What we've lost in the war
The story of the so-called drug war in the Philippines under the Duterte presidency is the story of havoc unleashed on the poor and powerless. To people who were aware of the former Davao mayor's human rights record and his questionable behaviour during his presidential campaign, it was clear that this was going to be the case when Duterte declared his war during his SONA in July 2016.
Within days, news reports came out not about well-known drug lords being arrested, but of people in impoverished neighbourhoods being shot and killed in what the police called 'buy-bust operations.' The killings multiplied so rapidly that in just six months, the war had claimed 7,000 lives.
The tragic irony is that many of the victims were supporters of the president and believed in his promise of getting rid of criminals. It's a terrible shame that a vote is a transaction that's rarely honoured—that a politician could promise order and stability in exchange for millions of people's votes, and get away with turning on these people and decimating them instead of keeping his end of the bargain.
An estimated 27,000 people have been killed in the war in the last three years, but the Philippine National Police claims the actual number is less than a fifth of that, as if more than 20,000 lives could have just ended inexplicably. The victims range in age, with the youngest being three years old, and in occupation—pedicab drivers, students, farmers, human rights lawyers, activists, journalists, petty thieves and drug dealers, housewives. Most of them were poor, none of them were powerful.
There are no signs of the war abating, despite the UNHRC resolution to investigate the killings. In the Senate, the person heading the committee on the drug war is the same person responsible for implementing it. It's almost comical, except that a joke made at the expense of 27,000 lives is not funny at all.
This project was inspired by the spirit of Eduardo Galeano's writing, and the page names on this site were taken from the last chapter of his book Days and Nights of Love and War. Mr Galeano wrote beautifully about the history—both ancient and recent—of Latin America, a region with which the Philippines shares a colonial past that continues to haunt those who inhabit the present. He talked about the development of a literature that 'does not lull its readers to sleep, but rather awakens them; that does not propose to bury our dead, but to immortalize them; that refuses to stir the ashes but rather attempts to light the fire.'
Mr Galeano's works focused on the forgotten and uncelebrated, the underdogs of history on whose backs civilisations were built. In a poem inThe Book of Embraces, he called them the 'nobodies', the ones 'who are not, but could be', those 'who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.'. This project, too, aims to pay tribute to the murdered nobodies of the Philippines, the ones who were not, but, in a kinder and just world, could have been.
This site doesn't feature celebrities, just ordinary people whose deaths barely registered on the national news radar, whose names and faces were likely to have been forgotten by the public in a day or two. I paint their portraits and write their stories to help myself and others remember them and to ponder on how much of our nation has been destroyed in this meaningless war and how we can pick up the pieces when this is over.
Here's Mr Galeano's poem in its entirety:
Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them–will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.