The Nightcrawlers, Paghilom, and a fellowship forged in death

Text and Photographs by Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

(Editor's note: This article was written in February 2020 or prior to the COVID-19 crisis.)

“Nakaka-miss din pala kayo.”

The ladies giggled at the veiled compliment. Father Flavie stood in the middle of the assembly, scanning the audience, grinning. The room of seventy women met his gaze.

“Grabe ka naman, Father!” some squealed in fake indignation.

“Alam mo ikaw, Father Lavey,” said a woman, deliberately mispronouncing the priest’s name. The congregation laughed – obviously, it was an inside joke. Obviously, they were all in on it.

Watching the exchange from the sides, I could tell these people knew each other deeply. The irreverence in their humor betrays this – only with friends can you be naughty and get away with it. Besides, regular churchgoers never make fun of their priests. Flavie, clearly, was one of the tribe.

This was a post-Valentine’s Day gathering. Soon the women’s seventy Monobloc chairs were upended in an excited search for paper hearts hidden underneath, which would yield prizes for the lucky finder. More gifts were given, stories exchanged, a poem was read. All for the ladies.

When the crowd had settled back down, Flaviano Villanueva – Father Flavie – turned somber.

“Sa totoo lang, minsan naiisip ko sana pa rin hindi tayo nagkakilala,” he said.

They complain collectively. “Father? Bakit naman?”

“Kasi, nagkakilala naman tayo dahil may mga namatay.”

The roomful of seventy women grew quiet, as though suddenly remembering what brought them there in the first place. Flavie was right.

The thread that ties them together is death.

These seventy something women are the widows and mothers of men who died in the government’s war on drugs. Plenty enough to fill the room they were in, but only a fraction of the actual count.

PAGHILOM

This was a day in the life of “Paghilom,” a program that means “healing” in the Tagalog language. Its mission is noble, buts its roots are grim. When President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the start of the government’s “War on Drugs” in 2016, and body after body after body started falling - whether by the bullet of the Philippine National Police or the unidentified vigilante - Father Flavie and his friends immediately saw the unintended consequence. These kill shots were all ricocheting back to each of these men’s homes, shattering family after family after family.

Journalists embarked on an exhausting pursuit of answers, photographing the dead and asking why, covering crime scenes and asking who. They were counting cadavers faster than they could tell their stories with dignity. While all of this was happening, Flavie decided to train his eyes on the widows and orphans.

He made it his mission to help the survivors heal the gaping wounds in their hearts.

“Simula 2016, ang kasayahan ay ninakaw sa kanila. Ang bumabalot sa kanilang mga damdamin ay luha, pagkatraydor. At nagangapa sila kung sino ba ang pwedeng mangalinga, saan ba sila makakahanap ng paghilom? Kaya sinimulan natin yung programang Paghilom,” Father Flavie said.

With a little funding from his church and donations from friends, Flavie and his team began to actively search for the families of the men who have been killed. They start out by offering the most basic things, such as masses during the wake, or financial support for funeral services. In doing so, they wanted to send a message to the families: you are not alone.

“It’s a combination of their world being shattered - yung kanilang pananamtalaya ay ang hina, naisantabi, ang kanilang tiwala sa mga taong dapat nagtatanggol ay nagkaroon ng malaking pagdududa. Ito yung sinasabi nating kailangang buuin muli,” Flavie said.

In the shroud of the drug war, this is precisely the kind of companionship that families need to feel. The killings have created a new culture in impoverished neighborhoods – when a person is killed, the sense of community often dies with them. Wakes of drug war victims are often deserted, with friends and relatives so afraid of being associated with the man in the coffin. Families, who sense this, start to ostracize themselves, ashamed of the label that the killers have branded on their name, fearful of any unfamiliar face seen walking around their home.

“That,” Flavie said, “is why we’re trying to seek them out one by one, patiently, with love and without judgment.”

After their loved ones are buried, Paghilom organizes voluntary grief counselling sessions for the widows and orphans. Flavie takes this process seriously, and any person willing to join will have 8 sessions of intensive processing with a 3-day retreat in the end. There is an element to this healing, though, that does not rely on Flavie alone: the friendship that the participating widows and orphans find in each other.

