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A bishop’s ‘dear little child of struggle’ is latest victim of Philippines’ senseless killings

A grainy photograph of a woman lying on the wet pavement circulated on social media in the evening of August 17. It was another case of “extrajudicial killing.”

For the human rights community in the Philippines, however, the dead woman was not just “another victim” of what has become a spate of senseless killings in the country in recent years.

The slain woman was Zara Alvarez, 39-year old single mother and human rights defender who has been documenting killings and rights abuses on the island of Negros in the central Philippines.

A few days before she was killed, Alvarez told LiCAS.news that she already “lost track of the actual numbers” of killings and deaths on the island “because there were just too many.”

“My most recent data was only until June 25. After that, there were so many cases of killings in the region,” she said in a telephone conversation.

Alvarez was able to document “31 summary executions” during the coronavirus pandemic from April 3 to June 24.

“I am getting tired of counting dead bodies,” she admitted. “But it breaks my heart to see how hard it is for the families of the victims to cry for justice.”

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Alvarez might have failed to get the exact numbers of what human rights groups described as “state-sponsored killings” in Negros, but “she did not fail to be there for the families of the victims.”

Catholic Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos on the island of Negros said the slain human rights activist was “always present in search for justice.”

Alvarez handled and prepared hundreds of “fact sheets” of cases of extrajudicial killings to help the families of victims file cases in court.

She spent days and nights going to communities to gather case profiles of victims.

Zara Alvarez, former education director and a paralegal staff member of rights group Karapatan in Negros. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan, said that like many activists, Alvarez “knew the work and the dangers.”

Palabay said Alvarez had been literally dodging bullets to get things done to “help and comfort” the families of the victims.

She had to suffer the grief, the pain, and the loss, because many of the victims of unsolved killings in Negros were her friends.

On Nov. 6, 2018, human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos was shot dead. Five months later, town councilman Bernardino Patigas, another friend of Alvarez, was also killed.

In an interview in August last year, Alvarez said she did not even have the time to grieve for her friends because “I had to pick myself up and assist the families.”

She said there was a point that “every time my phone rang, I know someone had died.”

Badge of honor

Alvarez knew her killers would eventually get her.

In another phone conversation last month, she told this reporter: “They cannot find me because I am too small.”

After the joke was a reminder that exactly one year ago, she received a serious death threat from an anonymous caller.

On July 20, 2019, the office of Karapatan received a phone call informing them that “Zara Alvarez was the next target.”

“Then we’ll get rid of all the members of the National Union of People’s Lawyers,” added the caller. “I just don’t know the specific date, but it will happen this year.”

Immediately after that incident, Alvarez was advised to “lie low” and find a temporary sanctuary outside Negros.

She refused to leave, saying, “I cannot leave everything behind while everyone I know is being killed.”

In an interview last year, this reporter asked her, “What if you’re really next, aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m afraid for myself and my child. But you can’t just stop or hide because the search and struggle for justice don’t stop,” she said.

Human rights defender Zara Alvarez signs a symbolic pledge to work for justice and peace during the 50th anniversary of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in 2019. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Threats, intimidation, and harassment — even incarceration — have become part of her world since she became a social activist.

On Oct. 30, 2012, she was arrested and detained for almost two years over murder charges filed against her and 42 other activists by state forces.

She was released on bail on July 22, 2014. The courts acquitted her of the charges on March 4 this year “due to lack of evidence.”

In 2018, she was also among about 600 people included in the Department of Justice’s petition to declare as terrorists, along with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

Her name and photos were also included in several posters “red-tagging” activists, community organizers, and church workers as communist rebels in Negros.

Despite the risk, it never crossed her mind to quit.

In September 2019, Alvarez attended a human rights conference in Potsdam, Germany, where she met Bishop Antonio Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.

The prelate told Alvarez to stay in Europe “at least for the rest of the year” and “seek refuge” because of the threats to her life.

“I have to go back home,” she told the bishop. “I cannot leave my work with the peasant and workers.”

Bishop Ablon told LiCAS.news that she cannot blame Alvarez for ignoring his advice.

“She lived out what it means to serve the people and offered her life for the masses until her last breath,” said the prelate.

Bishop Ablon described the slain woman as “a heroine of the oppressed people who longed for genuine peace and transformation of society.”

Zara Alvarez attends a peace conference in the province of Cebu in 2019. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Call for justice

Alvarez was the 13th human rights worker under the group Karapatan who were killed since July 2016.

Palabay said there seems to be “a killing spree of human rights defenders, peace advocates, and vocal critics in an attempt to sow terror and cower us into silence.”

“Like any human rights worker, who with clarity and certainty, knows that the way to pursue human rights work is to never relent in the struggle for justice, [Alvarez], facing dangers and fears, did what all of us have pledged our life to — that of selfless service — without any expectation of reward, accolades, money, or fame,” said Palabay.

She vowed that they will “never relent in pursuing justice” for Alvarez and all the victims of extrajudicial killings.

Karapatan called for an “independent probe into these ruthless murders” and the immediate pullout of military troops on the island of Negros.

“We will honor [Alvarez]’s legacy as a passionate, selfless, and dedicated human rights worker, by continuing the struggle for justice and the realization of people’s rights,” said Palabay.

Bishop Ablon urged the public “to come to our senses and see the realities of our time.”

The prelate said Filipinos must not wait for the time that no human rights defender will be left “because we failed to defend the people who defend us.”

Alvarez, who was a mother of an 11-year old daughter, was an ecumenical church worker. She was a staff member of the Church People-Workers Solidarity.

Bishop Alminaza, who heads the organization, said the woman’s involvement in the defense of human rights “is worthy of emulation.”

He said Alvarez’s life “reminds us to be prophetic in our work of evangelization and social justice.”

Bishop Alminaza said the assassins might have taken the woman’s life because “they were afraid of her.”

“Although a petite woman yet (she is) capable of condemning injustice and ever ready to organize farmers, peasants, workers, jeepney drivers, and even church people,” said the bishop.

He said the killers were crazy in “believing that they can silence the cause” that the slain church worker was fighting for.

“Your martyrdom in the cause for justice will inspire us to advance the cry for justice and the cry of the oppressed,” said Bishop Alminaza.

“I bleed of this never-ending injustice and violence, someone closest in my work with the oppressed is murdered. I just cannot believe this continuing madness of senseless killing,” he said.

He condemned what he called as the “systemic killings of human rights defenders and activists” and urged the authorities to “pursue justice” and “never allow the impunity.”

Bishop Alminaza vowed to “continue our work in the service of God’s poor.” He said Alvarez, “my dear little child of struggle,” had “inspired me in many ways to be a pastor.”

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