MANILA — Heavy clouds in the sky over Manila, soon it will start to rain. Jennilyn Olayres must hurry up if she wants to whisper a few more words to her fiancé. How she's feeling, what she has been up to all day long. And that she's really mad at him. What a bastard for having abandoned her like that.
Michael would have appreciated that kind of humor. Before, they clowned around all the time. "Then, when he was lying in the coffin, I said to him: I know Michael, we always wanted to be famous. But did it have to be this way?" Olayres smiles, then the 26 year old bursts into tears. It will take a while until she calms down again, here at the Pasay cemetery in the Philippine capital.
Her fiancé died a month ago. Michael Siaron was 30 years old. A stranger shot him dead at about 1 a.m. in the middle of the street. The world probably would have never found out about it, if those photographers hadn't come hurrying to the crime scene, taking all those pictures. They show a young woman, clinging to the lifeless body of a man. The images received a lot of attention in Manila, where almost everyone is Catholic, because they are reminiscent of a Pietà, the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus.
There was a number of photographers there. It was Dondi Tawatao who snapped the frame of the photograph that wound up circulating around the globe. "It felt horrible," says the photographer, a young Filipino with short black hair. Tawatao fights the exhaustion, after all those nights out there on the streets. His photographic series on July 23 was just one of many, but it has been the assignment that has shaken him more than any other.
The would-be Pietà in Manila is an image that contains many elements on which to reflect: love, pain, death, the whole tragedy of nocturnal violence in the Philippines ever since President Rodrigo Duterte, nicknamed "the Punisher," has called out for a merciless manhunt around the country following his election earlier this year.
For Duterte, what's happening these days in the streets of Manila, is nothing but the bold new war against crime. The 71-year-old head of state primarily aims for the drug dealers, he explains. But those who consume narcotics, they too live dangerously, and actually everybody who supposedly has had something to do with drugs at some point in his life, has reason to be scared.
In this self-declared war on drugs, an estimated 2,000 people have already died, shot dead by policemen or hit men whose backers remain anonymous. Human rights activists, senators, United Nations experts all denounce the new president, which does not seem to impress Duterte. He calls the critics a bunch of "idiots" who don't get the gravity of the situation.
The Catholic bishops who consistently raise their voices when it comes to demonizing contraceptives are now busy reminding their faithful to comply with the Biblical commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." But quietly. Duterte lays out his vision of the world: "I believe in retribution." Those who bring drugs in the community must be purged. His order: "Kill them all!"
Jennilyn Olayres says she doesn't know what crime her fiancé might have committed. It hurts that many now believe Michael must have dealt drugs. Because the photo that has made her famous in the most morbid way holds one important detail. A cardboard on the floor that says "pusher ako" — I'm a dealer. The young woman noticeably gets angry when speaking about it. "Michael wasn't dealing. I want to clear my fiancé's name, but I don't know how."
The clouds are still in the sky, but it's not raining yet. Olayres has some time left to pray. She's wearing flip-flops, jeans and a grey sweater, her hair in a ponytail, a black baseball cap hiding her face. She's holding flowers and two white candles. Her fiancé's grave is immured in the wall, chamber 117, up, third row. Olayres' hand rests on the plaque with the golden writing. Then she whispers something, kisses the plaque three times, and climbs down again.
After her fiancé died, she avoided the Filipino media's cameras and microphones. She feared anger, conflict and the allegations against the man she loved. But now she has decided to come forward, to tell her story to a German journalist who meets her with nothing but a notebook and a pencil. It's the story behind the defining photograph, behind the Filipina Pietà.
The full picture remains unfinished, one month after the act, because so many people are scared. Neighbors shrug their shoulders, turn away if asked.
The couple had lived together for three years, though they never married. Still, they were planning their future together, they had dreams, until July 23. Michael Siaron was happy about Duterte's election victory, he too had voted for him. He thought only Duterte would be capable of coming to terms with all the burglaries, robberies, crimes and gangsters who have been giving people such a hard time. Duterte was supposed to clean it all up after winning the election in May, and taking office on June 30. And now he's doing everything he had promised.
Obviously, Michael Siaron couldn't know that he would have to pay with his life for it. Her fiancé had been quite a funny guy, Jennilyn Olayres recalls, the kind of person who always cheered her up when she was sad. He just grabbed a broom and started to sing for her. Languishing gaze, his hands tight around the stick as if he was holding a microphone, as if he was on a stage. It made her laugh. The man had talent, he could have made a living out of it.
They had known each other their whole life. They grew up together in a poor district, called Santo Niño: sacred child. But there was nothing sacred about this place situated in between Manila's airport and the glossy part of the town Makati. Santo Niño is a slum, next to corrugated-iron huts, with waste piling up and rotting away. Jennilyn Olayres walks us through the narrow streets along streams of dirty brown water until she gets to her aunt's shack.
It is August 23, and Michael Siaron has been dead for a month now and his family wants to pray for him. Only the mother is missing, she's working in Bahrain, like many natives of the Philippines who had trouble finding a well-paid job back home. Actually, the whole family had planned to go visit his grave, but strange characters are hanging around there. They are scared.
"We don't know what's behind the murder," says the victim's father Solomon Siaron. He is a wiry man in shorts and t-shirt who looks as if he has worked extremely hard his whole life. The 49-year-old has a fruit stand, working it from the early morning till far into the night.
Now he speaks of his son. How was he? Had he ever been a drug dealer? "Never," says the father. "If I caught one of my kids with drugs, they'd get a nasty surprise." But everybody knows: Each slum in the country is flooded with cheap drugs — it's a terrible temptation for many who want to escape the misery. A sachet of crystal meth — here they call it, Shabu — costs as much as a coffee in the mall. And it's enough for three.
