EJKs in a time of pandemic: QC village grapples with a deadlier virus
If a picture paints a thousand words, the last photograph of Gilbert Paala, a 46-year-old balut vendor, would show how life can be snuffed out easily by bullets that enforce death sentences quicker than the killer virus stalking Metro Manila’s poorest communities.
In this picture, Paala, who is from the village of Pinyahan, Quezon City, is seen proudly holding five P1,000 bills he received as ayuda, or aid, from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) last July 19.
“When he got the money, he was so happy because he could buy some rice and food for us,” said his niece, Jobelyn. “He also bought balut and chicharon that he could sell, and he would always share his little earnings with us.”
The picture would be on display on Paala’s coffin on July 20, just a day after he took pride in getting P5,000 from the DSWD, the government’s aid for the poor who are hardest hit by the economic impact of COVID-19.
Paala, who got out of the city jail just three months ago after serving time for drug charges, was shot dead by motorcycle-riding assailants at the corner of Mabilis and Maunawin Streets at his village—the spot where he used to sell balut, or fermented duck eggs, every day.
Paala lived alone, but his sister and nieces—his only relatives—frequently visit him since he needed a crutch to move around, the effect of an illness that was not specified.
“When we heard that he was shot, we quickly got here,” said Jobelyn. “We were all shocked to see him dead. My sister couldn’t believe it. She thought he died because of illness.”
Paala, “Tito Bulldog” to Jobelyn, had served as her and her other relatives as a father figure when their own father died years ago.
“But we are too scared to do anything else now. We just want to bury his body peacefully,” she said.
Paala was not the only one to meet the fate at the village.
In six months, six killings—execution-style—had been recorded in the village, just as COVID-19 health protocols and quarantine rules were being imposed in Metro Manila.
“Gilbert’s murder was a jolting eye-opener, the height of insensitivity and an insidious affront to the dignity and rights of a person,” said Fr. Robert Reyes, the village’s parish priest.
With the parish staff and other parishioners, Fr. Reyes began the search for other victims of gangland-style executions at Pinyahan.
Grieving in the time of pandemic
Under the scorching rays of the sun last Aug. 2, the family of Jonathan “Tantan” Burce, a former village councilor, held the first day of his wake near their home along NIA Road.
His mother, Demetria, 69, wiped tears under her plastic face shield. As she called for justice for her son’s death, her weak and quavering voice could still be heard through the cloth face mask that she was wearing.
“That day, I heard gunshots from our home and people were panicking outside,” said Demetria. “Then they said that my son was the one who was gunned down,” she said, recalling how she learned of her son’s killing last July 30.
“I wanted to go near my son so I could at least hug him. But they didn’t allow me to do that. It’s too dangerous to go out, they told me,” she said.
Neighbors who saw the killing told her that Tantan was just sitting outside the family compound when the gunman came and shot him at close range, a scene all too familiar in many such gun attacks.
“Twelve bullets were recovered from his body, mostly near his eyes. They really wanted to kill him,” said Demetria.
Despite the pandemic threat, the family managed to hold a wake for the slain kagawad, who was survived by his four children.
“I didn’t want to hold his wake in the funeral parlor, because many people who love him here won’t be able to see him, because there were no available means of transportation,” said Demetria.
Having stayed in NIA Road for 32 years, Demetria said she couldn’t think of any quarrel or bad blood her son had been involved in that could have led to his killing.
A few blocks from the site where Paala was killed, the cremated remains of Jeselyn Ordonio, a 39-year-old single mother of five children, sat in the living room of the house barely the size of a bathroom that she shared with her brother, Jeffrey, and sister Siony.
Jeselyn was shot in the head by motorcycle-riding gunmen in front of Jeffrey and his five-year-old daughter.
“I couldn’t move because of shock. When I saw her drop to the ground, I held my daughter close so she wouldn’t see what’s happening, so she wouldn’t get traumatized,” said Jeffrey.
Then the police came, he said, along with reporters and a funeral vehicle, as if they knew in advance of Jesylyn’s death.
Jesylyn was previously arrested for drug charges but was acquitted after six months of trial.
For the Ordonio family, however, grief comes in waves.
When Jeselyn was killed last July 15, her mother suffered a heart attack and died alone in the hospital a few days later.
