Mothers of drug war victims pass on letters for Pope Francis

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Oct 09 2019 08:59 PM | Updated as of Oct 09 2019 10:10 PM

Portion of Marissa Lazaro’s letter to Pope Francis. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lazaro.

Two mothers of young men slain in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war braved the crowds in the Vatican to pass on their messages of appeal for Pope Francis.

Katherine Bautista and Marissa Lazaro squeezed their way to the front of an estimated 50,000 people seeking the Pope’s blessing in St Peter’s Square and caught the attention of the Pontiff’s assistants, who took their letters. 

Lazaro’s letter described her grief and asked the Pope to pray for her son, Christopher, who was killed by police in 2017, and all victims of extra-judicial killings in the country. She also sought prayers for all the mothers and fathers, widows and children of the mostly poor victims of Duterte’s bloody crackdown on the narcotics trade.

“It is really hard to accept that I lost my son because of the fake war on drugs in our country,” said her hand-written letter on ordinary ruled paper.

The two women are part of the delegation of “Tao Po” a play on drug killing here making a six-city tour. Also present were activist actress Mae Paner or Juana Change, Redemptorist brother and photojournalist Ciriaco Santiago III, who curated the exhibit “Nanlaba” (laundered tales) for the Nightcrawlers and Rise Up for Life and Rights.

“We were part of the sea of humanity,” Paner told ABS-CBNNews.

Basking in the presence of Pope Francis. Photo courtesy of Nikki Gamara of Rise Up.

“Lumapit talaga yung dalawang nanay, at kahit magkahiwalay sila, pareho silang nakuhaan ng sulat ng mga close-in ni Pope. Pursigido talaga,” she said. 

(They were really determined to get to the front and though they were separated by the crowd, both were able to have their letters received by the Pope’s aides).

Lazaro said she felt the weight of the Pope’s gaze.

In Filipino she said, “I am so happy because when his assistant took my letter, I already felt my appeal for justice would reach him.”

“We hope he gets to personally listen to our stories one day, soon,” she said via the messenger app.

Bautista said she cried over the experience.

“It’s a different level of happiness to see the Pope.”

I kept on calling out, ‘Please get this!,” referring to her letter. 

"Kaya nung kinuha ang sulat ko nakaramdam ako ng pag-asa hindi lang para sa step-son kundi para sa lahat ng biktima ng walang habas na pagpaslang sa Pilipinas."

(When he (aide) reached out for my letter, my heart filled with hope, not just for my stepson but for all other victims of the merciless killings in our country.)

Waving letters for the Pope. Photo courtesy of Nikki Gamara of Rise Up.

Paner said the experience bolsters their confidence and courage for the Oct. 10 performance of the play, which is followed by a talkback, interactive session with the audience. 

In the shadow of the Vatican, just four train stops away, Filipino truth-tellers will try to reason with those who have spread messages of hate, the actress said.

The team just came from Amsterdam, in The Netherlands, where overseas Filipinos and Dutch human rights advocates packed the CREA Theatre on Saturday.

The audience gave a standing ovation for the play, directed by Ed Lacson. It is comprised of four monologues written by Palanca second-prize winner Maynard Manansala and based on actual people with different roles and takes on Duterte’s campaign.

The "drug war" has an official death toll of 6,000 but triple that number have died in what police claim are vigilante killings. Rights groups and investigative journalists, however, have traced some of this category of slays to law enforcers. 

The Amsterdam performance took place the day after mothers of EJK victims and their supporters led by Rise Up and the National Union of People’s Lawyers filed complaint (Supplemental Communication-Complaint) to the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Duterte in Manila. 

Paner said despite calls for a boycott by a die hard pro-government group, some Duterte supporters have reached out to confirm attendance.

“It was the same in Amsterdam,” she said. “The talkback became a moment of hope for some in the audience.”

She said the embittered son of an illegal drug seller disclosed that he was supportive of the EJKs in the context of Duterte’s “drug war.”

“But the play made him reflect on the importance of second chance,” Paner said.

“A 16-year old daughter of a man who is languishing in jail for years now because of drugs broke down in tears. The play made her realize that her father also deserves a second chance.”

Another member of the audience shared losing a brother to the drug. 

“She was alone in her grief and it overwhelmed and immobilized her so that she quit her job. Her meeting with the two mothers who lost their sons and watching the play became an eye opener to confront her grief and to be in solidarity with others,” a report by Rise Up said.

The Tao Po team with Marissa Lazaro (left with sign) and Katherine Bautista, mothers of young men slain in Duterte’s “drug war”. Photo by Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago III.

People also flocked and wept over Nanlaban, an exhibit of EJK victim’s clothes which were hung in clotheslines at the lobby of the theatre. 

The clothes were given by their victims’ families to tell their stories, said Santiago. Many of the pictures cane from photojournalists committed to keeping track of killings, the families of the victims, and their struggle for justice.

“The pictures are not pleasant. But they speak truth, are painful, and often haunting,” Santiago said.

Rise Up member Rubilyn Litao said Dutch viewers expressed shock, saying the exhibit reminded them of their country’s history under the Nazis, when thousands of Jews and ‘undesirables’ were exterminated. 

Paner said Rome is a welcome challenge. It is home to tens of thousands of overseas Filipino workers and the base of Duterte loyalists who recently red-tagged her as a communist supporter.

“That’s okay, they are victims of lies spread by some people in government,” she told ABS-CBN News. 

“What is important is they come to listen. I believe in the power of truth and the personal narrative to melt hearts.”