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'I saw my grandfather lying in a pool of blood': The unseen impact of Philippines' brutal war on drugs

Nicola Smith
Relatives of victims of the Philippines war on drugs hold a memorial for their loved ones - AP

Maria’s last memory of her father is of him lying face down and begging for his life moments before gunshots rang out.

Earlier on a December morning in 2016, she and four siblings had been celebrating their sister’s birthday, squeezed happily onto the worn sofa in their tiny home in the Philippine slum of Payatas and eating spaghetti prepared by their father Jerome, 37.

Then a movement by the window caught the young girl’s eye.  “A man was pointing a gun at us,” Maria recalls. A squad of seven unidentified men, armed and dressed in black jackets, then burst through the door. The family suspect they were police officers, although the Telegraph has been unable to confirm this. 

The children froze and were too scared even to scream. When her siblings were pushed outside and their father was ordered to lie down, Maria, then 11, broke free to cling to him in a desperate hug, trying to shield him from harm.

“My father was showing them his ID but the policeman said he didn’t care and pointed a gun at his head. My father kept begging them: ‘If I have done something wrong please just put me in jail because I have seven children’,” she said.

But they didn’t listen. The slight child was torn from her father and tossed outside as he was killed in cold blood. Three years later, Maria, now a shy teenager, still cries as she recounts the story, tormented that she was unable to save him.

Maria (with her back to the camera) with her grandmother Rosa Credit: Eugene Ibis

She bears witness to the devastation felt by thousands of families ripped apart since the start of the Philippine government’s uniquely bloody war on drugs.

Humanitarian workers warn that the brutality of the anti-drugs campaign is compounding nationwide poverty and fuelling a mental health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come. 

The spiraling death toll among alleged drug dealers and users since Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, rose to power in 2016 vowing to “feed the fish in Manila bay” with criminals, has prompted calls for an independent United Nations investigation.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has recorded 5,526 deaths of “drugs personalities” during anti-drug operations, but the Philippines Human Rights Commission puts the number of extrajudicial killings at nearer 27,000.

The police have consistently denied carrying out unlawful killings and Maria’s account of her father’s death could not be independently verified.

But it fits a now well-worn pattern of small-time drug dealers, users or even innocent citizens ending up on community “drug watch lists” before being murdered by mysterious strangers without due process.

The elimination methods are so common that a new lexicon on extrajudicial killings – or “EJKs” - has been adopted across islands.

Many die in “buy-bust” operations, where police officers justify the use of lethal force by claiming the suspects resisted arrest. Eyewitnesses often allege the planting of evidence, including drug sachets and weapons.

Others are gunned down on the streets by masked assassins on motorbikes, one driving, one shooting - the so-called “riding in tandem” killings.

Recently the murders have become more low key, say human rights activists, where victims simply disappear, and their corpses turn up on wasteland days later.

The killings and Mr Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric - such as urging people to kill addicts - have long been the stuff of headlines. Much less reported is the tragic aftermath for the shattered families left behind.

Widows and especially children struggle to cope without their husbands and fathers, often shunned by neighbours and left emotionally and financially bereft.

Thousands of vulnerable children remain deeply traumatised after witnessing the death of loved ones and are often orphaned and forced to fend for themselves.

Some drop out of school to support their families with menial jobs, others have gone into hiding - and those are the lucky ones. Human rights monitors have recorded the deaths of more than 100 minors, often killed in crossfire in their own homes.

Last month, Leila de Lima, a jailed opposition senator and fierce critic of Mr Duterte’s drug war, urged the government’s department of social welfare and development (DSWD) to offer support programmes and hire more mental health workers to help the so-called “EJK families.”

"These families should be immediately assisted by mental health professionals who could help them overcome the emotional stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression brought about by losing their loved ones to violence," said the former justice secretary.

Jasmine, a mother of three children, could not afford to bury her husband when he fell victim to the Philippines drugs war Credit: Eugene Ibis

In late 2016, the DSWD estimated the drugs war had left about 18,000 orphans after only a few months. In a statement it said this was not an official figure but the “personal estimate” of a previous departmental undersecretary.

Salvador Panelo, Mr Duterte’s spokesperson, rejected the term “extrajudicial killings” as drug-related deaths were “neither state-initiated nor state sponsored”.

He said: “Drug-related deaths are consequences of police operations when the subjects violently resist arrest to the point which endangers the lives of law enforcers who then act on self-defence, which is permitted by Philippine law.”

Mr Panelo pointed to several state-run programmes to help those whose relatives are involved in illegal drugs, including local authority information campaigns, and social protection and reintegration programmes run by DSWD. 

The government’s “Yakap ng Bayan” programme offered financial assistance for education, health and burial expenses, and additional schemes provided livelihood and skills training support. Some 28,979 recovering drug addicts had benefited, and 9,732 former drug users received training. 

Althea (in green trousers) witnessed the killing of her grandfather and kidnapping of her father  Credit: Eugene Ibis

Over the past year, 421,724 “surrenderers” had gone through recovery programmes, while 4,706 had completed a primary care programme at department of health rehabilitation centres. By the end of Mr Duterte’s term in 2022, each region should have at least one drug abuse and treatment centre, said Mr Panelo. 

However, many survivors fear the authorities. Eight families interviewed by the Telegraph in Manila and Quezon City said they turned not to the state but to churches and civil society groups for psychological and financial support.

Maria can now speak after initially being struck dumb by grief, said Father Danny Pilario, the dean of the St Vincent School of Theology in Quezon City, near to Payatas, and the Ina Ng Lupang Pangako Catholic parish that helped her family to recover.

