As Filipinos remember their dead, families grieve for victims of the drug war

On Nov. 1, Rowena Diaz’s two sons are visiting the cemetery for the first time.

Her eldest, aged six, could hardly wait that he started a countdown: “Mama, ilang days na lang pupuntahan na natin si Papa sa sementeryo (Mama, how many days till we visit Papa in the cemetery)?”

A month ago, the boy saw for himself the lifeless body of his 36-year-old father, Ervee Bugarin, blood-soaked in a dimly lit alley in Balic Balic in Sampaloc, Manila, a neighborhood that has seen a spate of drug-related killings by unknown gunmen.

Bugarin, who surrendered to police a year ago, wasn’t spared, and now lies at the severely congested Manila North Cemetery. The sons he left behind join the list of children orphaned in the war on drugs, where the death toll has reached 3,967 in October, most of them fathers and breadwinners like Bugarin.

In the ongoing drug war, it is the children who suffer the most, say human rights groups as they launched on Oct. 30 the music video, “Hayaan Mo Ako” (Let Me Be), during an intimate gathering of artists, rights defenders and victims’ families at the Most Holy Trinity Parish in Balic Balic.

The four-minute video, produced by the nonprofit League of Authors of Public Interest Songs, features Pinoy rock musician Dong Abay, baring his full-body tattoos as if imitating a drug addict pleading for enough chances to “dream, cultivate hope and fight for something.”

The song in the video speaks about the yearnings for a normal life – a life filled with love, dreams, hope and even trials. “Let us age and be ripe through time,” the final notes of the song, sung by little voices, fade out in contrast to a faceless body of a child.

The music video was the highlight of the event entitled “Gunita” (Remembrance), where artists also remembered drug war victims through songs, spoken word poetry and a play, all of which condemn the senseless killings and abandonment of the youth in the drug war.

Rowena Diaz, who lost the father of her children to an alleged drug-related killing, sheds a tear as she watches a music video. (Photo by Arianne Christian Tapao)

The Philippine Association of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) said 63 minors have been killed in the government’s war on drugs since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in July last year. The list includes student Kian Delos Santos, 17, whose death caused a national uproar when a camera got a snippet of two men holding him moments before his death on Aug. 16. (See Outrage at Kian’s wake: Lawmakers, rights activists denounce Duterte’s war on drugs)

“We do not agree with the killings. They should be stopped. We keep on reminding everyone that human beings have human rights,” Rosemarie Trajano, PAHRA secretary-general, said.

The drug war, she says, does not discriminate between children being killed or orphaned.

“Those who aren’t victims of killings have the same yearning: a good life. That they grow up free, they grow up happy,” she said.

Diaz, lulling her sons to sleep on her lap as the video played, couldn’t help but tear up.

The widow said the message resonates with her, believing that those who have been lured into drugs, like the father of her children, are not given the chance to take on new lives.

Parish priest Enrico Aldobiso, talking about drug addicts who underwent rehabilitation in their community, likened them to souls that have been restored from death.

Yet, for those who were deprived of second chances, the priest said there is nothing wrong with expressing rage. “Umalis man ang pamahalaan na ito, hindi natin kakalimutan at sisingilin natin sila (The administration may change, but we will never forget, and we will hold them accountable).”

With a clenched fist, parish priest Enrico Aldobiso says there’s nothing wrong with being outraged when remembering those wronged and left behind by the drug war. (Photo by Arianne Christian Tapao)

With its leaders actively condemning the drug war, the church has become one of the few sanctuaries in the Philippines for families of those who suffered summary killings. (See Rights groups say no to violence and martial law)

The Most Holy Trinity Parish established its own human rights ministry just last May to focus on helping them more.

The children from the parish themselves know stories of the killings in Balic Balic by heart. At a stage play during the event, the parish youth ministry portrayed stories of three families that shared the same tragic ending: children grieving their dead fathers felled by bullets from masked gunmen.

“Hate na hate ko ang drugs, suportado ko nga ang pangulo noong sinabi niya na lahat ng droga, lahat ng adik mawawala (I really hate drugs, I even supported the president when he said drugs and addicts will be eliminated),” cried a teen who played a parish volunteer in his soliloquy.

Pero hindi sa ganoong paraan. Sa patayin? Patayan ang paraan (But not in this way. Is killing the answer)?” he added. “Ganito ba talaga? Ganito na ba ang bansa natin (Is this how we will do it? Is this how our country has become)?”

Members of the Most Holy Trinity Parish’s youth ministry in Balic Balic, Sampaloc call for an end to the war on drugs through a stage play on three cases of extrajudicial killings in their neighborhood. (Photo by Maria Feona Imperial)

Diaz believes Bugarin will find no justice in his death, as it had been in his lifetime.

“With so many killed? I don’t think we can expect (justice). Has anything come out from the earlier killings? We don’t see any news of any case being solved, do we)?” she said in Filipino.

When Bugarin voluntarily surrendered last year, heeding the call of the administration, they all thought he would undergo rehabilitation as promised. Instead, the police took a photo of him “like a criminal.” Nobody had any idea it was only a matter of time before his death would come, Diaz said.

“It’s like you gave up your life to them. You surrendered your life to them. And it’s up to them when to kill you,” she added.

A stay-at-home mother, Diaz has little clue on how to make ends meet for her two boys. After Bugarin was buried on Oct. 7, she struggled to find a cheaper rent space in Quezon City, but does not know where to go from there.

Even then, life was never easy for the family, as they once had to live inside jeepneys for eight months.

Diaz often finds herself asking if she can go through life without Bugarin. But for her sons, she has to. "I tell myself that I can because I’m the only one left. I am all my sons have left.”

At the end of the event, the group lighted candles in the shape of a man killed in a crime scene, mimicking the real-life outcome of anti-illegal drug operations. (Photo by Maria Feona Imperial)


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