December last year, Cho-an Ocasla gave birth to a stillborn child. Until today she is baffled at how soon a heartbeat can go away. The baby was still kicking around until late, she says, but when she gave birth he was all dark and stiff.
This year, it’s her father who died in her arms.
Cho-an, 25, and her father Bernabe Ocasla, 66, had been hunkered down in a gurney for four days along the corridor in the male ward of Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center, near a window that opened to Taft Avenue. Beds were unavailable, as in any public hospital. Bernabe was just any other charity patient, save he had a yellow shirt and a uniformed BJMP guard on watch. Last Friday, November 25, the same day as the huge protest against the furtive Marcos burial, he suffered a stroke in jail and went into comatose. He was in court the day before, in high spirits as news of releases of political prisoners were echoed by the government yet again. Bernabe is on the priority list submitted by the National Democratic Front (NDFP) for release on humanitarian grounds.
Cho-an says her father fiercely believed in the government’s commitment and always held a well-creased document with signatures along the edges. The names of Bernabe’s co-accused, consultants of the NDFP, are on that document, the latest Joint Statement from Oslo, Norway brokered after several rounds of formal and informal negotiations with the Philippine government. In August 2016, three of Bernabe’s co-accused – Benito Tiamzon, Wilma Austria-Tiamzon, and Adelberto Silva – were released on bail. Bernabe and four others detained at the Manila City Jail hoped to be next in line. But none of the further releases, as promised, has happened.
Bernabe is accused of being among New People’s Army local leaders who arrested Samar farmers in an alleged witch hunt of deep penetration agents. He was implicated in a massive trumped-up charge, part of the legal offensive against progressive and communist leaders. He was transferred in 2014 from the Samar provincial jail, where he was first kept, to Manila where the hearings of the case, highly-controversial, were held. Cho-an scoffs at this. She recalled that since she was born, his father was never away so it was impossible that he could have been a member of the NPA when he was arrested.
At 16, because her father had been arrested, Cho-an quit school to work for the family. With six living siblings, there was not enough money to go around. With tears welling up, Cho-an says wistfully, she could only bring vegetables to jail when she visits. Sometimes, meat and fish when there is money left after sending most home. Overly-congested, reliant on hierarchy of force, the city jail seemed no place for a slight man of few words. But being the rural farmer that he is, Bernabe would be content with salt, vinegar, and teaspoonsful of diced onions for dinner.
Even while pregnant, and despite tiring work as a cashier at Isetann Recto, Cho-an always made time to visit. My father was the family’s rock, she says. When she gave the sad news that her baby Niño Lian did not survive, Bernabe buoyed her spirit strong. In turn she regaled her father with places they would go to and eat at. “Pag mayaman na ako, pa, at pag malaya ka na” [when I get rich, and when you are free], she promised.
Cho-an’s mother Perla and three siblings rushed in from Samar on November 28, 2016. Their family has been through so much, Cho-an doesn’t quite know what to pray for next. Within half an hour of reuniting, Bernabe had a third, fatal stroke. His pass out from jail is a death certificate.
“Nakalaya man ang tatay ko, nasa kabaong naman [My father was released, but only through his coffin],” Cho-an cries angrily. “Sinong makikinig sa aming mga maliliit na tao? Sinong magbibigay sa amin ng hustisya? [Who will listen to us small people? Who will give us justice?]”