“Mahalaga na makita ng isa na balot ng takot na hindi siya nag-iisa,” explains Flavie. “Mahalaga na makita ng isa na meron nang nauna. Na meron nang mabago, meron nang nakatayo muli. Yun ang aking tutularan.”

IGGYBOY… WALA NA SI PAPADADDY

“Vincent?”

“Yes, Chiara.”

It was December 10, 2019. On the other end was photojournalist Vincent Go, one of the few remaining journalists who, more than three years in, are still completely dedicated to tracking the war on drugs.

By this time, we in mainstream media had all but let go of drug war coverage, forced to shift our attention on the country’s other ills. But not Vincent. Nor, for that matter, the other members of the group they call the “Nightcrawlers” – a relentless band of like-minded journalists, church workers, legal experts and volunteers who have given themselves to chronicling and following the war on drugs until its very last day.

I contacted Vincent on International Human Rights Day, wanting to see how their work has evolved since the beginning. I was surprised, and more than a little horrified, to hear that he was on his way to yet another crime scene.

“Hahanapin ko pa lang, sabi sa’kin sa may Mauban area, sa Barangay Manresa, Quezon City,” he said.

A pang of guilt hit me in the gut. Almost four years in, the killings have not stopped. It was just we who stopped looking.

I met up with Vincent at the corner of the alley where the victim lived, and we crouch into the pathway of low-hanging roofs together.

In the dimness of the alley, the unmistakeable glow of funerary lamps stood out. There the man lay, in a coffin topped with his favorite snacks, and a dirty yellow chick walking back and forth on the glass over his face. Mark Anthony Ruivivar, Mack-Mack to his friends.

Papadaddy to his son and wife. Born on Christmas Eve of 1993, gunned down on night of December 2, 2019 by the Philippine National Police.

A cellphone video, that to this day no one admits taking, shows the moments after the shots were fired.

It starts from the rooftop of one of the houses, showing people looking down on the street. Then a chilling, desperate voice, a half-scream.

“Iggyboy... Iggyboy…wala na si Papadaddy…”

The camera tilts down to the alley below. Five men were carrying a male body out by the arms and legs. Again, the voice, this time morphing into a heart-stopping wail.

“Pinatay niyo si Papadaddy!”

The taker of the video runs down to the street, capturing glimpses of panicked faces and more voices of anger.

“Puntahan mo, Jhieanne!”

“Putanginang ‘yan, pupuntahan ko si Kuya Mack!”

“Hindi yan masamang tao!”

Sobbing follows the video as it chases down the men.

“Bakit niyo binaril? Naghuhugas lang yan ng plato, grabe naman kayo!”

According to Mack-Mack’s family, they were getting ready for dinner when Mack-Mack went down to wash dishes for them. That was when they heard the multiple shots, and saw Mack-Mack sprawled on the floor.

The video taker catches up to the men carrying the body. They are heavily armed, some in plainclothes, others in shirts that bore the letters CIDU. They keep walking away, carrying Mack-Mack with them.

A male voice shouts angrily, “Dadalhin namin sa ospital!”

The now-familiar female voice shouts back, “Dadalhin niyo, eh patay na?”

Then men keep walking, occasionally dropping the heavyset Mack-Mack back on the ground as they rest their arms.

“Ayusin niyo naman! Ginawa niyo nang baboy yan!” the woman screams.

A heavy object falls, seemingly from on top of Mack-Mack’s body and clatters on the street. It was a pistol.

“Ay,” said one of the men, who proceeded to pick it up and put it in his back pocket.

“Huwag kayong lumapit sa amin, ha!” said his companion, the sweeper, pointing his finger at onlookers and holding his rifle.

“Mga putangina niyo! Mga putangina niyo!” was all the woman could say.

The men reach the waiting vehicle marked “PULIS,” “CIDU,” and “QC 78.” It takes them a while before they are able to load the body into the car, pulling on Mack-Mack’s arms and legs different ways as the rest of him lay on the street.

The car door shuts and reveals the marking “Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit.” CIDU.

They drive away with no explanation. The video ends.

The next day, the Quezon City Police District’s Facebook page uploads a press release: “Notorious rob suspect dies in encounter with QCPD-CIDU.”

