The courage to survive

Killings continue in poor communities in the Philippines as authorities wage their war against illegal drugs
The courage to survive

Policemen look at another victim of drug-related killings in the Philippines. (Photo by Vincent Go)

He is only 13 years old. Let us can call him Jaybe. He has no formal education, he can not read nor write, and is one of the hundreds of thousands of children in Philippine slums.

His father left the family for another woman, leaving behind Jaybe, his two brothers, and a 3-year-old sister, Jinna.

His mother tries to ensure the family survives by selling vegetables that have been discarded in the market. She sells them to people as poor as her to feed the four children.

Jaybe’s family lives, as millions still do, in dire poverty.

Their home is a box made of flattened tin cans in a small hovel in the middle of a crowded slum in Manila. Nearby, a creek, black with dirt, gives off the smell of rotting waste.

The stink is a daily punishment for being alive and poor in the Philippines. They have no electricity or water.

The smell, however, does not reach the towering condominiums of the wealthy. The soaring buildings stand tall, glittering in the night. Wealth is far from the wildest imaginations of Jaybe and his family.  

Jaybe's only possessions are a dirty shirt and a pair of cotton short pants. He goes around barefoot.

He scavenges for junk behind supermarkets and sells it to earn a few pesos, enough to buy overripe bananas that are slowly turning black.

Janis, the children's mother, usually brings home "pagpag" in an old plastic biscuit box from which they all eat with their bare hands.

"Pagpag" is the term used for leftovers thrown out by restaurants, a feast for the poor.

Jaybe's family used to have a neighbor. He was old, skinny, and emaciated. His face was sunburnt and gaunt.

He made a living as a pedicab driver, and every day, he pedaled his rusting bike looking for passengers. It was exhausting work, but he needed to earn for an aging wife and a grandchild.

One warm evening, when Jaybe was waiting for his mother to arrive with the "pagpag," there was a cracking sound that drove everyone outside their homes.

Jaybe grabbed his brother and bundled them inside the hovel. "Where's Jinna?" he shouted. He ran out and saw three uniformed men with guns.

More shots split the silence of the night, and cries were heard. Jaybe ducked back inside.

Someone shouted. "Don’t shoot! I am unarmed!"  More gunshots rang. There was shouting and screaming. Then it was quiet. A car started, a siren whined, and the men drove away.

Four dead bodies were left on the ground, among them was the old neighbor. His hollowed eyes stared into nothingness. His skeletal body sprawled outside the door of his hut. His wife was crying.

People emerged from the shelters like frightened rabbits.

Jaybe found 3-year-old Jinna down the muddy path, bloodied and dead.

"They fought back," a police report later read.

Was the old man a dangerous criminal? Why was baby Jinna killed? Was the old man taking crystal meth? Was he a drug courier? Likely not.  

Being a mere suspect is enough to get killed in the slums of Manila. At least 6,600 have died that way, according to police, although human rights groups put the toll much higher.

Jaybe ran to Jinna. He was crying. He called for help, but nobody came. His mother arrived. She screamed in agony at the sight of her little child.

There was no ambulance — no one cared. They were too poor for a hospital or for an undertaker.  

Up in the condominium apartments, the lights were shining. Down in the darkness in the slums, a drug war was being waged.

The old man and baby Jinna were "collateral damage" in a police operation where, according to one Filipino senator, "shit happens."

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

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