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Duterte’s war on drugs creating generation of orphans

“I hope Duterte can see what happened to my cousin,” says Maryanne da Silva, 43, surrounded by children. “We thought the [anti-drug] operations were good, when they kill the addicts. But when they killed their father, they also killed the children.”

Long concrete steps lead up to the smooth, clean-swept cement floor of an open single-storey public building in Tugatog, in Metro Manila’s Malabon City. A tin roof fends off the sun’s harsh rays. The children laugh and play just feet away from a white, glass-topped coffin, within which lies the body of Maryanne’s first cousin, Agustine da Silva.

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A smiling boy of less than 10 looks through the glass at the ashen, waxy face inside, seemingly unable to grasp the gravity of the situation. Koykoy, says Maryanne, suffers from a mental impairment that is either hereditary or has been brought on by solvent abuse, a habit many of Manila’s homeless children indulge in to stave off hunger.

Agustine, Maryanne reveals, was Koykoy’s father. On October 14, the 42-year-old was gunned down in the Sangandaan district of Caloocan, in the Philippine capital.

He has joined the more than 3,000 – and count­ing – men and women who have been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against not only those who sell drugs, but those who use them, too.

Agustine was one of a group of four men and two women that police officers took to a known drug den where the six were instructed to go inside and use “shabu” (methamphetamine), the relatively cheap and ubiquitous euphoriant at the heart of Duterte’s war, thus implicating the suppliers. Agustine resisted, Maryanne was told by witnesses. Although his autopsy has yet to be released, she says he was shot seven times.

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Most mornings since Duterte took power in late June bring stories of those killed the night before, shot dead in police operations and extrajudicial killings, or EJKs, as they have become known. The term “salvage victim” has been coined to describe the bodies that turn up with plastic bags taped over their heads, riddled with gunshot wounds.

What is lost in the lists of the dead, the gory descriptions of the killings and the anger directed at the dealers and addicts who, according to many, had made streets in many parts of Manila unsafe to walk, day or night, are the stories of those left behind; those already disadvan­taged men, women and, especially, children who have been left even worse off by the abrupt loss of someone close, in violent circumstances.

Eleven-year-old Angelica, nicknamed Kikay by Agustine, remembers her father, at one time a pedicab driver, as a warm-hearted but stubborn man.

“He was kind,” she says, sitting at a table across from the coffin in the first days of her father’s wake, “but he didn’t listen to me. It wasn’t easy to tell him not to do something.” Angelica’s eyes are glazed as she talks about her father, though she does not cry. “He was hardheaded,” she adds, softly.

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Obstinate though he might have been, Angelica insists her father didn’t sell drugs. Instead, having fallen on especially hard times, he began taking shabu users to their dealers in his pedicab in May.

For two years, Agustine, his wife and their three children had been homeless, sleeping where they could, scavenging recyclables to make money. For a time, a tomb in Tugatog Cemetery had been their home. Later, they bedded down in a jeepney in Sangandaan, says Angelica.

Agustine’s wife developed pneumonia, possibly as a result of sleeping outside, exposed to the elements and the smog of Manila, and succumbed to the disease. His wife’s death, says Maryanne, marked the beginning of Agustine’s involvement with drugs.

However, in August, a few months after he began transporting users, Agustine stopped his delivery service, finally heeding his daughter’s warnings, she says.

“I told him to be careful because there were a lot of police doing the arrests. I said, ‘Father, you need to change. If you don’t, no one will take care of my brother.’”

And so Agustine took a job peddling plastic containers, but the change in occupation came too late. He was already a marked man.

Just a few days after losing the breadwinner, chief among the questions plaguing Agustine’s family is how they will pay for his funeral and burial. They already owe the funeral home 30,000 pesos (HK$4,730), a large sum in an area where many are lucky to bring home a few thousand pesos a month. The family also lacks a burial plot – a further expense of 2,500 pesos.

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Normally, such costs would be covered by the custom of abuloy – donations made either directly or indirectly, through card games played during a wake held for the deceased. However, the bereaved are required to put out snacks and drinks for those who come to pay their respects but “we don’t even have money for the biscuits or coffee”, Maryanne says, breaking down in tears.

Then there are the questions surrounding the children. Angelica is staying with a neighbour. Koykoy, says Maryanne, wanders the streets on his own, sleeping wherever he can. The youngest child, aged five, stays with a great aunt. Maryanne has six children of her own and cannot take in any more. Agustine’s only surviving sibling, a sister in a nearby province, also lacks the means to care for them. His older brother hanged himself years ago.

Hers is a family that has been touched by tragedy many times over yet Angelica still dreams of becoming a doctor, she says, even though she is not currently attending school.

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Education in the Philippines is free but parents are required to buy uniforms for their children – without which they will not be allowed into a classroom – as well as exercise books and other supplies. The children of parents who can’t afford these often have no choice but to drop out.

“I don’t pity my cousin,” says Maryanne, through tears. “I pity the children. I don’t know what will happen to their future. They will be miserable.”

“It is painful,” says Angelica, of what has happened to her father. “[The police] don’t have any right to kill people.”

TO THE WEST OF MALABON lies Navotas, and some of Manila’s most notoriously drug-ridden and violent slums. Near Agora Market, Sam Monticalvo, 11, sleeps on the top step of an Ever Supermarket, a friend laid out beside him on a thin sheet of cardboard.

Sam, who looks small for his age, and his companion, CJ, are watched over by a pedicab driver who gives his name as Manny Demesa. He says he sometimes buys the boys food.

“I really pity him,” Demesa says of Sam. “His mother died in prison and he has nothing to eat.”

