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Editor’s Note: The International Criminal Court on July 18, 2023 junked the Philippine government’s appeal against the continuation of investigations into drug-war related killings and the alleged death squad incidents in Davao City under Rodrigo Duterte. This move means that the ICC Prosecutor, Karim Khan, is free to move with his office’s probe and, depending on his findings, can request warrants or summons. While the next moves remain up in the air, families of drug war victims remain optimistic that justice will be attained and that those responsible for the slaughter will be held accountable. In this series, Rappler revisits some families to discuss the importance of positive developments at the ICC amid continuing impunity in the country.
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MANILA, Philippines – Twelve-year-old Damien* is not easy to miss in any crowd. Though frail and tiny, he stands out among other children in his community and, brimming with confidence, is quick to answer questions from adults thrice his age.
But in January 2017, Damien was able to barrel his way through a thick crowd of neighbors, get past scowling and armed uniformed men, race up the house he knew so well, only to see his father Ricky sprawled on the floor, lifeless and covered in blood – an image forever seared into his memory.
“Papa ko iyan, bakit ‘nyo binaril ang papa ko? (That’s my father, why did you shoot my father?)” the then-six-year-old told the police who swarmed the place.
The answers to Damien’s question differ, depending on who is asked. For police, Ricky was involved in the illegal drug trade, like many others killed in Rodrigo Duterte’s violent anti-illegal drug campaign. For Ricky’s family members, it was a case of mistaken identity.
“Kapag nag-e-explain ako sa mga anak ko, kapag nagtatanong sila kung bakit pinatay tatay nila, sinasabi ko na hindi naman siya ang hinahanap,” Vina*, Ricky’s former partner and mother of his children, told Rappler. “Si papa mo lang ang naturo, siya ang pinuntirya,” she told her children.
(When my children ask why their father was killed, I just explain that it wasn’t him who was really the target. He was just mistakenly targeted.)
January 2017 marked the height of the war on drugs, with Duterte marking his first six months in office. At the time, at least 2,167 individuals had been killed in police operations alone. Thousands of others ended up dead, their heads wrapped in black garbage bags, and thrown into creeks or sidewalks, or simply shot point-blank by unidentified gunmen.
The day Ricky was killed began just like any other in one of the poorest communities north of Metro Manila. People went out of their homes to work for meager income to replenish what little was spent during the holidays. Children took to the streets to play as neighbors reveled in the remnants of new year celebrations. By afternoon, however, the mood would change.
Vina recalled being outside when she saw strangers in civilian clothing enter their community. She sensed what was about to happen. She didn’t expect it would hit so close to home.
“Alam namin na may mangyayari pero hindi naman namin inisip na si Ricky iyong tatargetin,” she said. “Mga ilang minuto na lang, may tumakbo na sa akin at sabi wala na siya, wala na iyong dati kong kinakasama, patay na raw.”
(We knew something was going to happen, but we didn’t think it would be Ricky. After a few minutes, someone ran to me and said he was gone, my former partner was killed.)
At that point, Vina had been separated from Ricky for a few years already. She strove to live independently and took on jobs to raise money for her children. Still, the father that he was, Ricky would contribute a part of his earnings from fishing to buy what was needed.
The two had known each other for so long and even as they ended their relationship, still lived in the same community. It was the perfect setup for the children, who would go and back forth between their two parents. Vina, after all, did not want them to be emotionally distant from their father.
“Masakit sa akin sobra kasi tatay nila iyon eh, tapos nakita pa ng panganay ko na nakahandusay siya at duguan,” Vina said. “Masakit bilang nanay lalo na at tumanim na ang imahe na iyon kaya hanggang ngayon, naalala pa rin niya talaga,” she added.
(It hurts a lot since he’s their father. And then my eldest saw him sprawled and bloodied. It pains me a lot as a mother to know that it’s the image that was burned into my child’s mind that’s why he still remembers.)
Violence as everyday reality
Ricky was not the first person killed in their community. Nor was he the last. In the months to come, the strangers would become a fixture in the narrow alleys of the neighborhood, so much so that residents would jokingly refer to them as “visitors.”
The patterns were the same: Neighbors, usually men, would be picked up by other men in civilian clothing. This would happen mostly at night, when everyone was trying to wind down from a day of hard work. Hours, sometimes days after, bodies would be discovered nearby, lifeless.
