By Nirva Delacruz
Walking into the modest hall set up for the press briefing of sorts, Dr. Raquel Fortun has the stride of someone who knows exactly what she’s doing.
From knee up, she strikes you as no nonsense, more military than medical—the short cropped hair, the navy blue polo.
But it’s the high-cut boots that give her away.
A potent mix
The woman will go against the grain if she needs to and will challenge the status quo like it’s easy Sunday driving.
As the first forensic pathologist of the country, she’s a pundit not just for Twitterati but for mainstream Philippine opinion.
So when the US-trained Dr. Fortun came forward with initial findings from ongoing post-mortem analyses on 46 EJK victims’ remains, the handful of people, who knew she had been working on the cases, waited for the results with a potent mix of curiosity and anxiety.
Bullet holes vs pneumonia
What more could be said about dozens of 6-year old cases of homicides that are officially tagged as cases of “nanlaban”?
In a way only she could decipher them, dead men’s bones still tell tales.
These are tales that would’ve been snuffed out if not for another individual—this time, a priest—who is also willing to challenge the status quo like it’s easy Sunday driving, Fr. Flavie Villanueva, SVD, the founder of the Arnold Janssen Kalinga Foundation.
This Catholic charity based in downtown Manila finds itself 7 years later championing the cause of two largely forgotten segments of society: the homeless and victims of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs.
In death and even long after.
If not for Project Arise, an initiative that aims to exhume and lay the remains of EJK victims in permanent resting places, their bones risk being lost forever in mass graves when their families’ leases on their public cemetery tombs expire.
When five years are up, the bones are usually chucked into sacks like garbage into mass graves virtually unidentifiable from the many other unclaimed bones.
Here are a few quick points Dr. Fortun made during her 62-minute presentation to some members of the media, EJK victims’ surviving family members, and other Arnold Janssen Kalinga Foundation stakeholders on April 12 at the Catholic Trade Building in Tayuman, Manila:
- At least 7 of the EJK victims’ death certificates cited natural causes as the cause of death even if their bones showed signs of a violent end. The natural causes listed for the victims included sepsis, acute myocardial infarcts, pneumonia, and hypertension. Exit and entry bullet holes were identified in 24 bodies, particularly in the head region. Clear signs of blunt force trauma were also seen particularly on the back of 3 of the skulls examined. It appears that several of the victims were hit on the back of the head with a long, hard object like a metal bar or tube.
- The Philippines has no clear system for investigation of deaths. Most of the documents given to the EJK victims’ families consisted of incompletely filled out death certificates, grainy photos, and ambiguous police reports. A proper documentation system should include multiple photos of different angles and details of the body, sketches of the crime scene, proper death certificates accomplished by an independent examiner, etc. that should also be available and easily accessible online. An X-ray of the body should also be standard pre-autopsy procedure to locate bullets that could still possibly be lodged in the body.
- There seems to be ‘no intent’ to solve or even properly investigate the drug war killings. In several glaring cases, bullets were still retrieved in the bodies even after supposed autopsies done on them. Some death certificates were also marked with the phrase “For burial purposes only.” Of the cases examined, 26 had incomplete death certificates and 1 had none. “This is how you get away with murder in the Philippines,” she said damningly.
- All those killed were from the poorest of the poor. Looking at what remained of their teeth, it was obvious that those killed were so poor that they probably never even saw a dentist in their lives. Most of them had bad teeth. Very few had dentures or had some sort of dental work done on them. Looking at the official documents themselves, the occupations listed for the killed included: 4 construction workers, 2 scavengers, painter, housewife, driver, pedicab driver, electrician, vendor, welder, tireman, and a vatillo.
No words for grief
In the darkened room listening were five people who looked at Dr. Fortun’s slides, not with polite interest but with chilling familiarity with the details described, “gunned down on December 29, 2016”; “exhumed from Pateros”; “was shot five times in the head.”
*Zelie, Philomena, Zita, Bernadette, and Louie all lost family members in the costly drug war. Zelie lost a son; Philomena a husband; Zita both parents; Bernadette a sister; Louie a sister-in-law.
When asked to speak, their grief was still intense after six years; you could hardly make out their words.
Injustice has a way of putting you in a state of perpetual mourning.
‘They were loved’
More than a case file, the statistic is an actual person they knew and loved. It all boils down to our scarred humanity and what we decide to do with whatever influence and skill we have to champion the interests and welfare of the poor and the powerless.
At the end of her presentation, Dr. Fortun admits as much.
“I’ve never forgotten that I’m dealing with people. I do feel for the victims, the families. When I examine the dead, [I see that] they’re human, they were loved… It gives me some satisfaction that this individual is finally given a decent forensic examination, something which they had been denied…This is really for the families,” she says.
In the end, this is what remains. “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone,” says St. John of the Cross.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.