Caloocan, Philippines – It has been almost three years since Alan Celiz’s sons, Almon and Dicklie, were killed in violence related to the Philippines’s “war on drugs” but he still cannot talk about them.
Even saying their names is painful. When he tries, his breath catches in his throat and he has to choke back tears.
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“I’m sorry,” Celiz said. “Two of them. Months apart. Killed just like that. Like they were nothing.”
President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on illegal drugs in the Southeast Asian country has stripped entire communities of their young men.
According to conflicting figures released by authorities, between 5,552 and 6,600 people have been killed in the drug war since Duterte came to office at the end of June 2016. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights and other rights groups put the death toll far higher – at least 27,000 in mid-2019.
Women come together to share their grief. At support group sessions, widows cry, clutching their children, while mothers talk about their dead sons in the present tense to honour their memory.
Fathers, like 57-year-old Celiz, have nowhere to go.
Deeply entrenched social norms that equate male strength with stoicism have trapped fathers in their despair, experts say.
Limited psychological support
Limited access to psychological support as a result of poverty and a state policy that has effectively demonised poor young men as suspected drug users who deserve to be killed only add to the problem.
“Losing a child is always extremely painful. A child dying because of sudden violent circumstances adds a level of shock that makes it harder to cope with the loss,” said Cathy Sanchez-Babao, a grief coach at the MindsEye Center for Mental Wellness and Grief Recovery in Manila.
“Men are generally wired to be more private and show less emotion. It’s the man’s code. There is no safe zone for men to talk about their feelings and show their vulnerability,” Sanchez-Babao added.
A wife or girlfriend might be able to provide support but that is not always easy when both are grieving and anger is involved.
Celiz says he once attempted to seek comfort from his wife, Sarah, reaching for her. She swatted his hand away.
“I don’t say much,” he had said to her. “I’m just quiet, but I’m hurting, too.”
“I’m a mother,” Sarah said bitterly. “You don’t know what it’s like for me. It is not the same.”
Celiz’s sons were killed in 2017. Tough-talking, pistol-brandishing Duterte was still riding high on his campaign promise to rid neighbourhoods of crime.
Urban slum communities like Bagong Silang, where Celiz lives with his wife and their eight children, became the front lines of Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
Police roamed the patchwork of shanties, conducting “buy-and-bust” operations. Masked vigilantes combed through alleys on foot or motorbike. Whoever was doing the searching, the end result was the same: the deaths of suspected drug users and small-time dealers – usually poor young men.
Almon, 32, the eldest of Celiz’s children, was the first to die. He was attending a wake in the neighbourhood basketball court when the police came. Chaos ensued and Almon was killed.
Six months later, Celiz’s second son, Dicklie, 30, was also killed. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear and muddled. Some said he was “invited” by the police to come in for questioning. But neighbours said men put a cloth bag over his head and dragged him away. His body, riddled with gunshot wounds, was found the next morning in an empty field.
Conflicting government statistics
Getting accurate figures on the number of people killed in the crackdown on drugs has been difficult because there is no central body tracking this data. Each law-enforcement agency has its own tally.
The government has also struggled to explain the discrepancies in data. For example, in December 2019, the drug enforcement agency published a death toll that was more than a 1,000 lower than the police figures released six months earlier.
Despite mounting criticism, Duterte and his “war on drugs” continue to enjoy public support. An opinion survey in September showed that 82 percent of Filipinos approved of the drug war. The president has promised that the crackdown on illegal drugs will continue as long as he remains in power.
Miguel Soriano lives in the same neighbourhood as Celiz. His son Angelito was killed along with six others in December 2016.
Angelito had been in a group attending a birthday party at a friend’s house when masked assailants allegedly hunting down a drug suspect barged in and began shooting.
‘My son was only 16’
Soriano’s wife Emily is an active member of a network of advocates and families of victims of drug-related killings called Rise Up for Life and Rights.
Emily attends counselling sessions. She also joins rallies and protests to demand justice for slain sons, along with a small but growing group of outspoken mothers.
Soriano joined her once, maybe twice. Each time he had to be dragged there.
“My son was only 16. They shot him and his friends. He never had a chance. It was not an equal fight,” Soriano said.
Kenneth Doka, a US-based grief therapy expert, said fathers like Celiz and Soriano may be experiencing “disenfranchised grief” – a kind of grief associated with a loss that is stigmatised, such as death by suicide or drug abuse.
“When the message from the president is that society is better off without drugs and people who use them, you don’t get the social support you need after the death of a loved one. You don’t feel like you have the right to grieve.”
A macho Philippine culture that casts men as protectors helped put Duterte with his tough-guy persona in office.
But the same societal expectations have stopped bereaved men from seeking help.
“Providers are expected to be strong. Any emotion that gets in the way of these expectations are coded as negative emotions,” said sociologist Nicole Curato.
The Philippines is not the only country where men are expected to be strong and provide for their families but little research has been done on male grief there.
A study on New York City firefighters after 9/11 found “a mixture of shame among men” because they felt responsible for not being able to protect those who had died in the incident, said Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo-US, which conducted the study.
Sharmila Parmanand, a PhD candidate in gender studies at the University of Cambridge, said this shame was often worsened by presuppositions of how men should behave.
“Most of the fathers affected by the drug war lack access to political power and socioeconomic resources. This may give rise to complicated implications on their sense of self and success as men.”
Carlos Conde, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in the Philippines, said the emotional toll of bereavement needed to be recognised.
“Their suffering needs to be seen and acknowledged,” he said.
Mental health support
Last year, a mental health law was passed in the Philippines but implementing concrete reforms remains slow.
According to the health department, some three million Filipinos, or about 3 percent of the population, suffer from some form of depression. But there are only an estimated 600 trained mental healthcare professionals in the country.
“The health department is currently training nurses and doctors in the front line of administering care to recognise symptoms of depression and referring them to proper interventions,” said Prescilla Cuevas, a government mental health programme manager.
Meanwhile, fathers like Celiz and Soriano struggle to find ways to deal with their sorrow.
Soriano tried to talk to his fellow construction workers at his workplace about his son. He did not get the sympathy he was looking for.
“They said my son was probably using drugs. They said I should have known better, that I should have listened when the president said he would kill drug users. I told them to shove it.”
Soriano never spoke to them about his son again.
Photos by Amanda Mustard. This story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.