She is an altar girl in the local chapel and hopes to become a lawyer to help others who face injustice. But daily survival is tough for the seven siblings, who rely on their grandmother Rosa, 86, as their main caregiver.

“I pray to God every day that before I leave this world, my grandchildren will have finished school. That’s the only thing that I ask,” she said.

Payatas, a sprawling shanty town of hundreds of thousands and host to the Philippines largest open dumpsite, was one of the first killing fields in the drugs war.  

At the height of the murders the church struggled to bury the mounting number of bodies, while – in a trend widely reported elsewhere - funeral services hiked up their prices to exorbitant rates, plunging grieving families into debt.

Jasmine, a mother of three, wept as she recalled sitting alone for days by her husband’s coffin when neighbours did not dare attend his wake, and some openly mocked her.

She said that her husband, a rag picker, had been shot six times when he witnessed the assassination of his friend. The trauma of identifying his disfigured body worsened when she could not afford to bury him and the local authorities allegedly refused to help.

“My husband’s coffin lay on the street outside our house for 17 days,” she said. “The children kept asking, why is our father there?”

Once again it was Father Pilario who intervened. For cases like Jasmine’s, he is forced to crowdfund on Facebook.

“The first effect on them is the trauma of what happened to their lives. The second is that they were ostracised by their communities,” he said. “They were really destroyed, psychologically, emotionally…so we journeyed with them and responded to that.”

He added: “Financially there is zero, so that’s the next [priority]. After some time, they stop crying and then they have to look for food.”

The parish’s “orphans and widows” project helps the families financially, providing mothers with a livelihood in a sewing business, as well as counselling.

Families light candles for their loved ones killed in the drugs wars Credit: Eugene Ibis

The workplace helped mothers re-establish their dignity after the murders, said Father Pilario. “They are not just sitting in the rooms where their husbands were killed and crying the whole day.”

But he hesitates to predict what the long-term impact of the violence will be.

“We are trying our best to process the children, with what happened, in a healthy manner…by giving them opportunities to study, to live normal lives, and also integrating them into the bigger community,” he said.

“But there are things that we do not really fully grasp. What is going on in their heads and their hearts? We are trying to do what is humanly possible, hoping that it helps.”

Father Flavie Villanueva, who runs the Saint Arnold Janssen Centre in Tayuman, northern Manila, and who has faced death threats for his work on the front lines of the drug war, is saddened that the church can help only a “handful” of potentially hundreds of thousands who may be suffering.

Relatives of victims of Philippines drugs war call for an investigation into human rights violations Credit: Ted Aljibe/AFP

“There are so many scattered all around who have not been helped or have even been rejected,” he said.

“If you have a family whose breadwinner has been killed, they would normally leave behind a minimum of three children. Yesterday I met one with 12 whose mother left because she felt so helpless,” he added. “If you kill one person, you create multiple problems,” he said.

Father Villanueva’s institution has overseen the education of some 265 “EJK orphans.” In the nearby district of Caloocan, another well-documented kill zone, the local parish has offered schooling to dozens more.

Althea, a bright 11-year-old, is one of the children to have received the painstaking care of volunteer psychologists.

Three years ago, she was jolted from her sleep at 3am by gunshots fired inside her home by masked men hunting down her grandfather, a drug user.

“I saw my grandfather lying on the floor next to me in a pool of blood…my grandmother was hugging him,” she said. “Then my father came into the room and shouted ‘Papa!’ and the men took him out and pushed him into a car,” she explained. “The next time I saw him, he was in a coffin.”

Despite the violence he has unleashed, Mr Duterte is on track to becoming the Philippines’ most popular leader in more than 30 years. He finished the first half of his six-year term with a record net satisfaction of 68 per cent, according to a poll in early July.

Bernadette Ramos, 37, a housewife and mother-of-three from the district of Tondo said she supported the president even though her husband’s cousin, a drug addict, was an EJK victim.

“Normal people are now safe from the drugs lords,” she said. “Before, we were afraid to go out because of robberies and hold-ups,” Ms Ramos added.

Human rights groups have called for international action. Last month the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch an investigation into the drugs war deaths, although Manila immediately rejected the plan.

“These cold-blooded killings of parents or other relatives are happening every night, right in front of children – so is it any surprise they are profoundly and deeply scarred by what’s happening?” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

“Fortunately for UN investigators, these networks of relatives are ready to tell their stories and provide information about how their loved ones were gunned down – so there will be no shortage of cases to document.”

In the absence of state help, a few priests and NGOs are risking their lives to support survivors, said Mr Robertson.

Nobody knows the personal cost more than Bishop Pablo David who now has 24-hour security after receiving death threats for his outspokenness on the drugs war.

The bishop of Caloocan is also one of 35 high profile critics of the anti-drugs campaign – including the Philippine vice-president – facing a sedition case from the Philippine National Police. He denies the charge and believes it’s linked to his push back against the authorities’ actions.

In 2017, the government implied he was obstructing justice when he offered sanctuary to eyewitnesses of the murder of Kian delos Santos, 17, during a police drugs sting. The bishop held his ground and three officers were sentenced to life in prison.

In an interview, he said he understood the need to fight illegal drugs but that substance use disorder should be treated as a “health issue.”

“People who fall into drug abuse should not be treated as criminals. From the perspective of compassion, we should treat them as victims who need help,” he said.

His parish runs a rehabilitation programme. Dozens of volunteer mental health workers have been trained to help grieving families and orphans are given scholarships for school.

“It makes a whole world of difference when you are in touch with the families of victims. And when you get to know their names, when you see their faces, when you meet them personally, up close,” said Bishop David.

“They’re not just numbers, they’re not just statistics, they’re human beings like you and me.”

Some names have been changed.

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