Victims of Duterte’s drug war in Philippines exhumed as leases run out on their graves

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jes Aznar/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Four white marble urns are placed on a table at the front of 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 to cover the urns 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 mostly targeted young men living in poor, urban areas. Celiz, who was left caring for 12 grandchildren, could barely afford for her sons to be buried. She managed to pay about 10,000 pesos (£150) for two temporary “apartment graves”, concrete boxes piled as high as eight stories, in a public cemetery in Caloocan, greater Manila. The grave leases expired this year.

Related: Philippines election: torture survivors from Marcos era in shock after son’s win

Now Almon and Dicklies’ remains sit in urns in the chapel, where they will be blessed and handed to the family. They have been cremated with support from the St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre, a Catholic charity, which is helping families affected by the drug war who are unable to afford permanent burials. Without such support, families risk losing their loved ones’ remains completely.

It’s likely many more victims will face evictions from cemeteries as the five-year leases on their graves expire. The international criminal court, which is investigating abuses related to anti-drugs 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 far more affordable than permanent sites or cremations, but they’re only temporary. After the lease expires, families are responsible for finding an alternative arrangement.

An extrajudicial killing victim’s body is exhumed at a Manila cemetary
An extrajudicial killing victim’s body is exhumed in Manila. Funding for autopsies on some could provide evidence for prosecutors. Photograph: Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Cemeteries do not notify families of the impending expiration of apartment graves, said Father Flaviano Villanueva, a Catholic priest and the founder of St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre. Instead, graves can be cleared without warning. “If you go at the right time, you will see piles of sacks of bones placed, collected, gathered, and later on buried in a common gravesite,” he said.

For families, it means losing their loved ones a second time.

Celiz said she learned last year that she had a brain tumour, and wanted to be sure that her sons would be laid to rest with dignity. Paying additional money to the cemetery wasn’t an option. Costs related to their deaths in 2017 – including their grave apartments, burials, wakes and an autopsy for Almon – had already totalled 77,000 peso (US$1,500).

Though Celiz runs a sari-sari shop (a mini, neigbourhood convenience store) and sells clothes, she is also supporting her two sons’ children, who are all at school. Her husband used to work alongside Almon and Dicklie as a painter, but hasn’t worked since their deaths.

I will fight to get justice for you

Sarah Celiz at a funeral service for her two sons

Almon, a father of five, was killed aged 32 on 6 February 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, his 31-year-old younger brother, was killed. Celiz remembers seeing his body in a funeral parlour; he had been shot multiple times, including in the head, chest and arm. “His eyes seemed to be crying,” she said. Celiz was told that Dicklie, a father of seven, had been taken to a police station and a bag placed over his head. His body was found abandoned nearby.

The St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Centre, which has exhumed more than 50 bodies over the past year, is funding autopsies for the victims, which could provide evidence for prosecutors either domestically or internationally.

Related: ‘We have to show courage’: the Philippines mothers taking Duterte and his ‘war on drugs’ to court

Some autopsies have shown clear irregularities: despite victim’s death certificates listing illnesses such as pneumonia or sepsis as causes of death, examination found they had been shot.

Duterte will leave office on 30 June having reached the end of his single, six-year term limit. He remains popular at home, though his war on drugs is now being investigated by the international criminal court. His successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has said he will only allow prosecutors from the court to travel to the country as tourists, effectively shielding him from justice. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, has been elected the next vice-president.

At Panay chapel, Celiz’s weeps as she speaks before the congregation. She is relieved, she says, that her sons have been laid to rest in a much better place. “I told my sons: don’t worry about the obligations left, 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 an end, a prayer is read for the souls of those killed. The urns are blessed and sprinkled with holy water. Celiz, and the relatives of other victims, are invited forward to collect their urns. Celiz takes her son’s urn carefully in her arms, and hugs it closely.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting