Dignity in death: Drug war victims cremated, blessed in church as grave leases expire


Posted at Oct 21 2021 12:55 PM | Updated as of Oct 21 2021 04:39 PM

Charlie Villegas, OVP
Charlie Villegas, OVP

MANILA— Exhumed remains of seven individuals killed under President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs were cremated and blessed Wednesday after the leases on their graves expired, a priest leading the effort said. 

Fr. Flavie Villanueva, founder and leader of Project Paghilom, which supports bereaved families of drug war victims, said the step is "part of [the program's] continuous campaign for holistic healing for the widows and orphans of victims of the war on drugs of the Duterte administration."

“Remember that these remains, these victims out of poverty and fear were hurriedly buried. Because of poverty, because of fear, they didn’t have enough to buy a more dignified grave site… They didn’t have the luxury to own a grave site, forcing them to simply rent grave apartments that expire after 5 years," Villanueva told ABS-CBN News.

“If they will not be exhumed, they will end up in sacks, common graves or even lost forever.”

The seven individuals, whose urns were blessed at a church in Manila Wednesday, died in anti-drug operations in 2016, the first year of the Duterte administration.

Their urns were turned over to their families. Villanueva said this would "allow them to have more a intimate experience of grieving, which hopefully leads to healing.”

"By next year, we’re also talking with some cemeteries, where their loved ones will be inurned perhaps in more dignified grave sites," he said.

Charlie Villegas, OVP
Charlie Villegas, OVP

At hand at the rites was Vice President Leni Robredo, who vowed support for families of alleged victims of extrajudicial killings as they move forward with grief.

"Hindi na natin mababalik iyong buhay ng mga nawala sa atin, pero kapag pinagbuti natin ang buhay natin, parang iyon na din iyong alay natin sa kanila, na kahit wala na sila dito ay siniguro ninyo na iyong mga naiwan nila ay napapangalagaan," said Robredo, who lost her husband, interior chief Jesse Robredo, to a plane crash in 2012.

(We can't bring back the lives of those we have lost but if we improve our lives, that's how we honor them, that even if they are not here anymore, you ensure that those who were left behind are taken care of.)

"Nandito lang po ako, nandito lang iyong aking opisina. Kapag may kailangan—kahit pa kailangan lang ng kakuwentuhan, bukas na bukas po iyong aming pinto sa inyong lahat,” she said.

(I'm here, my office is here [for you]. If you need anything— even just someone to talk to, we are open to everyone.)

The Office of the Vice President has partnered with civil society groups in providing various interventions for families who lost their loved ones to EJKs.

Villanueva said his group expects that the lease of many grave sites of drug war victims would also expire next month, and that more exhumations would happen.

The exhumation of remains started in July after the 5-year lease on their graves lapsed.

Drug war review

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice released for the first time details about some of the cases reviewed by its drug war review panel. 

The unprecedented release marks the first time details on killings in the bloody campaign were released, just as many families continued to seek justice for their loved one's deaths.

The 20-page table showed drug suspects dying of multiple gunshot wounds, with 1 suspect sustaining no less than 15 shots in a police operation.

The report contained details about 52 cases where the PNP had earlier found administrative liability in some 150 police officers.

The agency released the matrix about a month after the International Criminal Court launched a full inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity in Duterte's drug war.

Government data shows 6,100 suspected drug dealers have been killed by security forces in anti-drug operations since Duterte, who won the elections on an anti-crime, anti-drug and anti-corruption platform, took office in mid-2016.

Rights groups say many thousands more were assassinated in slum communities, mostly users killed by mystery gunmen who were never caught, and accuse police of involvement.


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