“If there was no ‘war on drugs’, I would have been able to spend Christmas with my son."
56-year old Normita Lopez’ voice crackles with fury. Her son, Djastin - just 23 years old - was shot dead two and a half years ago. He was one of the 5,526 documented victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s wave of violence.
On the day he was murdered, Normita, a stocky lady with a fresh face, had an intuition that something was wrong, “Perhaps that’s why I tried to stop him from leaving.”
Team Ceritalah has met with her twice over the past six months. The first time was at her single-room hut in Tondo, Manila, where she lived with her family. However, because of her refusal to remain silent and accept her son’s bloody fate, Normita has had to flee her home and now stays with a relative in another part of the city.
Normita can still remember the events of that afternoon very clearly. Her son received a text message from a friend asking him to come outside. Brushing off his mother’s worries, he left hastily.
“Everyone called him ‘Tirik’ (referring to the movement of the eyes during an epilepsy) because he was epileptic.”
Hours later, she received news from a neighbour that policemen were firing guns by railway tracks. She tried desperately to contact her son – to no avail. Night fell.
The same neighbour came back with more news. “Tirik is dead.”
Normita rushed to the scene of the crime – her mind fixated on the colour and brand of the shirt her son had been wearing: a bright yellow Nike. According to the neighbour, the victim was wearing blue and grey.
“I couldn’t believe it, but I was crying anyway.”
She got as far as the rail crossing before she was ushered away, managing only to catch a glimpse of the corpse, sprawled next to several arrested villagers who were being guarded by several police officers.
What followed was a blur as Normita tried, with increasing distress, to get close enough to the body. But she was repeatedly prevented from doing this on the grounds that the Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) lacked enough evidence.
“I was just crying and crying.”
The morning brought both fresh light and devastating certainty. Normita was able to see the body now and broke down again. There could be no doubt now: she had seen Djastin’s face. Still, she was not allowed to go up to him and their family was not allowed to claim the body.
A few days later, the police asserted that Djastin had been killed in a shootout.
However, Normita then started hearing allegations that the first few officers who arrived at the scene had arranged Djastin’s body to make it look as if he did not die with both hands raised, to obscure that he was in fact surrendering when he was gunned down.
“Why didn’t they arrest him?” She asks, “His hands where raised.”
Enraged by what she sees as a cover-up, Normita has since gone public, going so far as to file a case against the government. Moreover she also has testified about her experiences and is now a volunteer in Rise Up – a local NGO that supports the families of the victims of the extrajudicial killings.
Team Ceritalah could feel her passion as she spoke: “I want to provide help and company to the families who share my experience. We’ve all had loved ones killed by Duterte’s War on Drugs.”
A mother’s grief is deep and overwhelming: “Sometimes…I think and imagine he is sleeping beside me. Where I can hold him close…I would just cry and cry. My (other) children would tell me “Mom stop, stop crying.” I say, “I cannot accept it.” But I try to keep things together for them. They’ve seen me laugh, to forget. But I cannot accept this. I still have not accepted it.”
And yet, life goes on. She endeavours to remain positive and with Christmas approaching, she is helping to prepare gift parcels for around 200 families affected by the drug war.
This is now her third Christmas without Djastin and yet, for Normita, “Christmas is always about family.” The family will visit the cemetery where he is buried. The festive season is additionally poignant as Djastin’s birthday was on 31 December.
Normita’s face begins to light up as she recounts the many protests and TV appearances she has joined. Indeed she has even penned a poem dedicated to her late son. A video of her reciting the verse has since gone viral.
However, Normita remains unsatisfied. She is still working on winning the case for her son and, in a sense, for all the families torn apart by the killings.
“The police have tried to bribe me and my husband to close the case but I will put all of them to shame. I will fight for as long as I am alive.”