From victims to advocates: Families of EJK victims find hope in helping others
For volunteer Celine Bautista*, 36, giving out Christmas grocery bags to different families in Metro Manila is not just an ordinary task—it is a way of coping with the death of her stepson, John Jezreel “JJ” David, in the hands of the police last January under the government’s deadly campaign against illegal drugs.
Seeing the recipients’ faces light up gives comfort and strength for Bautista. Like her, the families also lost their loved ones in the brutal crackdown that has killed thousands of suspected drug criminals.
Bautista is a staff member of Rise Up for Life and for Rights, a Church-based non-profit group that provides assistance and support to victims of extrajudicial killings and their families. She joined the organization in August, as she and her husband sought ways to hold their son’s killers accountable.
“Nakakatulong sa akin personal kasi [naiibsan] din ang sakit. Alam ko, nandoon yung [pag-iyak] kasi hindi ganun kadali tanggapin ang nangyari. Pero sa kabilang banda, alam mo na merong aalalay para sa iyo, merong maglalaan ng oras para pakinggan ‘yung kwento mo,” Bautista told INQUIRER.net in an interview on December 20.
(This helps me relieve the pain. I know that sometimes you get emotional because it is not easy to accept what happened. But on the other hand, you know that there is someone who will help you and spend time to listen to your story.)
Working for the organization helps her get through the pain of losing JJ, who went missing on January 19 and was found dead two days later in a morgue in Sta. Cruz, Manila.
According to the spot report, he was killed in an alleged buy-bust operation in Delpan in Binondo after fighting back with the police.
Bautista denied the police’s claims as JJ, 21, never used drugs. Some residents in Delpan also told her and her husband, Denisse, that several policemen some in plainclothes and masks, came in the area to conduct an operation on the night of January 20.
One of the witnesses later saw three motorcycles with back riders in handcuffs, who were all brought to an old warehouse. The witness, an old man who lived beside the place, then heard the three men pleading for their lives before shots were heard, Bautista said.
“Naririnig nga raw niya yung nagmamakaawang bata. Meron nga raw nagsabi doon na ‘sir, kesa pahirapan nyo po kami, patayin nyo na lang po kami.’ Tapos meron nga raw siyang naririnig na, ‘sabihin nyo po sa papa ko, sabihin nyo po sa papa ko!’ Siguro kako ‘yun ‘yung anak ko,” she said as her voice quivered.
(He said he had heard the children pleading. One of them said: ‘sir, do not make us suffer, just kill us.’ [The witness] also heard one of them shouting, ‘please tell my papa, tell my papa!’ Maybe that’s my son.)
It took Bautista and her family months to recover, until they finally decided to seek help and sanctuary from a priest who then referred them to Rise Up.
Rise above the tragedy
Rise Up was formed in November last year with the belief that victims of the drug war should not remain victims. Instead, they should rise above the tragedy and become advocates for social justice and change, said Nardy Sabino, convenor of the group.
“Hindi pwedeng manatiling biktima, hindi pwedeng manatiling nagluluksa yung mga namatayan, kailangan nilang bumangon sa kanilang kalagayan, hindi lang dahil sila ay namatayan, bagkus, dahil sa kahirapan na kinakaharap nila,” Sabino said. (Victims should not remain victims, the bereaved should not remain grieving. They need to rise above their condition because they just do not lost their loved ones—they also face suffering from the poverty they face.)
“So Rise Up dahil ang pangarap ay maging bahagi sila ng isang social movement para sa isang social change,” he added.
(So we named it Rise Up because our hope is to make them part of a social movement for social change.)
Rise Up provides different kinds of support to families of the anti-illegal drug campaign, including sanctuary for the victims and their families, legal and medical services, and psychosocial debriefing. The most important, Sabino said, is the organizing aspect, to help the families get back on their feet again and help their fellow victims pursue justice.
Since last year, the group has documented and handled a total of 100 cases of killings, mostly in Navotas City, Caloocan, Manila, Quezon City, and Bulacan. Of these, three have been filed with the Ombudsman, including that of JJ David.
The group’s job is no easy feat—their resources are scarce, volunteers are exposed to stress and trauma in documenting cases, and they are left with the challenge of untangling the victims’ overlapping problems, Sabino said.
“Minsan iiyakan mo ‘yung mga problema, ‘yung patung-patong na trahedya,” he explained.
(Sometimes you’ll cry over the problems, the severe tragedy they face.)
They also have a limited number of volunteers to do the legwork for the immense number of those killed. So far, Rise Up has a total of 15 staff members, and only eight of them work full time.
But these challenges outweigh the group’s desire to hear more stories of the families and seek justice for the deaths of the thousands of victims of the government’s anti-illegal drug campaign.
This Christmas, Sabino called on the public to give value to life by respecting human rights.
“Pinakamahalaga ngayon lalo na magpa-Pasko makita natin yung buhay kaysa kamatayan. Piliin natin yung liwanag kaysa kadiliman. Mahalaga na ang tao, kung humaharap ka o tumatanaw ka sa isang Pasko, makita mo yung biyaya na ang mahalaga sa Diyos ay yung buhay, hindi yung pagpatay,” he said.
(What is important this Christmas is to see life instead of death. Let us choose light over darkness. If you look forward to Christmas, it is important to see that the most important blessing from the Lord is life, not death.)
JJ’s death has caused Bautista and her family much pain and anguish—but her newfound life as an advocate of justice alleviates her suffering. For her, the most important thing this Christmas is to continue living for others, especially for those like her who have lost their loved ones in the drug war.
“Kailangan kung naghahanap ka ng katarungan, lumabas ka. Ipakita mo sa kanila na kahit alam mong mahirap hanapin ang katarungan, hinahanap mo,” Bautista said. (If you are seeking for justice, you need to get out. Let them know that even though it is hard to find justice, you continuously seek for it.)
*Name was changed to protect her identity
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