Photographer & Journalist
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Half-empty Homes

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Half-empty Homes

Published in Rappler, December 2017

MANILA, PHILIPPINES  

Almost every month in 2017, at least one teenager was killed by unidentified assailants or fatally shot in a police operation.

Based on media reports gathered by Rappler from January 1 to December 28, at least 28 teenagers were killed in 2017, more than 70% of whom were minors. The youngest was 13.

These teenagers are tagged either as criminals or “collateral damage” in the Duterte administration's war on drugs.

In the last weeks of the year, I revisited the homes of some of the slain teens and reconnected with the people they left behind.

 

 

 

THE CLUBFOOTED BOY

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It was supposed to be the happiest Christmas of Luzviminda Siapo. 

The reunion had long been planned. Luzviminda and her two kids, Raymart and Isabelle, would finally leave their temporary home in the slums of Navotas. A new life would begin in Cavite, where a gated house awaited the family. 

Luzviminda would finally enjoy the fruits of her labor in Kuwait where she had toiled for two years. Raymart was promised a Yamaha motor bike, for as long as it cost less than P25,000. Ten-year-old Isabelle would get new outfits. 

Yet on December 21, the day Luzviminda was originally scheduled to arrive in Manila, there was neither a grand homecoming, nor two kids to come home to, only Luzviminda and Isabelle in a silent home. 

Luzviminda came home 9 months earlier than planned, after she got a Facebook message that shattered her world: “Raymart is dead.” 

On March 29, a group of masked men abducted and killed Raymart, after a neighbor hastily tagged him as a drug peddler in the barangay, following a heated argument. Witnesses of the crime claimed Raymart was ordered to run, but he couldn’t since he had clubbed feet. The gunmen killed him on the spot. 

Every day since then, Luzviminda would send photos of her dead son, bloodied and bruised, to the barangay official who tagged him as a criminal. “I’m not saying he killed him, but I want to peck on his conscience. This is your doing.” 

Their new Cavite home has yellow-painted walls and a life-size tarpaulin of greenery. Isabelle’s medals from school are proudly displayed near the entrance. “Mama, these are for Kuya,” she said one day, with half a dozen medals in tow.

One corner is reserved for Raymart’s photo. His favorite snacks – a bottle of red iced tea, a pack of chocolate-filled marshmallows, and cheese-flavored chips are in front of the portrait. On Sundays, he gets roses. It’s the least Luzviminda could do, she said, as his grave is too far to visit every day. It’s a 3-hour ride away. 

On Christmas day, she knew she had to visit her son. She said she had to celebrate Christmas with Raymart, as he had long-awaited his mother's holiday homecoming. She brought with him his favorite treats to the private cemetery in Malabon, where Raymart is buried.

“I know he’s waiting for me. Here I am, Raymart. I’m home.”


 

THE STUDENT

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Hundreds of people joined his funeral procession calling for justice. Justice for Kian Loyd delos Santos, justice for all, the crowd screamed. 

It was a grand gesture. Critics believed it was the end of the government’s war on drugs. Priests, politicians, and strangers offered to help his case. The policemen who killed him were called to the Senate.

But life as usual resumed in Baesa, Caloocan, after Kian was laid to rest. No more candles were lit on the crime scene. The pigsty beside it remained a pigsty. The white ribbons pinned on almost every post in the village were now wind-torn.

And a few days later, the Delos Santos couple stopped coming home. 

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The Delos Santoses had not gone home since the day they met with President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang, a few days after Kian was laid to rest.

No one knows where they lived, how they had been managing, or who they're with. Not even Randy, the brother of Kian’s father, Saldy. Not even Kian's grandparents, Antonio and Violeta.

It’s as if they’ve been imprisoned, Randy said. The first and last time they saw the family was on the 40th day of Kian’s funeral, when the couple visited Kian’s grave in La Loma Cemetery. But it was barely a reunion, Randy recalled, as the whole visit was timed by the men of the Department of Justice's Witness Protection Program.

It’s not certain what lies ahead for Kian’s case as the Senate hearings have yet been concluded. Randy is holding on to the President’s promise that he will not tolerate the policemen who killed his nephew. But until the verdict is announced, life must go on for the rest of the Delos Santos clan.

They were left with no choice. There were other members of the family to take care of, Randy said.

The sari-sari store which Kian used to tend to has been reopened. It has much less stuff to sell – no more candies and chips, only school supplies and toys. A framed photo of Kian sits on one of the candy canisters. Randy displayed it to keep the spirit of the boy alive; to keep the half-empty home, a home. 

There was no question Kian was sorely missed. Every day, an old sampaguita vendor in the would leave flowers before his portrait. Neighbors claimed they had seen the shadow of the boy a couple of times, peering outside the window, crying. Kian’s young friends would often ask Randy to join them for drinks. And Randy would send pictures and messages to Kian’s Facebook account, to let him know he was missed.

