Drug war dead can't rest in peace

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 28 Jul 2021

Rodzon Enriquez's skeletal remains are pulled out of a coffin-sized tomb in Manila and placed in a body bag. Five years after the 21-year-old was killed in the Philippines' drug war, the lease on his grave is expiring.

Activists estimate tens of thousands of people have died since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police to go after drug addicts and dealers in a widely-condemned campaign that has largely targeted the poor.

Many of the dead were put in "apartment" tombs stacked in jam-packed cemeteries across the capital, where a five-year lease on a rectangular concrete box costs about 5,000 pesos (HK$775).

As leases run out, a Catholic charity is helping families unable to afford the renewal fee to retrieve the bones of their loved ones to have them cremated and put in a permanent burial site.

"I don't want his remains thrown away," says Corazon Enriquez, 63, after her son's bones were carried away on a stretcher by two men wearing masks, gloves and protective coats.

The mother of seven had welcomed Duterte's promise to rid the country of drugs. "If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful," Duterte told the public soon after being sworn in. But Enriquez never imagined the campaign would target her own family.

Rodzon, a fishing port worker who used methamphetamine to stay awake during overnight shifts, was shot dead by police in his bed weeks after Duterte took power, she says.

"I wanted to have him at home - even if his physical body is no longer here I know he's still there," says Enriquez of the ashes she plans to keep until another location is found. "I still feel the pain. I would have wanted to swap places with my son."

Priest Flavie Villanueva, a vocal critic of Duterte, is spearheading the exhumation effort. He says thousands of cremations could be needed in the coming years as leases expire.

Villanueva hopes to store the ashes in a columbarium to give victims a "dignified" final resting place and help families find closure. "It's already too much that you lose a loved one, should you also lose his remains?" asks the priest.

It is too late for some families. The bones of relatives were thrown into sacks with other remains before the leases expired, he says, adding: "They're human beings. They deserve better."

On a single day this month, Villanueva oversaw the exhumations of seven dead as weeping widows and mothers looked on.

Many of the people killed were breadwinners. Extending the leases was beyond their families' means, he says, so "how could I even worry for the dead if the living in front of me are dying?"

Joralyn Fuellas's husband Reynaldo was shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen on her 39th birthday.

He had gone out to do an extra shift as a tricycle driver to pay for a special meal to share with her and their 11 children. Fuellas was told later that Reynaldo had been on a narcotics "watchlist."

"I'm glad I will be able to bring him home," she says after watching the removal of his remains. "I can tell my children, 'your papa is here.'"

International Criminal Court prosecutors have requested a full-blown investigation into the drug war. They want to probe allegations police unlawfully killed as many as tens of thousands between 2016 and 2019 - the first three years of Duterte's term.

Felicitas Narvarte, whose son Edward was shot dead outside a shop two weeks before Duterte was sworn in, blames the president.

Hours after sharing a takeaway roast chicken at their home, Narvarte, 62, said she heard gunshots followed by her son's voice calling out "mom, mom!"

"Only when the person who ordered the killing of drug addicts is jailed will my feelings get better," she says after placing candles and food at her son's tomb to mark the anniversary of his death.

She plans to move his remains to a smaller box that is cheaper and where her grandson - Edward's child - can visit.

But she is running out of time to find the money before the final extension given by the cemetery caretaker expires.

She doesn't want his bones mixed with others, saying: "He was my sweetest child."

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