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Jakarta Post

Philippine drug war’s other victims: Orphans

  • Aie Balagtas-See

    Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

Manila   /   Mon, December 26, 2016   /  09:29 am
Philippine drug war’s other victims: Orphans Filipino men place their hands over their heads as they are rounded up during a police operation as part of the continuing "War on Drugs" campaign of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Philippines, Oct. 7, 2016. (AP/Aaron Favila)

After what happened on the night of Nov. 8, 11-year-old John Ryan and his nine siblings are spending their first Christmas as orphans.

They were all asleep when armed men barged into their shanty at the Market 3 area of the Navotas Fish Port Complex and grabbed Joaquin Garbo. The siblings saw how their father was dragged out of the house while still in his underwear.

John Ryan’s mother and eldest sister, aged 17, immediately went to the Station Anti-illegal Drugs (SAID) unit of the Navotas police, but the officer who faced them said Garbo wasn’t there.

Yet according to Garbo’s sister Melody, “my niece and her mother heard (Joaquin’s) voice at the station, pleading with the police not to hurt him.”

Hours later, around 4 am, Joaquin was found dead on Kanduli Street in Barangay (village) North Bay Boulevard South, his hands tied behind his back.

An official report by PO3 Allan Joey Ogatia III said the victim died of multiple gunshots. Chief Inspector Shirleen Ballete, chief of the Northern Police District crime laboratory, said three sachets of suspected “shabu” (methamphetamine hydrochloride) were found in Joaquin’s possession.

I Will Avenge Papa’

Melody, who was in Palawan province when she learned of Garbo’s death, admitted that her slain brother served as a drug pusher’s “runner” or courier while employed at the port as a stevedore. But more than a month after the family tragedy, she said she’s most worried about John Ryan, who had become detached, brooding, and given to tears.

The boy, she said, would often say: “Igaganti ko si Papa. Pinatay nila, kinuha nila; natutulog lang (I will avenge Papa. They killed him. They took him while he was asleep.”

“He has said that four times already,” the aunt said in an interview last week. “He’s just a boy and maybe he says things he doesn’t really mean.”

She recently saw John Ryan playing with a toy gun and aiming it at some imaginary target. She took it off his hand, telling him to stop: “That’s bad!”

“But it’s just a toy,” the boy replied. “It’s not even mine. It’s just plastic — not like what they used to kill Papa.” The toy gun, which the boy got from a neighbour, ended up in the trash heap.

‘Beyond Expectations’

While the police and the media keep count of the suspects killed in the Duterte administration’s six-month-old war on drugs, the number of children who have lost parents as a result remains a matter of extrapolation.

Hope Hervilla, assistant secretary for protective services at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), could only make a “conservative estimate”: About 18,000, the DSWD official said in an Inquirer interview. “This is beyond our expectations. We did not expect it to be this big.”

Eighteen thousand children can fill up around 450 standard-size classrooms, 300 buses, or 900 jeepneys. If they are to be gathered inside Araneta Coliseum, the place would be jam-packed and about 1,500 additional seats would be required.

Grim Computation

Hervilla said she arrived at the figure by multiplying 6,000 — the number of people reported killed in the drug war from July to December, assuming they are all parents — by three, which she cited as the average number of children per Filipino couple.

The latest tally released by the Philippine National Police showed that its nationwide operations have killed 2,138 “drug personalities” from July 1 to December 23. Going by the DSWD official’s formula, this results in 6,414 children left without a parent because of police operations.

The number of “deaths under investigation (DUIs)”— as what the PNP calls cases like Garbo’s — stands at 3,993 as of December 12.

State’s Responsibility

Hervilla said the DSWD would start collating data about the drug war orphans this January. An interagency meeting is set to discuss the children’s needs, the official said, as she acknowledged that there is still no government programme specifically designed for such orphans.

“The children, they are the state’s responsibility,” Hervilla stressed.

Danilo Tuazon, a forensic neuro-psychologist and psychology professor, said such minors need immediate care and psychological intervention, especially if they saw how their parents were killed.

“Immediate means treatment should start right after the killing, habang nakaratay pa magulang nila (while the parent’s wake is ongoing). The children need to immediately understand what happened.”

It should include “anger management and stress debriefing” so the child may eventually cope, Tuazon said. Without it, “the damage will last a lifetime.”

“How do you tell a child that his or her parents were killed because of drug pushing but at the same time tell the kid that killing is wrong?”

Children in the prepubescent stage are most fragile, he stressed. “It is during this time that their brains are being wired on what they should become or how they should view society.”

They Will Never Be Okay

“At first they would seem okay, of course, because they are kids — but they are not okay. They will never be okay. Chances are they would nurse deep anger inside their hearts and it would affect them as they grow up.”

Told of John Ryan’s story, Tuazon sees “a big possibility of retaliation,” but explained that it’s “the normal reaction when you are in deep pain and angry. When you’re suffering, you want others to feel your pain, too.”

Orphans like them may need a new environment to fully recover, he said.

Which is what Melody, John Ryan’s aunt, had in mind for her 10 nieces and nephews. She wanted all of them out of their neighbourhood, blaming it for their father’s involvement in drugs and his violent death.

Time to Leave Town

With the family’s main breadwinner gone, John Ryan was forced to find work as a harvester of mussels (tahong) in Navotas. But on December 22, Melody finally decided he should no longer remain there after the boy was caught “stealing fish” from one of the trucks at the port.

When scolded, the boy explained that he just wanted to help feed his siblings.

With a friend’s help, Melody was able to secure a space for the boy on a ship going to Palawan. “He was crying when we left. He kept asking me: Who will feed my brothers and sisters?”

Thanks to another relative, three of the Garbo siblings are spending Christmas in Masbate province, while two had been adopted by one of the Garbos’ neighbours in Navotas.

Melody said she hopes to return this January for John Ryan’s three younger sisters — aged 12, 7 and 4 — and move them to Palawan as well.

As to their widowed mother, Melody said she too urgently needs counselling. “I can’t even talk to her properly anymore.”

Still at the Navotas fish port community, the Inquirer also encountered Sam, a 12-year-old boy who last saw his mother on the day she was arrested along with several other residents for alleged drug peddling. The woman died of sickness while in jail.

‘Can We Watch Tokhang?

Sam wants to be a policeman someday so he can “discipline” the force.

As the interview ended and this reporter was about to leave, Sam suddenly started singing a Christmas carol, swaying his head to his own tune. This was the same boy who had just confided that “I don’t cry anymore,” that he had shed his last tears at his mother’s funeral.

Beside Sam was a 9-year-old playmate who had watched the interview. This other boy noticed this reporter’s smartphone and asked: “Ate, can we watch Tokhang on your phone?’”

Oplan Tokhang refers to the PNP campaign that has compelled thousands of suspected drug users and pushers to “surrender” and be registered so they can be referred for rehabilitation and other government interventions.

Many surrenderers, however, would later die — either at the hands of the police or unidentified gunmen. The 9-year-old apparently had this in mind, where “Tokhang” had taken a different meaning: “It’s fun watching people get shot and fall dead.”

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This article appeared on the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post