Meanwhile, a sleek bike painted blue and silver rested in an abandoned room in the topmost floor of the Delos Santos home. 

It’s the bike Kian was promised a day before he was killed. It’s the bike he had wanted for so long, and the same bike he never had a chance to ride. The bike had begun to rust.


THE MISUNDERSTOOD

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The death and disappearance of Carl Angelo Arnaiz remained a mystery to many, even his family. 

In the narrative of the police, the 19-year old young man was caught after allegedly robbing a taxi driver in C3 road in Caloocan on August 18 – the same day his family reported him missing. He was killed on the spot, after allegedly attempting to fight back. It took his family 10 days to find him in a morgue in Caloocan – some 20 kilometers away from Anak Pawis II, Cainta, where he lived. He wore a black hoodie, denim shorts, a black cap, and plastic flip-flops – clothes he never owned, said his sister, Camille. 

Carl's case was but part of a puzzle. Days after the teenager's wake, 13-year-old Reynaldo “Kulot” De Guzman was found dead in a creek in Nueva Ecija.

Neighbors had claimed that Carl and Reynaldo were last seen together before they both went missing. No one could prove that this was true, especially as neither of the two boys’ families believed they were friends. The taxi driver – the supposed witness to the crime – had changed his version of that fateful night. He had been tagged as one of the suspects in the death of Carl and Reynaldo. 

But among the many speculations, there remained one truth in the narrative: that on August 18, two boys went missing in Anak Pawis II, and were killed.

The humble home where Carl lived is now empty. The sari-sari store he managed is now closed. The landlord said his family moved shortly after he was buried. “They had to,” she said, “to forget that painful incident.” 

In November, Carl would have reached the twilight of his teenage years. He would have been 20 years old. He would have been battling his depression – spending two, 3 days in bed, and the next two days treating the kids in his street to french fries and candy. He wasn’t always happy, but every kid in the street where he lived said that when he was, it was contagious.


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THE LOST BOY

The shanty that was home to the De Guzmans for 6 years in Anak Pawis II, Cainta, was now occupied by a new family. The De Guzmans left after burying their son, Reynaldo.

Reynaldo or “Kulot” was found dead in a creek in Gapan, Nueva Ecija on September 6 – 3 weeks after he went missing. His head was wrapped in cloth. His body had almost 30 stab wounds. His parents, Lina and Eddie, traveled over a hundred kilometers to a provincial morgue to identify his body. He had a wart on his knee, and a scar on his neck. It was unmistakable, they said. 

But in the midst of the boy’s wake, cops claimed that they had the wrong boy. 

For Lina and Eddie, it was not a question they needed an answer for. As far as they were concerned, they had found their son, and no one could take him away from them.

The boy believed to be Kulot was buried in an apartment-style tomb in Pasig City. His tomb stone read "Reynaldo de Guzman." The funeral was quick. The De Guzmans left without shedding a tear.

Not long after, their shanty house was emptied. They moved to a bigger house with uninterrupted water and electricity, and unlimited supply of groceries. It should be a dream house for the De Guzmans but they couldn't set foot outside it. It’s a safe house, they were told, and they must remain indoors until the case of their dead son was resolved.

The young boys left in Anak Pawis II were certain that their good friend Kulot was still alive. 

Maybe he would come home tomorrow. Maybe next year, or perhaps next Christmas. They weren’t sure when, but they were certain he would be back.

He’s just lost, they believed.


THE ONLY CHILD

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When the new neighbors of Liezel Du asked if she had a child, she said she did, except that she was away. 

She pretended Charlie Jean Du was in the province or abroad, studying. She would think the teen was in the park with friends, skate-boarding. She kept her school uniform, clothes, printed photos, and favorite toys. She would even tell her of the new inside jokes she shared with the girl’s stepfather. 

“Look, Charlie, your dad’s teasing me,” she would say, looking at the girl’s portrait hanging beside the photo of Jesus.

Every day, she would let herself believe that Charlie was alive. 

She adopted a new dog, Looney, to take care of. She would cuddle him, put him to bed, take care of him like she did to Charlie as a mother. She believed she was still a mother, never mind that there was no child to tend to.

Despite her repeated self-denial, everytime her husband left for work, she would be reminded of the painful truth. She would hear the voice of Charlie, begging for help. She would feel the ache of every bullet that pierced through the 15-year-old girl's body. One on each arm, one on her buttocks, and another in her stomach, which killed the teenager's 4-month-old baby. She would remember how the police said Charlie was holding grenades, that’s why she was not spared. 

Every day, Liezel would remember that her only child was killed. Since that tragic night, every inch of her body would tremble whenever she saw the police.