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Lamentations of victims of Philippine war on the poor

State of the Nation Address should have been an apology for what President Duterte has done with his bloody drug war

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Published: July 27, 2021 03:49 AM GMT

Updated: July 27, 2021 10:43 AM GMT

Lamentations of victims of Philippine war on the poor

In this 2017 file photo, a woman grieves next to the body of her son, an alleged drug user, shot dead during the Philippines’ deadly drug war. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP) 

“Oh my Aldrin, how nice it was to be your mother …

The many dreams you had …

Shattered all of a sudden.

Grief and anguish engulfed me.

In an instant, you were gone.

On the night of October 2, you were killed

By motorcycle-riding offenders without license plates

Their faces were covered …

Ordered by the butcher ...”

This is an excerpt from a poem written by Nanette Castillo, one of the innumerable mothers of victims of extrajudicial killings during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. She lost her only child, Aldrin, on Oct. 2, 2017. 

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On the day of Duterte’s sixth and final State of the Nation Address on July 26 before his term ends next year, Nanette shared a post telling the president that his contract is over and that the Filipino people do not want him. 

“I hope that he will be enlightened. His sins are grievous. He should be sorry for his crimes and admit them,” she said when asked what her message to the president was.     

“He should be punished for what he did and continues to do. I can only pray that he will be haunted by the spirits of those people he ordered to be killed. He will continue to hurt me for as long as I live. He has inflicted on me a pain that penetrates my soul. He should never ever run for public office again.” 

Little do Filipinos know that families of victims like Nanette experience revictimization. 

Five-year leases on graves — rectangular concrete boxes costing 5,000 pesos (US$100) for those killed by the war on drugs, are expiring. The skeletal remains are being pulled out of coffin-sized tombs and being placed in body bags. Fortunately, the remains of Nanette’s son, Aldrin, are being spared this desecration. He was buried on land owned by his grandfather.

In a noble effort to provide decent graves for these victims, Divine Word Father Flavie Villanueva of the Kalinga Center, a sanctuary for the homeless, is organizing exhumations as the leases will continue to expire in the coming years. He established the center’s Paghilom (Healing) program to respond to the needs of the victims of the war on drugs. 

Already stripped of dignity when they were alive, condemned and mercilessly killed, victims of extrajudicial execution are once again victimized through the degradation of their mortal remains. 

Storing the ashes in a columbarium to re-dignify them, at least in death, is Father Villanueva’s plan. 

On the eve of Duterte’s address, Nanette expressed her hope that her son’s killers could be punished

It is lamentable, however, that for some families it is too late. Even prior to the expiration of some leases, the bones of some victims were removed and thrown into sacks. 

On the eve of Duterte’s address, Nanette expressed her hope that her son’s killers could be punished. 

She was aware that the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, officially requested an investigation into killings in the Philippines between 2016, when Duterte took office, and 2019 when he withdrew the Philippines from ICC membership. 

In a statement, the prosecutor declared: “I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed on the territory of the Philippines between July 2016 and March 16, 2019, in the context of the government of the Philippines’ war on drugs campaign.” 

Since hearing this news, Nanette and the families of other victims have been hoping that one day truth and justice will triumph. 

She has expressed frustration over the lack of justice at a national level, so seeking international intervention is imperative. 

“There should be an investigation into the killings to give justice to my son and countless other victims,” she said.

Some are from the middle class but of the tens of thousands that the prosecutor has mentioned as having been killed, the vast majority are poor Filipinos

In a June 25 webinar titled “Crime Against Humanity and the ICC” sponsored by the University of the Philippines Institute of Human Rights, the University of the Philippines International Legal Studies and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, one of the speakers was lawyer Ruben Carranza.

He said the Philippines’ war on drugs is "a class war.” Some are from the middle class but of the tens of thousands that the prosecutor has mentioned as having been killed, the vast majority are poor Filipinos, he said.

“And that's an important factor to consider when talking about the rights of victims and what victims are entitled to in terms of justice at the ICC,” Carranza said.

On the occasion of Duterte’s address, which was to be delivered against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, Nanette and numerous other poor families look forward to the delivery of the elusive truth and justice. 

As national elections are just around the corner, in what concrete ways will the government carry out its response to the pandemic instead of giving priority to ensuring its return to power? How will it respond to the drug war victims’ clamor for justice? What will its position be on ICC scrutiny of the bloody consequences of the war on drugs? 

The Philippines is celebrating 500 years of Christianity this year. Christianity means following, among others, the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall not kill.” 

With hopes in our hearts, we work and pray that a papal intervention — better still divine intervention — will free us from violence and death

Duterte’s address should have been a humble admission of the violation of this commandment and a deep expression of remorse. But even without this, we have living testimonies of the bloodbath through Nanette and countless mothers, fathers, wives and orphans of victims of this war on the poor. 

With due respect to the Filipino faithful’s gift of faith, there is ambivalence in the Philippines’ fifth centenary celebration of the arrival of Christianity.

Archbishop Charles Brown, the papal nuncio to the Philippines, recently met widows and orphans who lost their loved ones in the bloody war on drugs. Moved by their stories, he promised to tell Pope Francis of their lamentations. 

With hopes in our hearts, we work and pray that a papal intervention — better still divine intervention — will free us from violence and death.

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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