President Rodrigo Duterte in July — Photo: King Rodriguez/Wikimedia
Shabu takes away hunger and thirst. It wakes you up, makes you feel strong. For a couple of pesos they plod day and night, Shabu makes it easier. In the beginning. But then, it's like any other drug. It cuts your life to pieces, and takes your family along with it. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have gotten hooked on crystal meth. Duterte has issued an order where drug addicts should come forward and swear off the poison. Otherwise, he couldn't guarantee anything, the president declared with sly insinuation. Some 600,000 have already turned themselves in, have been registered and sent home. But if the authorities call for them, they have to show up at the police station, or they might get killed very quickly.
And that's how it happens: Each night people, who apparently are involved in the drug scene, get killed. The chief of police keeps record, distinguishing two groups. The first are those who die during "legitimate police operations," as he calls them. The others fall victim to the "vigilantes," hitmen who like to leave behind cardboard signs at the crime scene. With warnings like "I'm a dealer." In Manila they call this "Cardboard Justice."
That's convenient, for all the killers who need a pretext for their acts, trying to cover up other motives. Maybe they are simply settling old grudges, eliminating accessories or rivals. The police don't seem to bother much about the background, they're simply adding those homicides to the list of drug-related crimes.
It is possible to get close to presumed killers, via middlemen and contacts in the security apparatus, which seems strange since the police tenaciously contest contract killings. An interview? Feasible, they say. But they only talk for a fee. And then they sell their story. Another reason why it's better to pass on them.
During a hearing in front of the Senate, the chief of police assured his men would shoot only those who resist when being arrested. But that's not what some witnesses and relatives of the dead victims say. After a raid the morning of august 23, doubts get louder. A young man runs away from the officers, climbs over rooftops, and then they got him, inside a house. The police claim he would have pulled a gun, before they shot him. But voices that neighbours had recorded with their cell phones give another version of the story. According to them the man begs for mercy, he had capitulated, and then shots were fired.
And Michael Siaron? After everything that has been said, he did consume Shabu from time to time. It's difficult to say if it was occasional use or if he was addicted. Nobody could have imagined that he was dealing, he and Jennilyn were far too poor. "Look at the hovel they lived in. The house of a dealer doesn't look like that," says the father.
Jennilyn Olayres has moved out of the hut by now, but it is still standing there, next to the canal. You can't possibly call that shabby structure a home, anyway. It's also that hut the couple had dinner in together on July 23. She had bought eggs, rice and meat, for about 50 cents, from the food stall. During the days Siaron had a job. He drove a motorcycle taxi, his salary was enough to pay the rent and food. He was in a good mood that evening. He kept telling Jennilyn that one has to laugh at one's problems, otherwise you lose your mind. Nothing suggested an imminent danger.
Like every night, Michael Siaron left home around 11 p. m. in order to pick up his father from the fruit stand. But this time his father waited in vain. Around midnight someone knocks at his aunt's door, something had happened to Michael. The aunt calls Jennilyn, who starts running, over broken glass and stones. She feels nothing but fear for her fiancé. Then she sees him lying there. She rushes up to him, picks him up. Shortly after that, his father too arrives. "Don't leave him alone." And Jennilyn Olayres stays. She keeps holding him in her arms, caressing him, pushing away the policemen who try to pull her away. Two bullets have penetrated Michael's chest. Why had they killed him?
At first she doesn't even see the cardboard box with the words "I'm a dealer" written on it. Somebody must have thrown it there later, she thinks. But from the witnesses, nobody can confirm either way. The card box remains a mystery. When Olayres is still sitting on the ground, the first photographers arrive. Dondi Tawatao is one of them. Every night, he marches out to take pictures of those killed on the streets of the capital, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.. The photographers follow the forensics teams who set off from the police station. In order to quickly get to the crime scenes, the photographers simply follow them. In convoy, they drive behind them, hoping the corpses have not been loaded when they arrive. The crime scene is next to a highway, up there are the train rails, down here people have gathered.
Tawatao knows the frozen faces fixing the dead body. People who are scared, and yet they are driven by this pressing curiosity. The photographer cleaves his way through the crowd. But suddenly he notices something different about the scene. The corps is not abandoned, a woman is holding the victim, kisses him, swaying him. And behind the barrier, the photographers are taking their pictures.
Tawatao pauses, she is crying "stop it, help me." But the policemen doesn't allow anyone to cross the fence. "I felt horrible," Tawatao later admits. He remembers a scene from the movie Gladiator where Russell Crowe was in the Coliseum after he had finished killing all his victims. He looks up, screaming "Are you not enterained?!"
That's what Tawatao thinks of. But then he asks himself: Isn't it my job to capture all of this? Who else would? When the photographers keep on taking pictures, Jennilyn Olayres too feels, for a moment, like she's in a movie. As if she and her fiancé were the main characters in an independent movie, a low-budget one. Just the way it should fit with her life. But then the car of Veronica arrives, the mortician.
Later, when everything is over, she says that she's not feeling any hatred for the reporters. "They have done their job." When she meets one of the photographers, she even apologizes for having screamed at him like that. He too apologizes. Because of the pictures. And in general.
They say the picture has even moved President Duterte's wife. Apparently she has urged him to find out what had happened. Two days later, Rodrigo Duterte speaks to the nation and mentions the Filipina Pietà. But there's no compassion in his voice. "Nothing but drama," he says.