The doctor advised the family not to go to the hospital due to COVID-19 protocol.
The urns with the ashes of Jeselyn and her mother were placed side by side inside their home as Jeffrey and his daughter, Siony, have yet to receive funeral cash aid from the government to give the two a proper burial.
In addition to the grief brought by their loved ones’ deaths, the funeral service company chosen by cops, St. Eldrich Funeral Services, was charging them P95,000 for a three-day funeral service.
“We thought the police took my sister’s body there only for safekeeping, that they won’t do anything to it so we can retrieve it the next day,” said Siony, Jeffrey’s daughter.
Jeffrey was supposed to use his memorial plan at St. Peter’s Chapels for his sister’s funeral, but St. Eldrich refused to turn Jeselyn’s body over.
“I told them where are we going to get the funds? By holdup?” Jeffrey said in Filipino. “My sister’s there already, she was shot, and yet you try to profit from her,” he said.
The funeral home lowered the cost to P60,000, but the family still couldn’t pay for it.
Finally the payment for the service was lowered to P30,000, which the family managed to pay in full only by soliciting from friends and a P3,000 donation from a congressman.
Like the Ordonios, the family of Paala had also struggled to pay the funeral home chosen by the police—this time it’s Pink Petals Memorial Homes in Novaliches, Quezon City.
For almost two weeks, the family had to pay the funeral home P3,800 per injection of formaldehyde to preserve the body, since they couldn’t pay the full amount of P60,000.
“We were surprised that he was brought to Pink Petals. It was not us who called the funeral parlor, but we couldn’t do anything about it now,” said Jobelyn.
Aside from the financial burden, Jobelyn said the family would “no longer fight” to achieve justice for Paala because “everything is frightening now.”
Aware of the killings at his village, Jeffrey said these could still be part of the drug operations being carried out by policemen. He spoke strongly against the brutal method of “cleaning up communities.”
“What they’re doing is wrong,” he said. “It’s not in the law to kill. They should arrest these people, not kill them.”
Fr. Reyes said the first disturbing news at the village of Pinyahan was about the murder of Noel Barieces in his home last Jan. 30, by four hooded men wearing black jackets.
There was hardly anything being heard or seen in the news other than reports about COVID-19 since the first lockdown in March, said Fr. Reyes.
“Two days after the murder of Noel, I blessed his remains and spoke to his wife. I asked her what she wanted to do,” said the priest, known for doing runs to protest injustices.
“She simply said, nothing. I don’t want to talk or fight. I just want to bury Noel. It’s tough, we might be next,” Fr. Reyes said, quoting Noel’s wife.
The parish priest said he and Church staff were sad and angry at the extrajudicial killing that had claimed Noel’s life and thought it would be the first and last.
Then last May 27, Carlito dela Cruz was killed in the neighborhood by still unidentified assailants.
Among the families who had to deal with grief brought by the killings, Jessica was the most determined to find the perpetrators and seek justice for her husband, Jelson.
Last June 3, men identified by neighbors as policemen barged into their home, wrapped her husband’s head with a sack and took him.
Jessica, who was then nine months pregnant, was forced to go out and look for her husband in police stations.
That night, she learned that police brought an unidentified man to East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City.
She had a hunch that the man could be his husband, and asked her brother-in-law to check the man’s identity in the hospital.
Hours later, she got the confirmation that it was her husband.
“Nothing, there was nothing I could do,” she said.
“Even during the wake, you could still see the large bruise on his left eye. His fingers were deformed. Some of his skin was peeled off,” she said. She learned in the news the police saying her husband yielded P100,000 worth of shabu.
“I told Father [Reyes] that what’s important now is to document what happened to my husband. Maybe in the near future, we could finally come out to seek justice,” said Jessica. “But the fear is subsiding now.”
Even in the time of pandemic, Fr. Reyes’ parish had “striven to break the growing atmosphere of isolation, indifference and worst of all, fear” just as the killings “terrorized and scattered” the people’s spirit.
“In the last four years, thousands have been killed not by a virus but by slugs fired from guns of men in uniform as well as motorcycle-riding men whose faces are concealed either by helmets or hoods,” said Fr. Reyes.
“If face masks clearly cannot protect anyone from bullets, then what can? Yet, the killings continue while the virus rampages through the country,” he said.
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