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No resting in peace for Philippines' drug war victims

As grave leases expire, a priest helps families to provide a permanent and dignified resting place for their relatives
No resting in peace for Philippines' drug war victims

Children watch as the remains of a suspected victim of a targeted killing are placed in a crypt at a public cemetery in Manila. (Photo: Vincent Go/AFP)

Published: July 23, 2021 10:22 AM GMT
Updated: July 23, 2021 10:31 AM GMT

In a country like the Philippines where over 17.6 million people live below the poverty line, having a permanent grave is a luxury not everyone can afford.

While the Southeast Asian country struggles with extreme poverty and the Covid-19 crisis, the gloom is palpable, especially in rural areas,

In the midst of it all, Society of the Divine Word Father Flavie Villanueva, followed by men in personal protective equipment (PPE) and a group of women, makes his way to a graveyard.

The women appear anxious yet eager to meet their loved ones. It has been a while since they were buried.

After reciting prayers, the priest introduces himself as the founder of Project ARISE, a rehabilitation program for drug addicts and their families.

As they slowly approach a seven-story deck of cemented graves, one woman suddenly sits on the pavement. The men in PPE place a wooden ladder at the spot and start to smash one of the upper graves with a hammer.

Enriquez’s mother said that although her son was a drugs suspect, he never carried a firearm

It belonged to a certain Rodzon Enriquez, a victim of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on illegal drugs. The 24-year-old was shot twice in his chest by policemen during a raid at a fish port in Manila back in 2016.

Police said they were about to arrest Enriquez on murder charges when he opened fire at the arresting officers, who recovered a .38 caliber pistol along with two sachets of cocaine from his person.

Enriquez’s mother said that although her son was a drugs suspect, he never carried a firearm. He was a fish dealer who shared his income with her.

Tears fell from her eyes as his bones were removed from a dusty casket.

“I feel the same pain that I first felt when he died,” Corazon Enriquez told Father Villanueva.

Normally, lease contracts only bind the living. But in the case of her son, the contract with the public cemetery for his grave had expired after five years. Rodzon Enriquez’s remains had to be removed so that others may rent the grave.

Corazon said her son was too young to die. He should have been the one to bury her, not the other way around, she said.

“If only we could swap places. I’d rather die instead of him,” the still grieving mother said.

She was further hurt that the family could not afford to extend the lease contract they had with the public cemetery.

Duterte’s war on drugs is hitting the country’s poor the hardest. “The more than 7,000 killings to date have overwhelmingly hit the urban poor,” says Amnesty International.

And as if this was not enough, the Covid-19 pandemic has further weakened the poor. They now have no option left but to remove their loved ones' remains from rented graves and transfer them to a mass grave.

This is where Project ARISE steps in, providing dignified care and healing to wounded families of extrajudicial killings.

After blessing Enriquez’s remains, Father Villanueva and his team took them to a Manila cremation facility to be placed in an urn.

“We are in the mission of providing dignified care and healing to wounded families of victims of extralegal killings in the Philippines … Part of this is to provide a permanent and dignified burial for Catholics,” said Father Villanueva.

A process of healing once again comes after the cremation when the remains are finally brought to the final resting place

The priest said healing takes place if families of the victims see the remains of their loved ones given respect and dignity.

“A process of healing once again comes after the cremation when the remains are finally brought to the final resting place,” he said.

To bury the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. It recognizes the sacredness of both the person and one’s body, he added.

Father Villanueva urged churchgoers to support this project. “Be a part of the cause of providing a decent and permanent place to bury the dead. Let’s stop the killings and begin the healing.” 

The priest has been a staunch critic of Duterte’s war on drugs. As a former drug dependent himself, he believes drug suspects must not be butchered like animals but should be given a second chance.

When he was called a “communist” in 2020, Father Villanueva responded: “As a priest, I have the sacred duty to recognize, live with what is right, and denounce what is wrong and if I can do that, then I would be happy to be called an activist.”

Christ himself was a revolutionary. He was crucified because he did not choose to save himself, he added.

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