Tokhang victims rise up for justice (Second of two parts)

YEARENDER - Marc Jason Cayabyab - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — For Christmas, rights group Rise Up For Your Life and Rights treated the families of tokhang victims to a Christmas party with gifts and games for orphaned children last Dec. 15.

The group composed a protest chant in the form of a Christmas song directed at the government’s war on drugs.

Mothers, wives, sons and daughters of slain victims all together sang: “Duterte, Duterte, hari ng Tokhang. Pinapaslang, pinapaslang, kaming mga dukha. Narito na kami, handa nang lumaban! (Duterte, Duterte, the king of Tokhang, who kills us poor ones. We are now here, ready to fight!).”

Rise Up coordinator Rubilyn Litao said the rights group ensures that the victims find a moment to enjoy Christmas despite their personal tragedies.

Rise Up member Gillac Cajuban, 18, said Christmas would no longer be the same following the death of her brother Jaylord, who was killed on April 6 in Bagong Silang, Caloocan.

Police said Jaylord was shot by tricycle driver Aldrin Torres for stealing the latter’s tricycle battery. Torres also shot dead Jefferson Dimarillas, 8, who witnessed the killing.

Gillac, who goes by the name Mayumi, told The STAR she missed the times being with her brother, who accepted her for being gay.

“He used to give us Christmas presents. It’s never been the same in the house without him. We will never be complete again at the dinner table. This is our first Christmas without him,” Gillac said.

After the party, Emily Soriano jotted on her notebook to ensure that those who have arrived from Bagong Silang were accounted for inside jeepneys that would bring them home.

On a Rise Up reunion for Human Rights Day, Emily broke down in front of other victims as she shared how she continues to grieve over the death of her teenage son in 2016.

Two years earlier, on Dec. 28, 2017, during the “babang luksa” or observance of her son’s first death anniversary at Tala Cemetery, Nanay Emily went hysterical before her son’s tomb as she called out to him: “Hilahin mo mga paa nila, isama mo din! (Grab their feet, too. Bring them with you!)”

A different Nanay Emily spoke a rousing speech on Human Rights Day this month: a mother who directed her grief into anger as she called on fellow victims to help in documenting new cases of extrajudicial killings.

The incident that came to be known as the Bagong Silang massacre happened on Dec. 28, 2016, days after Christmas. Masked vigilantes fired shots at a shanty in Barangay Bagong Silang and killed three minors – Emily’s son Angelito Soriano, 15; Jonnel Segovia, 15; and Sonny Espinosa, 16.

The target of the attack was drug suspect Jay-R Santor, who escaped. But Santor’s mother, brother, and pregnant sister were killed.

“It still hurts even though it’s been three years. He has been gone since Dec. 28. And yet, here I am, I still could not stop myself from crying, as a mother who continues to fight,” Emily said in her speech last Dec. 1.

“We need to act now to achieve justice. Let us not be afraid. We need to unite in documenting new cases, new victims. We are old now. When should we start fighting but now, why should we stop just because we are afraid to die?” she added.

Far from the grieving mother two years before,  Emily said she found her bravery to sacrifice even her life to the cause.

“Me, I am ready to sacrifice myself. Since I joined Rise Up, I have dedicated my life to this cause, not just to this group, but to you and your loved ones. I will fight for them because I no longer am afraid to speak,” she added.

The deaths of minors in the Bagong Silang massacre only proves that children are not spared from the killings, even though authorities treat them like collateral damage, according to another group.

“It always bring the parents agony and pain that they were not there to protect their children. That they don’t even hurt their children, and yet another person would not only hurt them but kill them,” said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center, which documents children killed in the drug war.

Litao of Rise Up said the rights group may have given victims the resolve to become activists themselves, the grieving mothers had found that strength to fight within them.

“Rising up is part of our approach. The process of rising up means the victims will one day be leaders themselves. From before when they were too afraid to even speak, they are now brave enough to speak up,” Litao said.

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