It was Annie’s birthday that December morning. She was turning 10, and despite her young age, she understood well that her family could not be complete. Her mother was in prison, taken by the police days ago when they couldn’t find her father. Her father, on the other hand, was hiding in Manila. Annie knew the danger that could come upon him once he set foot in their barangay, but Annie was just turning 10. All she wished for was to see her parents on her birthday.
Tatay Romy, Annie’s father, also knew he was a dead man once he went home. People had been warning him that he would die the second he stepped back in the barangay, but on that December morning, Annie woke up to see her father in their kitchen cooking spaghetti, a celebratory meal that never goes missing from Filipino dining tables. Lola Rowena, Annie’s grandmother, was terrified to see him home, but all he could say was, “Namimiss ko na pamilya ko, at birthday ng anak ko (I miss my family already, and it’s my child’s birthday).”
So there he was, serving spaghetti to his seven children who were seated around their dining table. All of them were enjoying their meals, celebrating Annie’s birthday before they left for school. Then at seven in the morning, a sudden crash emerged from one of the walls. A giant hole was formed, and six men came charging in.
All of the children were dragged outside. They screamed and cried as they huddled outside of their home, hearing their father’s plea blend with all the violent shouts of unknown men.
Crystal, one of Tatay Romy’s daughters, threw herself at her father before they could drag her out too. “Pa! Papa! Pa!” she cried again and again as she clutched him with her tiny hands. But one of the men grabbed her and tore her away from him. Then right in front of her, as the last words from her father’s lips were “Parang-awa niyo na, marami pa akong mga anak (Have mercy, I have many children),” the armed men shot him.
They shot him in the head, in the chest and in the stomach. He sat there lifeless on their couch, holes in his body where the blood of a father oozed out.
This account of Annie’s story is one of the many cases told by Project SOW: Support for Orphans and Widows. All the accounts of the 14 families mentioned in this article were documented by Project SOW and Rise Up for Life and for Rights Philippines, two organizations that help in the recovery of the left-behind families of the drug war victims. Through the processing and profiling sessions with the left-behind families, psychologists and social workers of the two organizations were able to to document their stories. The researchers were also allowed to attend and observe the families during the intervention sessions and were given an avenue to casually interact with the families.
All of the 14 families mentioned in the article come from Caloocan, Navotas, and Quezon City—three municipalities in Metro Manila that have the highest drug affectation rates within their barangays, as recorded by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in 2014.
Within the 14 families alone, 45 orphaned children are already affected. In a report by CNN Philippines last August 2017, the Children's Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a local non-government organization that helps children and their families who are victims of state violence, estimated that the number of children orphaned by the current administration’s campaign against illegal drugs is now roughly between 18,000 to 28,000.
Children continue to lose fathers as majority of the victims of drug-related killings are adult males, with OPLAN Tokhang, the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) anti-drugs operation, as the usually cited cause of death among the affected communities and in the media.
Imagine thousands like Annie and Crystal, watching their fathers cook spaghetti one moment, then seeing him dragged out into the streets the next. Thousands are undergoing such tragedy, some more violent and gruesome than the others.
Psychologist Grace Brillantes-Evangelista, the Chair of the Department of Psychology of Miriam College, called it a complex trauma, given the many components of what these children had to go through. “Hindi lang basta dying ‘eh (their fathers didn’t just simply die), the cause of death is really tragic and violent,” she said. Other than the psychological aspect of their struggle, they face a certain stigma in their communities from having been involved in a tragedy that is condemned by government officials. The state of living of these children have also sunk deeper into poverty now that the breadwinner of their family is gone.
“Putting all of these together, it’s very hard to imagine how the child could continue on with this kind of situation,” said Brillantes-Evangelista. Despite this, there is still little initiative from government agencies and different organizations to create specialized social welfare programs for them and their families.
As the death toll continues to rise in the Philippines’ war on drugs, people only look at the fallen bodies, ignoring the wails of the child left inside the room.
Here are the stories of those children. Here are the stories of the children who continue to live in the echo of the gunshots that took away the life of their parents, who cry for their fathers but only get blank, lifeless stares in return. Here are the stories of the children whose cries cannot remain unheard.