By Romae Chanice Marquez
ON JUNE 13 around 8 p.m., four unidentified armed men barged into the home of community worker Elena Tijamo in Brgy. Kampingganon, Bantayan, Cebu. The abductors, masked and clad in black, reportedly put a tape on Elena’s mouth and tied her hands before taking her away.
Days after her abduction, she remains missing.
Tijamo works as a coordinator for non-government group Farmers Development Center (FARDEC), a regional peasant support organization based in Central Visayas.
Elena, called “Ate Lina,” by her colleagues, oversees the promotion of traditional crop varieties and natural farming methods to FARDEC’s partner-communities across the region. She also coordinated their group’s relief and rehabilitation drive in Yolanda-affected communities in Northern Cebu including Bantayan island.
Tijamo lives with her elderly parents, sister, and her daughter in Bantayan. They witnessed Elena’s abduction last Saturday, and remain at a loss why she was abducted.
According to Patrick Torres, executive director of FARDEC, the group received reports in 2018 that its partner communities in Bantayan Island were visited by the police and military. They reportedly discouraged community members from attending FARDEC’s meetings because the group allegedly “goes against the government”.
He added, “A few months ago, Ate Lina reported that a man claiming to conduct a survey for elderly Covid-19 beneficiaries visited her home but asked for her personal details instead. She later found out that the barangay had no knowledge of a survey.”
Prior to her abduction, Tijamo had shared to her FARDEC colleagues that her neighbors reported of unidentified men constantly asking for her home address.
After her capture, Tijamo’s family was contacted by her abductors. According to Torres, her relatives received text messages instructing them not to contact authorities, and that Elena “will be returned later”.
“But the following day, the abductors called again and allowed the family to talk to Ate Lina,” Torres said. “She was told that she will be released only if social media posts and news reports of her abduction were taken down.”
Torres believes that recent red-tagging incidents against FARDEC and its community workers are connected to the abduction of Tijamo. In November 2019, the organization was labeled a “local front of a communist group” by the military, particularly by Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Major General Reuben Basiao, during a hearing in the House of Representatives.
“The abduction confirmed our worst fear that there is a pattern. Community workers are first vilified through red-tagging, and just like what happened to Ate Lina, became under surveillance and then abducted,” Torres said.
He fears that this pattern would only get worse when the controversial Anti-Terror Bill is signed. “The law removes the protection away from civilians, and gives attackers the legality and freedom to arrest people like community workers,” Torres said.
Illegal arrests in the Visayas
This is not the first time that a community worker was captured in the Visayas in recent years, Torres shared.
In March 2018, six community organizers in Negros, known as the Mabinay 6, were arrested and accused of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA). Only this month, a local leader of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), Gaspar Davao, was arrested in Cadiz City while on his way home.
“With the terror bill, anyone can easily be tagged as ‘terrorist’, and this makes it alarming,” Torres said, adding that they found it ironic that a recent protest against the bill resulted in the arrests of seven Cebu rallyists and a bystander.
“Ate Lina is being held hostage and threatened so she will stop her work among the farmers,” Torres said. “Whoever these people are, they are the terrorists.”
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