It tags Mack-Mack as responsible for several incidents of robbery with homicide, and that he engaged the CIDU operatives in a shootout that prompted them to fire back. At the hospital, said the press release, a packet of shabu was found on his body.

The press release ends with the QCPD chief commending his men for their efforts.

At the wake, we met a young boy who says he witnessed the entire incident.

He was fidgety, and broke out in a cold sweat as he recounted what he saw. Indeed, he said, Mack-Mack was washing dishes when the police operatives approached.

"Nakataas yung kamay, binaril pa po,” said the boy, wringing his hands uneasily. “Sinusuksukan siya dito—” pointing to the waistband of his shorts.

“Sino?” asked Vincent.

“Yung mga pulis. Tapos nilagyan pa ng shabu dito,” said the boy, pointing to his other side.

“Sinusuksok nila ng?”

“Baril. Eh nakahubad,” said the boy, who said he saw how Mack-Mack’s loose shorts couldn’t hold the weight of the gun.

“Nakita nilang buhay pa, tapos binalikan. Binaril pa.”

The boy has had trouble sleeping since then.

I covered the scene the way I usually would. Vincent had his camera, too, but I noticed that it took a while before he actually picked it up to use it. Vincent spent most of his time talking to the family, even sharing stories from other drug war victims he’s met.

Soon after, another Nightcrawler arrived – Brother Jun Santiago, a photographer and member of the Baclaran church. He, too, kept his camera slung over his shoulder as he sat down with the family. He told them about their rights, and that the church could help if they needed someone to say mass at the wake or at the burial.

Three years into the Duterte drug war, the Nightcrawlers have evolved from mere chroniclers to advocates.

“Sabi ko, ayan na naman, may isang buhay na naman. May isang tatay... may isang maaaring manggagawa na naman na pinatay sa ganitong klaseng pamamaraan,” said Bro. Jun. “Iba iba yung kwento ng mga pamilya, pero pare-parehong klase ng pagpatay.”

“Before, nung 2016, ang dami naming nagcocover eh. Feeling namin ito ang tama, ito ang dapat talaga, saliksikin, alamin ang katotohanan. Pero sa panahon ngayon, tsk, wala na eh, wala nang nagfo-focus na media eh,” Vincent said ruefully. “Importante pa rin na dino-document natin ito. This will become a very important part of history. Since the Marcos era, walang nangyari ng ganyan ka grabe, ganyan karaming namamatay.”

I eventually left the scene and aired the story. Vincent and Bro. Jun received yet another onslaught of internet troll attacks because of it, calling them coddlers of drug addicts and blind to the reality that these men deserved to die. Both shrugged it off, saying they were used to it.

When I had already moved on to other stories, Vincent and Brother Jun went back to the wake, bringing with them priests and lawyers, and more photographers to shed light on their plight. They kept going back. They stayed. Vincent and Brother Jun were there with Mack-Mack’s wife Jhieanne and her son Iggyboy until the day Papadaddy was laid to rest.

Father Flavie was at the funeral, too, officiating the final rites, as Vincent and the rest documented the scene. The work of the Nightcrawlers and Paghilom intersect where the grieving survivors are.

But there are other lives in this story that surprisingly intersect.

At the post-Valentines gathering, a man in pink stood out against the crowd. He seemed to be busy with practically everything, holding microphones for the speakers, organizing food, checking on the prizes, and occasionally giving advice to the widows who approached him with their problems.

Tall and bespectacled, he was a noticeable thorn among the roses. But Randy delos Santos and all these women are the same.

“Ako yung uncle ni Kian delos Santos, na pinatay noong 2017.”

Anybody who has ever followed the drug war knows Kian’s story.

The teenager was captured on village CCTV being escorted by a group of men, who made Kian kneel on the ground before they shot him execution style. A neighbour overheard Kian’s last words to the men, who turned out to be police officers.

“Tama na po, may exam pa po ako bukas.”

Kian’s death was unique in that his neighbors rose to defend him. Others who saw the video lent their support. There were mass demonstrations that severely weakened and almost dismantled the war on drugs. In a rare case, because of public pressure and clear evidence, Kian’s killers were convicted of murder.

