We Can Weep

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I can walk with you all with my silent heart.”

I borrow these most prophetic words from Pope Francis. He was addressing himself to the survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” who had lost thousands of their family members. He might as well have been addressing himself to the families of SAF 44.

The words of Pope Francis in Tacloban were received with deep appreciation, not only by those who lost relatives to the supertyphoon, but by millions of Filipinos. It was as though he had a premonition about another tragedy coming soon, and offered a sincere, simple and wise pathway on how to show sympathy to those overcome with grief.

I, too, do not know what to say to the families of SAF 44. What does one say to the sudden and shocking loss of lives, to the barbaric and inhuman treatment of loved ones? And if there is no formula in words, maybe Pope Francis had the best advice after all—silence, sympathetic silence, participatory grief. And I weep.

We all have a right to weep. When SAF 44 made the decision to enter the police force, they began the journey of sharing their lives to the greater family—the Filipino people.  As all others who joined the police force and the military establishment, the call of duty would regularly demand that their personal families would be subordinated to the national family. I believe that their personal families try to embrace that reality and are better prepared than most in accepting the risks and consequences involved.

We, too, the people who are the greater family that SAF 44 had been defending and protecting, we are aggrieved by barbarism that has no place even in the theater of war. Our pain may be much less than the pain of their direct families, but it is there. We, too, lost some of our own. We have a right to weep.

All I can do is keep silent. And I can walk with you all with my silent heart. Borrowed though the words may be, the sentiment is not. It is mine, as is the shock and the anger that many share with the families of SAF 44. If I offer silence and sympathy, it is not for lack of anger—it is to acknowledge the immeasurable pain of families and the wish not to add on to it.

I believe that Pope Francis could have spoken up for the victims of Yolanda when he visited them in Tacloban. He could have personally highlighted the continuing pain of not just the loss of lives but the dire conditions of present day living among the poor. He could have criticized the shortcomings of those responsible for helping the typhoon victims. Yet, he chose silence, he chose presence, giving a message to all that silence can often speak louder than words.

Sadly, though, the environment is dominated by the belligerent noise of those who seek to be seen and heard. Politics, traditional and social media, or just plain gossip and wild speculations cannot restrain themselves, not even to allow undistracted grieving. The drama of a highly confidential operation that involves even the United States for at least two years has simply become too exciting not to speculate about, not to criticize, not to investigate. Not to be outdone, PNoy’s enemies believe they smell blood and want to start a deadly chase.

A whole peace process is being stalled. There is cause to doubt, to slow down, to review. After all, the tragic incident in Mamasapano happened in MILF territory, even if there is general acceptance that the renegade BIFF attacked the PNP-SAF forces. The MILF and BIFF relationship confuses many because the MILF is a principal party to the peace process and the BIFF rejects it. In truth, the Mindanao conflict of more than 40 years has historical roots covering centuries. Too much hate and violence have torn Christians and Muslims apart and the road to reconciliation is full of booby traps.

When war broke out in the ’70s and up to the end of 2013, an estimated 120,000 Christians and Muslims, men, women and children, military and police and civilians caught in between, have been killed. The natural wealth of Mindanao was no match for the bloodletting, causing any progress to be simply impossible or sustainable. 120,000 lives and a continuing death toll are powerful motivation for both sides to sue for a cessation of armed hostilities, and peace even at a compromise.

The ongoing peace process and the pending Bangsamoro Basic Law are not perfect. They never were meant to be. It is a compromise with each side getting less than it wants. But the imperfections override the basic alternative—resumed conflict that will add not 44 more deaths but thousands. The imperfections are not only in the details but deeper—in the historical animosity and prejudice it has spawned between Christian and Muslims.

Returning to war at a time when international terrorism is on the rise, when even major Western cities have become the target of bombings and killings, when technology in the hands of fanatics can make any place in the Philippines unsafe, is simply an option that we must not take rashly. Those who are now fanning the fire have little idea what the consequences us, even for yet unborn Filipinos. Terrorism precisely seeks a bloody battlefield where hundreds can cause millions to kill each other.

This is why I weep, because violence is on the rise, and many more will be claimed by war and terrorism. Most of all, I weep for SAF 44, not because they were brave men, as many others are brave, too, but because they are heroes who saved lives by giving theirs. And the more barbaric their enemies, the more brutal the way they died, the greater heroes they were for us, and our motherland. Yes, for them and all our heroes, we can weep.

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