November 23, 2005

Searching for Accountability

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

To the general public they seem as distant historical facts. A time period that is often mentioned in classrooms, educational television channels and books. But to those who lived through dozens of political atrocities, the pain is more present than ever.

In an attempt to release and voice that pain, the University of San Diego’s Institute of Peace and Justice organized a symbolic two-day court hearing for the victims of several war crimes.

Speaking for the victim “lawyer” Neila Sancho, national coordinator of Lolas Kampanyera. Victim in background is Memen Castillo—Comfort woman who was taken hostage by Japanese soldiers and raped at age 14.

Presenting a different twist to past forums, this court hearing focused specifically on crimes against women, their children and ultimately their life.

Now well past her 70’s, Menen Castillo is still coping with the abuse she encountered in her native Philippines when during World War II, Japanese soldiers took her captive and turned her into a sex slave at age 14.

Back then they were called “comfort women” as they were forced to service several men in a military garrison of Arayat. Eventually she was able to escape before becoming an elementary school teacher and marrying her husband. Nonetheless, even though decades have passed, she still breaks out in tears when speaking of her traumatic teen years.

“I am already old and many of my fellow survivors have since passed away,” says Castillo. “But I thank you all for giving us this search for accountability.”

For years, “comfort women” survivors have asked for legal compensation and restitution from the Japanese government, but as of yet, the country has yet to recognize it took any part in abuse against women.

Such is the case of Adriana Bartow, deputy director of Amnesty International USA-Guatemala.

She is victim of a civil war that officially claimed more than 200,000 Guatemalans from her country. Six of whom, were her family members. Nonetheless, the number the disappeared and displaced are estimated at over 1 million people.

During the social unrest her country lived through during the 1980’s, soldiers raided her father’s home while her two granddaughters were visiting. When she came to pick up her nine and 10-year-old daughters she was met at the door by a soldier. Minutes later she learned that she would never again see her father, two daughters, 18 month old sister, mother in law and sister in law. To this day, there is no account of what happened to them, which has made the ordeal even harder for Bartow.

“Every day of my life has been torture. Nobody disappears. Nobody. We, the surviving relatives are left to live our lives always wondering what happened. It almost destroyed me,” said Bartow.

Almost because now she uses those horrendous experiences to help find those who suddenly disappeared from homes, jobs, streets. She along with other desperate women formed an independent group to create a support system to help find their presumed dead family members. Sixty to 70 of them have been found alive and well by their families. Yet, 170 have been found dead.

“There can be no healing, no future until the day we find out what happened to our loved ones,” said Bartow.

In the government file, her family’s case is number 87. One more number out of thousands.

The panel of five judges heard a myriad of cases which ranged from the abuse women endured in Sri Lanka during a civil war between the countries majority and minority groups to the trafficking of women across our county’s borders.

Their verdict was symbolic. It was heard only by about fifty people who carefully listened to the victim’s life story. But, to the women who endured those atrocities, the court hearing gave them an opportunity to be listened to after years of being ignored.

Though this figurative indictment is a few of many, it hopes to encourage a greater solidarity for legal, moral and ethical responses to the social injustice that shadows civil conflicts.

The one common theme that sprung out throughout the cases was the undeniable right to simply hear an apology from the individual, organization or entity that inflicted their life.

For more information on future Court of Accountability cases, one can contact the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

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