Randy, who apart from losing his nephew also lost his job during that time, went to Paghilom to see what it had to offer.

“Nung una, ay, ano ba yang ginagawa nila? Parang nakakatawa. Pero nung nakuha ko na yung sustansiya nung programa, ito pala ay tumutugon sa usaping sikolohikalng mga kagaya namin mga na-trauma,” he recalls.

Randy soon realized that having a community to cling to was vital in surviving the ordeal.

“Kailangan mo ng mga katuwang. ‘Di pwedeng sabihin mong kaya mo eh,” he realized. “’Di naman mawawala yung sakit eh, pero mabawasan, nang makabalik kami sa buhay na maayos.”

After finishing the process himself, Randy decided to help other victims with their own grief by becoming a volunteer at Paghilom. Now he is Kuya Randy to the other widows who went through what he went through.

“Sa ngayon, ako ay tumutulong sa pag-assist sa mga pamilya. Halimbawa lumalapit sila humihingi ng tulog sa pagpapalibing, minsan training sa livelihood,” said Randy. “Nakakatuwa, may mga nanay na sa kabila ng nawala ang mga yung breadwinner sa kanila, yung mga single mom na ito ay nabigyan ng trabaho. Nakatutuwa na yung mga anak na ‘di nakapag-aral, muling nakapasok sa eskwela. Minsan makakareceive ka ng text, ‘Kuya, maraming salamat, heto na kami ngayon. Nakakataba ng puso. Hindi pala kailangan maging kilala kang tao sa pagtulong. Sa simpleng paraan pala, pwede kang tumulong.”

“ANG MAHAL NA YUMAO”

I leave the mommies and climb up to the second floor where the orphans were.

“Konti pa yan. Imagine mo, ilang thousands na ang namatay. Ilan ang anak ng lahat ng iyon?”

The voice was Raffy Lerma’s, watching the kids from the side of the room. Raffy has perhaps been the most prominent of the Nightcrawlers – leaving his stable job as a senior photographer of a major Philippine broadsheet to focus entirely on documenting the drug war.

The change in Raffy’s life caused a change in him, too. From the introverted fly-on-the-wall I once knew, Raffy now goes around the country and around the world, raising awareness about the drug war, sometimes openly debating with critics about human rights for the poor and criminal.

“Hindi ako ang may gusto nito. Siya ang gumawa sa’kin nito,” Raffy once said to me, referring to Duterte, the drug war’s chief implementor.

The roomful of kids was out of control. A facilitator tried in vain to start out games that everyone could play together, but everyone wanted to do their own thing. A little girl named Angelica walked up to me and immediately sat on my lap. At some point there was another toddler hanging onto my leg. Another little boy – Alexander – asked if he could borrow my camera. He then went around the room, taking photos of the other orphans, who gamely posed in from of him.

I felt bad for the facilitator, but good for the kids. Their energy was as childlike as it should be. They held hands and put their arms around each other like the best of friends.

The adults then handed out sheets of paper where the children could write about themselves. On one sheet, they wrote down their favorite food, favorite past time, things that made them happy.

On another sheet was the heading “Ang mahal na yumao.”

“Ang pangalan niya ay ____ Siya ay ____ ko. Pinaka-nami-miss ko sa kanya ay ___…” asked the piece of paper, inviting the children to remember their lost loved ones not in the context of the killing, but in the context of who they were to the family.

Papa ko.

Tito ko.

Pinsan ko.

Kuya ko.

Nami-miss ko yung naglalaro kami.

Nami-miss ko pag kinikiliti niya ako.

Older orphans would gather around the younger ones, helping them write, encouraging answers out of them. “Ako nami-miss ko ‘pag kumakain kami sa labas. Ikaw, anong nami-miss mo?” Laughing, they told one child, “Bakit puro laro ang sinulat mo, wala ba kayong ginawang iba ng Papa mo kundi maglaro?” To which the young boy hook his head.

Suddenly, I saw a familiar face. I walked up to him.

“Natatandaan mo ba ako?”

“Opo.”

It was Iggyboy, Mack-Mack’s son. I first met him at his father’s wake, he was lying feverish on top of a table near the coffin. He wasn’t talking then, just listening to his mother, grandmother, and aunties talk in hushed tones.

