I first met Kim Gargar during the last election season, when, as an information technology expert, he helped Kontra Daya in exposing the flaws of the PCOS automated election system. Specifically, he made us non-computer geeks understand just how vulnerable the computerized system was to cheating, and how the simplest electronic safeguards weren’t being implemented by the Comelec. We also discovered that we had several common friends from UP Diliman and Agham (an organization of advocates of bringing science and technology to the people), making me feel like we’ve known each other for longer than the week or so that he spent with us.

Kim’s stint with Kontra Daya was a short one because he was in Davao primarily to help in the ecological evaluation of typhoon Pablo areas. That same month he was off to Baganga, Davao Oriental, as part of a solidarity and fact-finding mission to investigate the murder of village councilor Cristina Jose, and to assess the progress (or non-progress) of far-flung barrios months after Pablo hit. (Jose had been persistent in shaking the gates of local government up to the regional DSWD office here in Davao City, asking after the relief goods that were rightfully theirs, and her death had been linked to these activities.)

The team to Baganga was big, 69 in all, with representatives from different sectors: teachers, students, church people, social workers, journalists, and professionals like Kim. The size and composition of the team had been necessary in order to demonstrate its legitimacy, to avoid arousing the suspicion of the increasing number of military men being reported by the residents.

Nonetheless, the team was met with various forms of harassment up to the point that they got ‘stranded’ in one of the upland barangays after the trucks that served as their means of transportation were rendered unable to fetch them. This was where I met Kim again, as I joined the team from Davao City that was dispatched to help ‘rescue’ the “Baganga 69” after four days full of tension but low on food and water.

Kim was upbeat and unfazed by what he had just undergone. As soon as we reached the town center of Baganga, his thoughts were already on what needs to be done next. The Center for Environmental Concerns in Quezon City, where he was working at that time, was exploring the idea of forming a quick reaction environmental assessment team of sorts that can work in local contexts. As an anthropologist, he said, I would be able to contribute immensely to this effort, showing how keenly aware he was that environmentalism without the concern for human or cultural factors was simply untenable. I of course said yes, and we promised to keep in touch as to when we could get those plans rolling.

So, imagine my surprise when a friend texted me two weeks ago saying that Kim was back here in Mindanao and had reportedly been arrested, and that no one was sure where he had been taken. That very evening me, a colleague from UP Mindanao and another friend of Kim’s, and members of Karapatan were off following leads that eventually brought us to Mati Provincial Hospital, where we finally saw Kim.

He was in a solo ward with glass-paneled windows, and when he saw us his face immediately lit up and he started waving at us vigorously. His spontaneous display of mirth was such a contrast to the stern expressions of the guards outside the room that I couldn’t help but laugh a little inside. Attaboy, Kim, I thought.

There was a bandage on the crown of Kim’s head, and his right leg was swollen, but he was happy to see people he knew after almost two days of being among strangers who kept interrogating him. He was fine, he said, he just slipped and fell off a waterfall. He knew that there was something gravely wrong when soldiers arrived and accosted him, but he kept calm and went along with it, and he was eventually taken into police custody and brought to the hospital. We assured him that we would do what we can, before leaving to let him catch up on his sleep (we had arrived at the hospital at one in the morning).

After that visit I had the nagging feeling that Kim’s cheerfulness was from all the adrenaline from the past couple of days, and I was worried that he would crash soon enough. However, during our next visit, one day after his thirty-fourth birthday, his spirits were as high as ever. We had a small celebration on the prison grounds, with a cake and some goodies he could bring back to his cell. A friend from Diliman had suggested buying him a sketch pad, for which he was very happy. The pens and pencils might not make it through the security check, though the oil pastels should be fine.

At the relatively more open atmosphere of the prison yard we were able to talk about what happened and the charges against him. Attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms and explosives, with a Comelec gun ban violation thrown in to boot, are certainly nothing to sniff at. Kim himself could hardly believe it when the bombs he was allegedly found with were displayed in front of him. He told us that he would have to be Superman to be able to carry all of those explosives, an M16 rifle, as well as his backpack through the jungle. Well, you did fly off a waterfall, somebody quipped. “That’s why they thought I was Superman!” Kim finished the thought as we all burst out laughing.

But, I thought, if Kim really were Superman he wouldn’t need to be ‘rescued’ like this twice in the same year – first in Baganga and then again when we found him in Mati – and especially not during the course of his legitimate work. The fact that he was is a cause for great concern, and is reflective of how scientists, particularly those with pro-people advocacies, are treated by forces of the State. [To be continued ]

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