by Rose Cruz Churma
Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has carried out a “war on drugs” that has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, mostly urban poor, according to the Human Rights Watch.
Recently a three-judge panel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided on January 26, 2023 to authorize the court’s prosecutor to resume his investigation in the Philippines, advancing accountability for extrajudicial killings in the country. As to be expected, the Philippine government appealed the decision last February 3.
On August 16, 2017, 17-year-old Kian de los Santos was mistaken for a drug addict and mercilessly gunned down. The killing was caught on CCTV and was shown on national news outlets. Kian was heard saying before he was killed—“Tama na po, test po ako bukas.” (Please stop; I have a test tomorrow).
The incident made an impression on a literature teacher Jocelyn Martin and asked herself— besides going to the streets to protest the killings and signing petitions, what else could a teacher do?
As she notes in the book’s introduction: “…Staying silent is not an option. Silence during these grave times could contribute to a form of “complicit forgetting.”
She felt that the “interrupted lives” of the victims can be “prolonged” through fiction. So she challenged her freshmen class to express themselves through short-story writing.
Twelve short stories showed a lot of promise, where the students showed their “creativity, empathy and sense of justice.”
Six of the best stories were chosen for publication. Her fellow teacher Cyan Abad-Jugo invited professional writers to mentor the six students to process a very complex topic as well as improve their creative outputs.
In addition, the mentors also contributed their own written works. The editors also reached out to artists to provide illustrations for the written pieces.
The result is “an anthology of creative responses to a crucial subject, a conversation between generations, and a memorial against oblivion.”
One of the stories that intrigued me was “Baptism by Fire” by Jan Ong, a graduate of management engineering from the Ateneo de Manila University.
Instead of writing from the perspective of the victims or the victims’ families and next of kin, her story revolves around a police officer charged with dealing with this drug war.
The opening sentence is telling: “I’m not a bad man, I just want to do what’s best for my country.”
It follows a typical day at his precinct, where he is tasked to go through the pile of anonymous “tips” identifying drug addicts. His sense of dread accelerates when he is informed that despite his misgivings about the truthfulness of the “tips”, it was best to take them all—it was better to ensure that no addict is left and not worry about a little detail such as the lists’ accuracy.
The dialogue is in Filipino and reflects the cadence of the language of the streets, but the protagonist’s inner conflicts are written in English. The text moves effortlessly from Filipino to English without the use of italics which is normally the case when another language is used.
The precinct had been given a quota of addicts to take care of, and the protagonist as the newbie in the precinct was given the task of getting his hands dirty to save the nation (“Kailangan ng ating mga kamay na madumihan upang mailigtas ang ating bayan”) the euphemism for shooting the identified addict, including planting the evidence to ensure a smooth indictment.
The monologues that describe his inner conflicts are heart-wrenching. He is also a victim. His inner war will be replayed in his memory over and over again. And the story ends as it began: “I’m not a bad man, I just want to do what’s best for my country.”
Ironically, most of those who voted for Rodrigo Duterte including his diehard supporters justified their actions in the same way—to do what is best for the Philippines.
The last paragraph in the editor’s introduction says it best when she writes:
“Triggered is about letting ourselves be disturbed. Disturbed by the numerous “collateral” damages of this war, disturbed by the powers acting as judges and executioners; disturbed by mostly poor children now without parents, or parents now without a child. Like an epitaph, our volume can also, but not only, function as trace, as translation, as survival of the dead…”
The government of Rodrigo Duterte waged war against drugs, but the authors of this anthology waged war against forgetting, against erasing from institutional memory the lives and sacrifices of the victims of EJK.
In addition to the stories, illustrators and their graphics were also included to illustrate the literary works (short stories and some poetry). A special panel discussion was held to analyze the stories of the student writers brought additional feedback and insight from folks with diverse educational backgrounds and training.
The team that produced this book decided to donate its book sales to the EJK Orphans program of the Diocese of Kalookan which provides support to the victims and their families.
Aside from the financial gain, one teacher’s initiative to ensure empathy for the EJK victims by assigning a fiction-writing activity developed into mentorships, panel discussions and workshops, and a literary anthology that forever documents the nightmare that the country was subjected to.
ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Rose Cruz Churma