Tokhang victims rise up for justice

YEARENDER - Mark Jayson Cayabyab - The Philippine Star

First of two part

MANILA, Philippines — As the war on drugs reached its third year in 2019, more victims are finding the voice to speak out against the impunity that haunted the government’s campaign.

They are grieving mothers and wives who defied fear and stood up to government and police in their quest to demand justice.

Last 2017, a hesitant and fearful Normita Lopez filed murder charges befor the Office of the Ombudsman against Manila police for the killing of her epileptic son Djastin Lopez during a police operation along the railway tracks in Tondo on May 18, 2017.

Two years later, the ombudsman ordered the filing of a murder case and the dismissal from service of Police Officer 3 Gerry Geñalope, the suspect in killing her son, one of the rare instances the judiciary worked in the poor victims’ favor. 

This time, Normita’s eyes beamed when asked for her comment on the ombudsman’s ruling. “Justice is not sleeping in our country, after all, despite the long 16-month wait,” Normita told The STAR in April.

While police said Djastin was a drug and murder suspect who engaged them in a shootout, witnesses told the ombudsman that Djastin had raised his hands in surrender and said “Huwag po (Don’t),” when he was shot by Geñalope.

Geñalope allegedly pushed Djastin to the ground and fired five shots at him, indicating that he was shot while defenseless and with treachery, Ombudsman Samuel Martires ruled.

In the two-year period between the filing of the complaint and the Ombudsman’s resolution, Normita had kept herself occupied by joining protest performances of progressive theater group Sikad and by jotting letters to her son in a notebook.

Normita said she found the courage to keep on fighting despite the odds through rights group Rise Up For Your Life and Rights.

 “This war on drugs is a war on the poor. There is no rich person killed in this war,” she said. Normita now takes the lead in raising the morale of her fellow members in Rise Up.

When The STAR joined those monthly meetings starting November, Nanay Normita read some of her poems dedicated to Djastin in front of the other tokhang victims.

Bonding through verse

In a poetry session, Nanay Normita was followed by an unfamiliar face whose smile despite her grief would make a mark on this reporter covering the war on drugs.

Nanay Llore Benedicto used her experience as a mother to write verses. 

Nanay Llore described to The STAR her writing process, which involved first looking at the Messenger group chat with other Rise Up members, where they poured out their hearts about their struggles to move on from their sons’ and husbands’ deaths

Then, inspiration strikes her. And like a doting grandmother to her grandchildren, Nanay Llore would give advice to the grieving mothers and wives in the form of poetry.

She had not always been like this: until her sons Crisanto and Juan Carlos Lozano were killed by police in what they claimed to be an operation to a robbery holdup in May 2017.

She said she found her strength to speak out since becoming organized with Rise Up.

“One of the first poems I wrote was dedicated to the mothers, encouraging them not to be sad, because they are not alone, because there are many of us rising up,” said Llore, a balladeer whose influences in poetry she said were songs by Imelda Papin and Nora Aunor.

She hopes her poetry inspired her fellow victims just as their experiences inspire her to write poetry. 

“It’s like a combination of our experiences,” Llore said. She is among the complainants in the crimes against humanity complaint filed before the International Criminal Court against President Duterte and the police. She hopes to write verses dedicated to her sons soon.

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