Of dreams, death and hope

Leonor looks away and holds her breath for some seconds to stop the tears that have been threatening to fall while she narrated the dreams she and her deceased husband had.

“None of us were able to finish even grade school,” she said. “Everyday, we go to our farm to grow what we eat.  That’s how we survive.”

But unlike other farming families who bring their children with them to the farms, they insisted on sending all their children to school.

“Our dream, ambitious though it seems for us who have simple means of living, was to be able to send our children to college,” Leonor said. “To get them off this difficult situation of laboring daily on the fields – the land not even ours – to make ends meet, they should finish school.”

Their family had been from a remote sitio of Barangay Balit, San Luis, Agusan del Sur. However, in 2007, Jerry, her deceased husband, received threats from a paramilitary group after he refused to join his neighbors in ‘surrendering’ as members of the communist-led New People’s Army.

“Jerry was very straight with his principles,” Leonor said. Her husband was an active community organizer and an activist operating in broad daylight. “He was very firm especially when he was in the right. He even said he’d rather die than surrender.”

Mario Napongahan, the leader of the paramilitary group, later on absorbed some of the surrenderees into his group, which is known to the Banwaon communities of San Luis as ‘Rebel Returnees.’  Leonor and Jerry decided to transfer to the barangay center of Balit for a more secured community.

Having left the farm their family had been tilling for years, they were able to ask a landowner to be allowed to farm in a nearby area. They had also started to develop a falcatta farm that they thought would be a good source of income for their children when they reach college.

“But we never got to finish this project,” said Leonor.

In the evening of August 12, 2016, while Leonor was preparing the mats for their children, she heard the barking of their dog. Jerry, who was with the children who had fallen asleep in front of the television, got up to check outside, afraid that their dog might bite the person outside.

“I heard him telling the dog to keep quiet,” said Leonor. “Then he asked the person to come in.”

But the reply was three gunshots. Two to the left side of Jerry’s chest, and another to his back.

“I immediately jumped to the lower part of the house to get to Jerry, but I only saw the back of his killer,” she recalls. “But I am sure there were five others. There were three motorcycles that left right after the incident with a driver and a rider each. All of them had bonnets over their heads.”

Leonor could not think of anyone angry enough to kill Jerry other than the group that had threatened him before. He didn’t have vices ever since they got married. If not at their farm, he would be at home, doing small tasks. The only fault she could think of him was his principles.

“When someone comes and asks for his help, it would be difficult for him to refuse,” she said. “He couldn’t stand it when others are being abused.”

Five months after Jerry’s death, they still have not found justice. It was difficult for them to pin down the killer as even though they had suspicions, even their account would not be accepted as the perpetrators were all in bonnets.

Leonor hadn’t stopped dreaming though.

“We have eight children,” she said. “I will not let go of our hope to see at least two or three of them finish college. That would be Jerry’s legacy to our family. The hope that we can do something about our situation.”###

 

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Leonor is the wife of Jerry Layola. Layola and Jimmy Barosa, both human rights defenders from the Manobo people, were killed on August 12, 2016 in San Luis, Agusan del Sur by believed-to-be state security forces and its paramilitary group.

Layola and Barosa’s dependents received protection support from the ‘Welcoming the Strangers’ Program of RMP-NMR supported by the Freedom House.

Interested to support our work for human rights defenders at-risk? E-mail us at services@rmp-nmr.org