Four white marble urns are placed on a table in front of the Panay chapel. It’s a Sunday morning in Quezon City, and only the distant sound of an occasional passing car can be heard. Sarah Celiz steps forward from the pews and helps cover the ballot boxes with a crisp white cloth. A wooden cross is gently placed on top.
Two of the urns contain the ashes of Celiz’s sons, Almon and Dicklie. They were killed six months apart in 2017 during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called War on Drugs, a merciless crackdown that mainly targeted young men living in poor urban areas. Celiz, who had to take care of 12 grandchildren, could barely afford to bury her sons. She managed to pay around 10,000 pesos (£150) for two temporary “apartment graves”, concrete boxes stacked up to eight stories high, in a public cemetery in Caloocan, Metro Manila. Serious leases expired this year.
Now the remains of Almon and Dicklies rest in urns in the chapel, where they will be blessed and returned to the family. They were cremated with the support of St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre, a Catholic charity, which helps families affected by the war on drugs who cannot afford permanent burials. Without such support, families risk completely losing the remains of their loved ones.
It is likely that many more victims will be evicted from cemeteries when the five-year leases on their graves expire. The International Criminal Court, which investigates abuses linked to anti-drug operations, estimates that between 12,000 and 30,000 people were killed from July 2016 to March 2019.
Victims were often buried in “apartment graves”. These are much more affordable than permanent sites or cremations, but they are only temporary. After the lease expires, families are responsible for finding an alternate arrangement.
Cemeteries are not informing families of the impending expiration of apartment graves, said Father Flaviano Villanueva, a Catholic priest and founder of the St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre. Instead, graves can be cleared without warning. “If you go there at the right time, you will see piles of bags of bones placed, collected, gathered and later buried in a common grave,” he said.
For families, it means losing their loved ones a second time.
Celiz said she learned last year that she had a brain tumor and wanted to be sure her sons would be buried with dignity. Paying extra money to the cemetery was not an option. The costs associated with their deaths in 2017 – including their funeral apartments, burials, wakes and an autopsy for Almon – had already amounted to 77,000 pesos ($1,500).
Although Celiz runs a sari-sari shop (a neighborhood convenience store) and sells clothes, she also takes care of the children of her two sons, who all go to school. Her husband worked alongside Almon and Dicklie as a painter, but has not worked since their deaths.
Almon, a father of five, was killed aged 32 on February 6, 2017 when a police task force arrived at a wake he had attended. There was a commotion and he tried to run away. He was shot in the chest and arm.
Six months later, Dicklie, her 31-year-old younger brother, was killed. Celiz remembers seeing her body at a funeral home; he had been shot several times, including in the head, chest and arm. “His eyes seemed to be crying,” she said. Celiz learned that Dicklie, a father of seven, had been taken to the police station and had a bag placed over his head. His body was found abandoned nearby.
St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre, which has exhumed more than 50 bodies in the past year, is funding autopsies for the victims, which could provide evidence to national or international prosecutors.
Some autopsies revealed obvious irregularities: despite the victims’ death certificates listing illnesses such as pneumonia or sepsis as causes of death, the examination revealed that they had been shot.
Duterte will step down on June 30 after reaching the end of his single six-year term. He remains popular in his country, even though his war on drugs is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court. His successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, said he would only allow court prosecutors into the country as tourists, thereby shielding him from justice. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, was elected as the next vice president.
At the chapel of Panay, Celiz cries while speaking in front of the congregation. She is relieved, she says, that her sons are resting in a much better place. “I said to my sons: don’t worry about the obligations that remain, I will do it, I will take care of your children. Please guide me, my sons. I will fight to get justice for you. Thank you, my sons, for showing your love when you were still with us.
As the service draws to a close, a prayer is read for the souls of those slain. The urns are blessed and sprinkled with holy water. Celiz and the relatives of the other victims are invited to pick up their ballot boxes. Celiz gently picks up her son’s urn, hugging it tightly.