“Nakakatakot kahit dito na ako pinanganak at lumaki, pero iba ang epekto sa mga bata,” she said. “Nagka-phobia na sila na kapag may nakikitang hindi kilala, nauuna pa sila mag-panic.”
(I get scared even though I was born and raised here. But the effect is much stronger on children. They have developed a phobia from seeing strangers in the neighborhood, they’re the first ones to panic.)
The aftermath of a killing carried additional burdens – continued harassment and intimidation by state agents, as well as the financial challenges that surfaced each day.
In the case of Ricky, the funeral expenses proved to be just too much that’s why his family opted to immediately have him buried in a mass grave. No wake to speak of, no prolonged send-off, just an abrupt goodbye.
The culture of impunity has held no one accountable for the death of Ricky and others similarly killed, their number estimated by rights groups to be as high as 30,000.
This pushed Vina to join a local group consisting of relatives of drug war victims who get to learn about human rights, as well as receive psychosocial support. Vina herself has also encouraged other people to join.
“Masakit isipin na hindi lang pala ako ang namomoblema sa hustisya, marami kami, pero sa kabilang dako, masaya ako kasi napakilala ako sa isang komunidad na tinuturuan kami tungkol sa mga karapatan namin,” Vina said. “Kahit hindi pa namin nakukuha ang hustisya, kapag nakikinig kami sa mga sessions, kahit papaano nakakakuha kami ng aral na dala-dala ko sa buhay ko,” she added.
(It’s sad to know that I’m not the only one burdened by the lack of justice, that we are many, but on the other hand, I’m happy because I got introduced to a community where we are being taught about our rights. While we have yet to obtain justice, whenever we listen to the sessions, we at least pick up lessons that I apply to my life.)
Planting seeds at the ICC
Justice to some means making Duterte and his allies accountable for the killings. Others want the police, the men who pulled the trigger, to rot in jail. But the reality is that only a few have been convicted for drug war-related killings, including the police involved in the deaths of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, Carl Angelo Arnaiz, and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman.
This is why the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a source of hope for many. “Masaya na isipin na may ganoon na aasahan kaming posibleng magbigay ng hustisya para sa amin, may naghihintay pa pala sa amin,” Vina said. (I’m happy thinking that there is still a source of justice for us, that we have not hit the end of the road.)
In July 2023, the ICC junked the Philippine government’s appeal to block the continued investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity committed in Davao City and other parts of the country covered by the nationwide anti-drug campaign. This means ICC prosecutor Karim Khan can proceed with his probe and plot the timing of his next moves.
Waiting can take long, depending on the Court’s processes. But Vina remains optimistic.
“Naiintindihan naman namin na matagal ang proseso, pero sa bawat magandang balita sa ICC, nabubuhayan kami kasi kumbaga sa pagtatanim, may unti-unti kang nakikitang pagbunga at pagyabong,” Vina said. “Hindi nasasayang ang mga ginagawa namin sa baba, kasi nakikita namin na kumikilos din sila sa itaas,” she added.
(We understand that the process is long, but with every good news, we become hopeful because it’s like planting seeds and seeing little sprouts growing. Our efforts on the ground are not in vain, because we see that those at the top are also doing something.)
Rotten PH system
If ICC Prosecutor Khan decides to seek an arrest warrant or summons, it will have to depend heavily on the cooperation of the state or other ICC member-countries to implement them. Because the Court does not conduct trials in absentia, nothing will move without the accused being present.
Marcos has said that the Philippine government “will not cooperate with [the ICC] in any way, or form” after its appeal was rejected by the Court. The administration continues to echo the false Duterte-era rhetoric, that the ICC is infringing on the country’s sovereignty.
Duterte himself has repeatedly said that he will only face a Filipino court and that he won’t let foreigners judge him.
Vina said she would’ve preferred for those responsible for the slaughter to be tried in the Philippines. But as it stands, “bulok ang sistema sa Pilipinas (the system in the Philippines is rotten)” and will bring no benefit to victims and their families, especially if they are poor.
“Imbes na kapwa Pilipino ang magbigay ng hustisya na nais naming makamit, sila pa ang humahadlang,” she lamented, referring to those in power. (Instead of Filipinos helping us get justice, they’re the ones trying to block it.)
While they wield more power, Vina said they should remember that even the poor have strength in numbers. – Rappler.com