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Filipino archivist races to protect history of abuses ahead of Marcos presidency


Filipino archivist Chuck Crisanto is in a race against time. He's racing to preserve records of human rights abuses during the rule of former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The Philippines was under martial law through much of the 1970s and '80s. Crisanto's team is trying to finish preserving the archives before Marcos' son takes office in two weeks out of fear that once that happens, history could be destroyed. Crisanto is executive director of the Human Rights Violations Victims' Memorial Commission, and he remembers the emotions his family and staff felt when they learned the Marcos family would soon return to power. And a warning - this conversation includes descriptions of violence and murder.

CHUCK CRISANTO: My son cried for two weeks, and my staff also were in grief because they worked so hard trying to put out the truth that we know those many people in various platforms - Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, what have you - trying to reach the younger generation who never lived through the year of martial law. And I told them, after two weeks, let's set their mind straight, and we still have a job to do.

PFEIFFER: Would you give us a sense of what type of records you and other archivists are trying to save?

CRISANTO: There's many events that even I, who lived through martial law, did not know because at that time, media was heavily censored. One aspect that I've been concentrating on was a genocide of our Muslim brothers. We estimate 800 to 1,500 of them killed over a month. People were asked to dig their graves, take off their clothes and were shot in the back. If that wasn't enough, 80 of them were actually packed in a mosque and gunned down with automatic gunfire. The bullet marks are still there in that mosque. Those atrocities never saw the light in mainstream history books or even in the knowledge of many people.

PFEIFFER: And then how are you organizing and preserving it? You mentioned digitization. Will things be put into digital form? Will it eventually be in a museum or some kind of archive?

CRISANTO: The human rights abuses were actually graduated into 10 points. One point would be you were hit by a truncheon, or you could have been detained arbitrarily without the warrant of arrest. And then as the points progressed, if you were at nine points, you would have lost an arm or a physical injury that was inhuman in nature. And if you do have 10 points, which is the highest, you must have been murdered - or for some people, they're still missing up to now.

The primary collection will be encrypted, and so that - it will be sent to the cloud. It will be sent to educational institutions here in the country, as well as some partner institutions abroad so that that memory will never be lost.

PFEIFFER: Chuck, you mentioned that you lived in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship. For people who are too young to remember that or who weren't born yet or who simply don't know this history, can you give us a sense of what it was like to live there under martial law?

CRISANTO: There are two sides of every coin. One is the same; that, no, Marcos imposed discipline. That was peace and order. There was actually economic growth. Golden Era would have the Miss Universe pageants, five-star hotels that were built, the roads crisscrossing the country - but all at a cost. And the cost was, as mentioned by the Guinness Book of World Records, a larceny that may have been the world record - $10 billion were stolen. The sad fact is, majority had to feel the brunt of martial law.

PFEIFFER: What are you afraid might be lost when Marcos Jr. takes office?

CRISANTO: My worst fear that actually - they'll try to burn the actual records physically. But if I'm able to - and I'm in the process of finishing up the digitization of all of these records, then the evidence will stand the light one day. And I'm very hopeful. I am an optimist. He may say the sins of my father are not my own, and I promise the Philippines that gross human rights violations will not happen under my watch.

PFEIFFER: That's Chuck Crisanto. He's executive director of the Human Rights Violations Victims' Memorial Commission in the Philippines. Thank you for your time.

CRISANTO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.