressing the group’s thanks to all those who supported them for the last 10 months. They described the announcement as not just their victory but “a victory for the people seeking justice and the right to health”. The statement was read to the media and during the rally in Mendiola.
The hunger strike was lifted later that day. The congressional staff of Neri brought the detainees soup and biscuits, their first real taste of food since the hunger strike started last December 3. The hunger strike lasted one week, culminating with the announcement of the withdrawal of charges against them.
This is indeed an important political and legal victory, one that the AFP so desperately tries to downplay as a ‘minor setback’. I hope to write about that in a later post. There will be accountability for those who violated the rights of the Morong 43, make no mistake about that. Right now, many of us are just enjoying the great feeling of being a part of this successful struggle for freedom. One cannot measure the joy that the detainees and their families are now experiencing.
The DOJ said that it will file the motion on Monday. Our lawyers would want it to be immediately set for hearing so that the court can issue a ruling. We hope the courts can act on this immediately so that the 43 will be reunited with their families on Christmas.
For me, that was probably the happiest December 10 rally I’ve ever been a part of.