Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war has killed thousands of suspected addicts and street dealers, leaving many families grieving. (Photo by Vincent Go)
I struggled to keep tears at bay at the launch of the Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) as a woman shared how she lost her father and brother to President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war and how her family had ransomed shelter and everything they owned for her life.
In my line of work as an NGO worker, we are encouraged to call the people we help as "survivors" to help them see their situation in a positive light.
While this is true of the people who have experienced natural disasters, I cannot transfer the same nomenclature to cases of tokhang, that euphemism for a system that marshals the poor and makes them sitting ducks for killers.
The thousands killed by state agents and their families are victims, pure and simple. To try to frame their suffering in a positive light would be a disservice to the injustice they've experienced. It would be a denial of the truth.
The tokhang victim came forward in sunglasses and a scarf. Media covered the MAT launch; the moderator asked them to blur her face, and the rest of us to not take her photo.
People willingly put down their phones. All the better, so we could listen to her story, which was indeed a harrowing one.
"Marian's" father and brother had been killed in the war against drugs. Her father, 52, was at home one day when the police came and shot him. "Nanlaban," they said. [He fought back.]
After Marian's father was killed, her brother was taken away on a motorcycle. That was the last time she ever saw him alive. The next time she saw him was in a funeral parlor.
Marian and her husband were among those who surrendered to the police. They thought this was the right thing to do, trusting in the promises made that they would be given a livelihood a month after surrendering.
It's not like they had a choice. They were told they would be killed if they did not surrender, and they did not want to die.
But instead of the authorities keeping their promises, Marian was put in a secret jail that was darker and bleaker than any ordinary jail — for a whole month.
As for her husband, shortly after they surrendered the police came to their house yet again, and shot him. The family could not risk taking him to any hospital, and so he took the bullet out of his side himself. He has since gone into hiding, more afraid for his life than ever.
Longtime activist Mother Mary John Mananzan also told the story of another victim's family.
She, along with others, started an organization called Bai Gani "women warriors," to help victims of extra-judicial killings.
She talked about a three-year-old boy who slept nightly on his father's chest. But one night police shot the father at point blank range in the head. His boy woke up with papa's brain splattered all over his face and body.
Since then, the child has been going around saying, "Father is dead, I can feel his brain."
Mother Mary John asked everyone — "How do you ever cure and heal this boy?'
The context for Mother Mary John's story is the camp that Bai Gani held for 10 widows and 40 children, and where the victims' families told their stories as part of their therapy.
Children losing their parents is not my biggest fear. There are people and organizations and institutions that are rallying behind families to give them the support they need. Not enough, perhaps, but they are there.
My biggest fear is the slow but seemingly inexorable desensitization that is happening because of everyday exposure to not just one but multiple killings daily.
The message we are being told is that it's all right to take a life — or lives. It's acceptable to run roughshod over the justice system, such as it is. After all, if it worked in Davao it can certainly be effective on a nationwide scale. Right?
In the end, if the president succeeds in ridding our country of every single drug dealer and user (and he's already backpedaled on this many times), I'm afraid that it will come at too terrible a price.
We'll have sold our morality and the value of human life for the easy solution found in a firearm. And it's not going to be our generation that will pay the highest price. It will be our children and our children's children, as we lead them down a dark path from where we may never recover.
In the end, all of us Filipinos may end up being the biggest victims of all.
Betty Romero is a former principal of a faith-based school that has an outreach program for at-risk children in urban poor communities. She heads a sister organization that serves the indigenous Mangyan people.