Vitas Meat Slaughterhouse stands along a street in the Tondo neighbourhood that shares it name, a housing project that was originally built for former residents of the infamous Smokey Mountain landfill. Hidden by the fence built around the slaughterhouse was a sanitation and animal welfare nightmare that has plagued the Manila government, which owns the 22,000-square-metre complex, for years.
For 13-year-old Aldrinne Pineda and his friends, however, the slaughterhouse was just a backdrop to the games that they played, as they enjoyed a few hours of freedom from the confines of their cramped homes.
Aldrinne was the second of five children and about to graduate from primary school in 2018. He was the class joker, but his mother Michelle never had any issues in getting him to go to school.
In interviews, Michelle would point out that Aldrinne didn't have any vices, pre-empting any attempts by the authorities to convince the public that her son somehow deserved what happened to him. She was worried that the police would turn her son's death into a drug-related incident. And who could blame her, when children even younger than Aldrinne had been killed by policemen and the details of their lives and gruesome deaths somehow twisted to let their killers off the hook?
It was just after 8 p.m. on 2 March 2018 when Michelle saw Aldrinne and his friend Nano, lumbering towards their house. Nano was supporting Aldrinne, who was pale and bleeding profusely.
When she asked him what happened, Nano said that they were playing with their friends by the slaughterhouse fence when a policeman wearing a mask shone a torch on Aldrinne, then shot him.
Michelle ran out and found a group of policemen standing by the fence. They denied that there had been a shooting and told her to just take her son to the hospital.
As she and Allan, her husband, rushed Aldrinne to Tondo Medical Center, their son managed to say a few words: 'Pa, binaril ako. Pa, pulis.' ('Dad, I was shot. Dad, it was a cop.')
Those were his last words. Aldrinne died the next day, as doctors worked to remove the bullet that went through his stomach.
A couple of days later, a policeman came forward to say that he accidentally hit Aldrinne when he fired a warning shot at suspected vandals near the slaughterhouse where he was on patrol duty. He later changed his story to him apparently being taunted by a group of children, then tripping and accidentally firing his gun. Despite his confession, he wasn't arrested straight away. No charges were brought against him until 15 March, the day after Aldrinne's funeral.
As with most victims of the fake drug war, I found few photos of Aldrinne taken when he was alive, and all of them were blurry. I could see that he was small for his age, that he had thick eyebrows and lashes, and a wide nose that earned him the nickname 'Ilong.' Other little details about him came from his mother and friends—how he loved sipa, a traditional Filipino game, and sago (tapioca pearls) drink.
What I saw in clear, fine detail was how his death had cut an unfathomably deep wound in the lives of his family and friends. A series of photos taken by photojournalist Ezra Acayan at Aldrinne's funeral shows his parents' immeasurable grief—Michelle's contorted features as she holds Aldrinne's face; Allan's slumped figure, weighed down by his loss, as Father Flavie Villanueva tries to comfort him.
And then there were his friends, many of whom were witnesses to his murder, who will forever bear the trauma of losing their friend senselessly and so violently. Captured by Acayan's camera as tears streamed down their anguished faces, their mouths open to let out their howls of sorrow, these children beg the viewer to see their pain and to acknowledge that the so-called drug war has done nothing but destroy lives and communities.
There are things more atrocious than a filthy slaughterhouse, things that cannot be fixed by renovations or quick cleanups. These are things that demand justice and concession that the country is led by a charlatan who unleashed a monster that continues to swallow up the poor and those who advocate for them. These are things that call on our nation to find its way back to its better self, in order for its healing to become a possibility.