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Their mother was arrested for taking their father shabu while he was in prison, says Sam’s sister, Jennelyn Lagahit, when we track her down. Then, while imprisoned herself, their mother had a stroke. The family alleges she was not given proper medical care and died as a result.

Sam’s father, Joel Monticalvo, is in the Malabon City Jail, having been convicted for selling shabu. The young boy says he has step-parents, a pair of siblings and four step-siblings, all of whom live in Market 3, a slum within the Navotas Fish Port Complex, but he has no desire to see them, let alone live with them.

“They beat me,” he says. “They say I do the wrong things or I’m lazy.”

Sam prefers to live on the streets, spending his days in the company of other young boys who, like him, have been left to fend for themselves, their parents imprisoned, dead or lost to addiction.

Sam’s days usually begin at 5am or 6am, he says, when supermarket employees throw out cardboard he might be able to sell to a junk shop for a few pesos. Then he makes the rounds of Agora Market, looking for more.

An hour or two spent working, Sam and CJ splitting the duty of carrying their growing haul on their head, might earn them 40 pesos, enough to buy some rice.

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Until recently, Sam would have been in school during the day. He was enrolled in the fifth grade. But now, having lost his parents to the drug clean-up, “I can’t afford it,” he says. “It’s very hard.”

Sam remembers his father as a man who is quick to anger and he doesn’t visit him in jail.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw him,” says the boy.

When his parents were together, “I often saw them using drugs,” he says. “It made me mad.”

Demesa fears Sam may slide down the same slippery slope if he remains on the street.

“I’m scared he’ll be lured into using solvents. I hope Social Welfare will help him, but the Social Welfare Department is not really working. The foreign NGOs are doing more, especially in depressed areas.”

In this case, though, it seems as though anyone would have their work cut out; Sam’s experience with adults and authority figures has taught him that no one can be trusted.

“I don’t want to be adopted by anyone,” he says, “I’m afraid of people.”

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For the time being, the two boys are surviving on the kindness of strangers such as Demesa. And despite having seen his family torn apart by the legal system, Sam says he wants to be a policeman. “I want to arrest all the drug pushers. I will arrest the drug users, too, but not kill them.”

Without proper schooling, that dream will prove difficult to realise, although, says Sam, “I’m praying for my mother to guide me and look out for me.”

NOT FAR FROM AGORA MARKET is the Mandaragat neighbourhood and the former home of 12-year-old Casandra “Kikay” Garciano. The two-storey building, its outside walls painted a light blue, metal bars at the window, sits in a square off Maliputo Street, a small concrete oasis amid the constant traffic and noise, where the scent of diesel nevertheless hangs heavy in the air.

The square has seen moments of jubilation recently, a large banner hanging from one of the homes boasting of the graduation of one of the residents from a community college in Calgary, Canada, last year. But it has also known tragedy, as Casandra and her uncle, Danilo Mirano, know only too well.

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The police report pertaining to the events that unfolded on September 27 at or near the home of Casandra and her father, Virgilio “Kiko” Mirano, and the story told by Danilo are so different as to seem almost unrelated.

According to the Philippine National Police, at 3.30 that afternoon, officers were conducting an “anti-criminality operation” on Maliputo Street when they spotted two adult males, one of whom was Virgilio, 39, acting suspiciously. The police approached the pair but the men allegedly drew guns on the officers and fled, firing as they ran.

An officer was struck by gunfire in the leg, according to the report. Virgilio was also hit and died at the scene, his unidentified companion managing to escape.

Listed as jobless in the police report, Virgilio was once an employee of the barangay government, the lowest level of community administration, says Danilo. In a random drug test, he tested positive and was dismissed.

With three children to provide for, Virgilio rented out space in his family home to other shabu users, offering them a safe haven in which to get high. This, Danilo says, is probably what drew the attention of the police.

His brother’s death, Danilo maintains, did not happen the way police say it did.

“It was a birthday party,” he says, describing a joyous gathering at the Mirano home. “They were inside the house eating cake. Then the police showed up. They were wearing helmets. They asked the others to go outside, then they dragged my brother out by the hair into the alley and shot him.”

The report detailing Virgilio’s cause of death lists nine gunshot wounds, six to the thorax and abdomen, three to the extremities. Casandra returned home from school to see her father’s bullet-ridden corpse lying just feet from her front door.

“I was very afraid,” says Casandra, less than a month after losing her father. “I cried very hard. I couldn’t believe it happened. I was very angry at the police.

“He was a loving man,” says Casandra, who now lives with an aunt and dreams of becoming a teacher or a hairdresser one day. “But he was influenced by our stepmother. Drugs had a big influence on him.”

Such details are impossible to verify; Casandra’s stepmother has not been seen since Virgilio was killed.

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Casandra says she believes drug users should not be killed: “Just put them in jail. They are not animals.”

Her uncle points out that the killings are taking place almost exclusively in Manila’s most impoverished areas.

“It’s not fair,” he says. “They don’t do it to the rich people. [Those being killed] are just users. They’re not the big guys.”

Even as many families in Manila and throughout the Philippines mourn those who they say were merely users – men and women, they say, who should have been sentenced to jail time or given treatment for their addictions instead of being killed – Duterte’s campaign against the scourge of drug use continues to enjoy widespread support. This is due in no small part to the crimes, both large and small, shabu addicts have committed and continue to commit.

ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, Roberto Ramos, 43, laid to rest his seven-year-old daughter, Marianela. Early the previous morning, police allege, she had been raped and killed by a shabu addict in a cemetery in Malabon. Her body was found lifeless, a rag stuffed in her mouth, her father left wracked with unimaginable grief.

“It’s better they all die,” said Ramos, at the funeral, echoing the sentiments of his president when it comes to the nation’s drug addicts, who, by some estimates, number 1.8 million.

“She was a very happy girl.”