Rowena Tiamson: Graduating honor student, choir member – not a drug pusher

Jodesz Gavilan

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Rowena Tiamson: Graduating honor student, choir member – not a drug pusher
Family and friends insist that what was indicated on the cardboard found with the body of the 22-year-old graduating student was a lie

MANILA, Philippines – Rowena Tiamson was supposed to graduate from college this coming October. But on July 19, she was deprived of the chance to march up the stage and get her diploma.

The 22-year-old was found lifeless in Barangay Parian in Manaoag, Pangasinan, with her hands tied and face covered. Around her neck was a cardboard sign with the all-too-familiar phrase “Huwag tularan, pusher (Don’t emulate me. I’m a pusher.)”

Family and friends insist that Rowena was not in any way involved with illegal drugs. Tagging her as such is very unfair, they said.

According to her mother, Tere Tiamson, the last time she saw Rowena was when she asked for permission to go to school to fix school requirements. 

Nagpaalam siya na may aayusin sa eskuwela kasi nga graduating,” she told Rappler. “Hindi ko naman alam na iyon na iyong huling beses na makikita ko ang anak ko.”

(She asked permission to fix school requirements because she’s graduating. I didn’t know that was going to be the last time I would ever see my daughter.)

Police data also “cleared” her name. According to the Pangasinan Provincial Police, Rowena was not part of the list of drug personalities which includes 4,755 individuals from 1,704 drug-affected barangays in the province.

Rowena’s dreams

There is no truth to what was written on the cardboard, her family and friends firmly claimed. Rowena did not fit the profile of a drug user, more so a drug pusher. 

Far from what the killers thought of her, the 5th of 6 children of a fruit vendor was a picture of a responsible and loving individual. Everyone only had good things to say about her: kind, selfless, obedient, pure.

Kahit sino pa po ang tanungin ninyo dito sa lugar namin, mapapatunay nila na sinungaling ang nasa cardboard at hindi totoo na drug pusher ang anak ko,” Tere said. “Napakabait na bata niyan, palaging naglalambing, palaging tumutulong.”

(If you ask anyone in our area, they can prove that what’s written on the cardboard isn’t true and my daughter was not a drug pusher. She was very kind, very gentle, and very helpful.)

Contrary to what was on the cardboard, Rowena was too busy finishing her final semester as a Mass Communication student at Colegio de Dagupan to be peddling illegal drugs. 

When she wasn’t studying, she would be belting out the latest hits in local variety shows or singing hymns in her church. Tributes by many of her friends on Facebook, in fact, included videos of her performing. 

When she wasn’t in church or in school, Tere said her daughter would just be at home doing chores or taking care of her nephews and nieces. 

Rowena went through her daily life with no signs of slowing down just so she could achieve her dreams.

One of Rowena’s dreams, abruptly snatched from her by unidentified suspects, was to buy a house for her family. She ultimately wanted her mother to live a comfortable life.

Sabi niya bibilhan niya kami ng bahay para maayos na kami,” Tere said. “Magtatrabaho daw siyang maigi para hindi na ako magbenta palagi ng prutas, para hindi na ako gumising nang maaga para lang bumiyahe papuntang palengke.”

(She told me she will buy us a house so we’ll be okay. She said she’ll work hard so I won’t have to sell fruits anymore and not wake up very early to travel to the market.)

Rowena did not deserve the bullets that took away her life and her dreams, her mother insisted. She did not deserve her untimely death, especially being mistaken for a drug pusher, she said. 

Napakasakit po na kukunin na lang ang anak ko na ganyan basta-basta,” she said. “Ang dami pa niya pangarap, sobra.”

(It is so painful that she was taken from us just like that. She had a lot of dreams.)

Those close to her cannot help but ask, although in vain: Why would someone mistake a consistent honor student and church choir member for a drug pusher?

She was smart, she was talented, and she was not supposed to be part of the “collateral damage” of the intense war against drugs in the Philippines.

Justice for Rowena

The people responsible for the death of Rowena still remain unidentified. Many can only point to vigilante groups responsible for the summary killings happening across the country. 

In fact, on the day his body was found, 20-year-old Oman Manaois was gunned down by unidentified men in Dagupan City. (READ: Drug user? No, Oman was a good son)

Like Rowena, Oman was supposed to graduate in October. Like Rowena, bullets also took away that opportunity. 

Tere said that she would not stop calling for justice, even if it falls on deaf ears.

Hindi ako papayag na hahayaan ko na lang na ang Diyos ang bahala sa kanila,” she emphasized. “Hindi kami titigil hanggang hindi nabibigyan ng hustisya ang pagkawala ng anak ko.”

(I won’t let the suspects be on the mercy of the Lord. I won’t stop until I get justice for my daughter.)

Losing a loved one is painful, but according to Tere, losing Rowena in a way she did not deserve makes the pain unbearable.

Sobra sobra ang sakit na naramdaman namin ng pamilya ko,” Tere said. “Wala naman ginagawang masama si Rowena.” (The pain my family is feeling right now is too much. Rowena didn’t do anything wrong.) –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.