Photographs: The Pain and Punishment of Memories

by Raffy Lerma

There are a hundreds more I remember in this war on drugs — fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who have now been reduced to numbers.









I HAVE a bad memory. I am bad with names, dates, numbersI easily forget. I take photographs to remember. I take photographs for people to see and hopefully to remember. 

In the past year and a half covering the war on drugs, I have witnessed many crime scenes, attended countless wakes and funerals. The sight of dead bodies and grieving families has left me numb.

Yet I remember them. I remember Michael Siaron, the pedicab driver and alleged drug pusher who was shot and killed by unidentified riding in tandem suspects in a vigilante style killing along Edsa, Pasay Rotonda on July 23, 2016. His partner, Jennilyn Olayres was screaming at us, photographers, from inside the police cordon, begging us to stop shooting and help them instead. But we didn’t. We took photographs. We could not help.

Over a year after that night, police claimed that Siaron and many other victims in Pasay City were killed by a certain Nesty Santiago, who has also been killed. Their only proof? Gun traces. True or not, Siaron’s family says they have not been once updated or given information by the police about their findings. And somehow, the case is closed. This is justice for the government. How convenient.


Back in August 2016, I remember Paul Lester Lorenzo who was killed along with Danny Laurente in a police buy bust operation in Pandacan, Manila. It was surreal chasing a makeshift trolley on the train tracks, which carried the dead bodies of the victims.

I remember the first time the family of Lorenzo saw him from inside the coroners’ body bag. I still hear their deafening screams as they touched his face, wailing, “Tay.”

In shock, one of my colleagues was left with nothing but curses. “Putangina, putangina,” he whispered repeatedly in every click of the shutter. I had to shake him out of it. “Huy, gising.” 

In an attempt to help, I offered my crew cab to bring the family to the morgue. It was the least I could do.

That same month, I visited the wake of alleged drug pusher Eric Sison who police claimed was killed in a shootout in Pasay City. Like a broken record, the voice of Eric played in my head after hearing an audio record from the night he was killed.

He screamed for his life. “Suko na ako, suko na ako, suko na ako,” again and again until he was silenced by bullets.

At times, I attempt to understand the supporters of these killings. But I am constantly reminded by the words of a 7-year old girl’s father (who I shall keep anonymous) after facing the suspect to his daughter’s rape and murder in October 2016.

He said, “kahit isang milyong beses natin siya patayin, hindi pa rin maibabalik ang anak ko.”

The suspect was the little girl’s uncle, a surenderee of Oplan Tokhang in Malabon. I remember seeing the suspect in the police station, and the crowd calling him a monster. He deserves death for what he has done, they said.

In one of the most gruesome nights I covered in the war on drugs, I remember taking photos of eight victims, summarily executed consecutively on November 16 to 17, 2016. Their faces were covered in packaging tape with cardboard signs left beside their bodies, accusing them of their supposed crimes. After the eighth victim, I realized I could not take any more.

What angered me most was how one of the victims was left with a smiley face drawn on the packaging tape that concealed his face.

It was as if his killing was not enough, that his perpetrators had to mock him even in death.

I recall a pregnant Elizabeth Navarro sitting on the floor of her husband and five- year old son’s wake in Pasay City, with a baby on one arm and her other daughter slumped beside her.

Domingo Mañosca and young Francis were killed by an unknown suspect on December 11, 2016 in their shanty home in Pasay.

In their wake, Elizabeth could barely speak. She just stared into space for hours. How can she move on?

Hope came to them when the Redemptorist Church of Baclaran offered help in their time of grief and misery. The Church helped hundreds of families without question.

Funeral services cost about PHP35,000 to PHP40,000 in the communities of these victims, forcing many to prolong wakes to raise money.

On Christmas Eve, I visited the wake of 12-year old Kristine Joy Sailog  in Laguna. She was killed during a Simbang Gabi after a vigilante missed his target, just outside the Church.

While the entire community celebrated Christmas, Kristine’s mother stayed beside her casket.

To the government, she is merely reduced to “collateral damage.”

In a different arena in the drug war, humans are forced to live like animals. In overly saturated jails in Metro Manila, bodies are pressed cheek to cheek, with the smell of sweat and human waste a daily suffering.

In April 2017, the human rights commission inspected a police station in Tondo and found a “secret jail,” hidden behind a cabinet. Inside, thirteen men and women were crammed in a narrow room with no ventilation.

It was no secret that many of them were indeed involved in the drug trade. But the question remains — why hide them behind a cabinet? The detainees later on revealed that they were extorted for money, up to PHP300,000 in exchange for their release. I wonder, how can we ever solve this problem?

It is an oversimplification to blame all this violence on drugs. In Kian Loyd delos Santos’ case, for example, CCTV footage had shown the police caught in the act of dragging the teenager into an alley where he would be found dead. The cops claimed he fought back, just like the thousand others who have been killed before Kian.

I remember the number of people who attended his funeral. The media attention on his death. Kian is just one of the thousands of other victims in this brutal war on drugs.

There are hundreds more I remember in this war on drugs — fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who have now been reduced to numbers.

Soon, I will forget their names. We will forget their names.

It will be as if these crimes did not happen. But I have photographs to remember. I have photographs to remember these crimes.


*Photos by Raffy Lerna, The Philippine Daily Inquirer