I hugged Iggyboy and he smiled.

“Kamusta ka na?”

“Okay lang po. Okay na. Hindi pala okay. Pero okay lang,” he tried his best to explain.

After a while, the mommies entered the room, and I saw another person I knew. It was Jhieanne, Mack-Mack’s wife. We hugged, too.

“Kamusta ka na?”

“Okay lang po. Hindi pa rin masyadong okay. Pero mas okay na.”

Jhieanna said that she found out about Father Flavie’s counselling sessions and one day decided to give it a try. She and Iggyboy ended up finishing the entire process.

“Nung unang pagpunta po namin doon, sobrang kabado po. Di ko po alam kung ano talaga ang gagawin namin. Tapos nag-start kami pakilala sa isat-isa, kamustahan po.”

Now Jhieanne says her friendship with her fellow widows has been keeping her and her son afloat.

“Parang sila yung naging gamot sa mga sugat namin,” she said. “Tawanan lang po kami nang tawanan. ‘Pag magkikita-kita po kami, parang wala kaming iniindang problema. Parang happy lang po kami lagi. Pero sa likod non nandun pa rin yung problema. Masaya kami kasi may nakakasama kaming ibang tao, pero sa loob namin, nasa isip pa rin namin ang hustisya na dapat pong matanggap namin.”

I wasn’t around to witness the process that Jhieanne and the other widows went through. But there is a brightness in Jhieanne’s face that was not there when I first met her. On December 10, I was looking at an empty soul. Now, she was giggling, playing the guitar with fellow widows, sharing a meal with her son, and smiling. Jhieanne was alive again.

VALENTINE

This was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day event – a day to help the widows forget the loss of the loves of their lives, by being Valentines to each other. But it was already the end of the month. On February 14, Father Flavie was somewhere else.

He was in court, posting bail for a case of Conspiracy to Commit Sedition.

Flavie is one of eleven people accused by the government of conspiring to take down the Duterte administration, primarily by producing and circulating the online videos called “Ang Totoong Narcolist.” This online series was intended to expose information by Peter “Bikoy” Advincula, who claimed he had knowledge that President Duterte, his son and now-Congressman Paolo, and his aide and now-Senator Bong Go were actually members and beneficiaries of high-stakes druglords in the Philippines.

Bikoy – after the videos were uploaded – retracted all of his statements, saying he was coerced into doing it by the political opposition. He could now possibly stand as state witness against his co-accused, including former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, Father Flavie, and nine others.

Flavie uploaded photos of himself posting bail, getting his fingerprints and mugshots taken, smiling in defiance. But he reveals people close to him are now fearing for his safety.

“Nanay ko nabagabag, mga kaibigan ko. Kahit ang kongregasyon ko sa Roma,” said Flavie.

“Sabi ko wag kayo mabagabag sa akin. Nag-iisa lang ako eh. Mabagbag tayo sa mga biyuda na nawalan ng mahal sa buhay. Mabagabag tayo sa mga pamilya ng tinokhang, kasi sila ang mas may matinding hinaharap sa kinabukasan.”

At the end of the gathering, Flavie and the other volunteers dipped their hands into large plastic bags, and fished out seventy roses for the seventy widows. The women’s eyes brightened. Often as he handed out the flowers, Flavie would touch the widows in the cheek and smile at them. Many times, he would get tight hugs in return.

There was a song playing in the background – a cheesy one, but quite apt for what was taking place. I hummed to the tune while taking photos. But I did not expect what happened next.

A widow swung her rose in the air and started singing. The widow beside her smiled and did the same. Soon, the entire room of widows was smiling, singing from the top of their lungs.

I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

I will never fully grasp the pain that these women have endured. But for those who once saw the lifelessness in their eyes as they cowered in the dark, the sight of them standing tall and belting out is nothing short of a miracle.

I did not stay immersed in the drug war like the Nightcrawlers did. But the fact that they still press on like this strikes me as a miracle, too.

I’m not quite sure what the greatest love of all even looks like. But the love that keeps all of these people moving, and trying, and surviving, seems great enough to last them all another day.