Finally, a memorial for Duterte’s drug war victims

After getting killed extrajudicially in Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs,” many of the dead were buried in “apartment graves” that had to be leased only temporarily.

That was after many of them languished in funeral parlor mortuaries that were provided by Duterte’s Philippine National Police, for a fee of course. It was a police racket with funeral parlors, claims Amnesty International. Otherwise, the bodies would have been dumped in unmarked mass graves for the many poor marked Mr. X. But even for the mass graves, the family of Mr. X needed to pay a fee of 5,000 pesos.

But first, even the death certificate had to be faked. The mortician advised death by natural causes, despite the obvious gunshot wounds, to facilitate burial. It was one series of misconduct after another in cahoots with the Duterte police. And for those later buried in the apartment graves, the lease would soon run out.

There was no end to the appalling human indignities. Merciless does not even come quite close to describing it. Imagine if these happened to your own family members, what would you feel? It was not a war on drugs. It was a war against human dignity.

One has to get familiarized well with these ghastly mechanics of Duterte’s extrajudicial killings to appreciate the Dambana ng Paghilom. The Dambana – Shrine of Healing – was inaugurated this December 11 on an empty plot inside La Loma cemetery in Caloocan city. It was made possible by a donation from Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Diocese of Caloocan who is also the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

The Dambana is a work of architectural splendor. Designed by the architect Anthony Nazareno and his team, the 36-square meter bloc with a rounded interior was meant to accord dignity and sacredness to the memory of the dead. On the inside is an illuminated cross, while an eternal flame blazes in the middle. On the walls around the open patio are the names of EJK victims. There are 600 vaults, each vault capable of containing 4-6 urns of cremains.

The memorial is the work of the Paghilom Program founded in 2016 by Divine Word priest Fr. Flaviano Villlanueva SVD. Paghilom initially came about as Villanueva’s share to provide psychosocial therapy to the widows, orphans and bereaved families of the Duterte war dead. But Fr. Flavie is a straight arrow in dignifying the poor. Today he has expanded Paghilom to include the dirty job that the Duterte government refused to take responsibility for – exhumation, autopsy and cremation. Fr. Flavie accompanies the families for every exhumation. He has seen the squalid conditions in many paupers’ cemeteries. Have we?

Because of the Dambana, the dead whose families have had expired leases on the apartment graves have been given a dignified home. There is another partner who is also a straight arrow in this very unique endeavor. The well respected forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun took care of the autopsy of the exhumed remains. For months, she worked from an old university stockroom using wooden tables salvaged from a junkyard.

Analyzing the police-issued death certificates, Dr. Fortun easily noticed the discrepancies – death by natural causes as indicated, yet observing the presence of bullet punctures and defensive wounds. Dr. Fortun’s work demolishes the fake news that the police designed to accompany the killings as part of the grand cover-up. Hers is a work of truth seeking. The evidence she has amassed can be used in court against police, including at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Paghilom is a work of justice. Fr. Flavie reminds us what enduring reminder the memorial can imprint on us and on the perpetrators:

“The Dambana ng Paghilom is a place, a monument that would symbolize glaringly to all, especially to those who have been instruments for the killing, and most especially to the architect of the killings himself and his cohorts — we will never tolerate any more killings. We will hold you accountable.”

Someone has to pay for such gross inhumanities against man. That someone has many faces – Rodrigo Duterte foremost, Ronald dela Rosa, Bong Go, the many police officials who received incentivized money to kill – also known as bribe – and the Lord knows how many other Duterte officials there were who normalized the grotesque mind of the chief architect of the kill economy.

That payment may soon become a reality. We wait. And we fight as we wait.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.