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In ‘Some People Need Killing,’ Patricia Evangelista urges us to remember

By OLEEN FLORENDO, The Philippine Star Published May 03, 2024 12:17 pm

In 2016, we saw the rise of a new president and his declaration of war on drugs. Patricia Evangelista, among many journalists, bore witness to its grim aftermath.

Evangelista’s memoir Some People Need Killing, published by Penguin Random House, wasn’t the first time I heard her name. During the years when waking up to news of nanlaban became commonplace, I saw her byline on vivid narratives of the killings, her masterful writing making the injustices of these crimes more revolting.

The closest encounter I had was on my own street. There was a gunshot then a scream. I feared for my life and my family’s. It was hard to imagine feeling that same thing twice, let alone hundreds of times. But for years, these terrors have become entrenched in Evangelista’s life.

Pat Evangelista

Slaughters enabled by language

The killings during the drug war were hard not to attribute to then-president Rodrigo Duterte. Evangelista bravely ensures that we remember it. “In the aftermath of his election, while I expected the deaths, what I didn’t expect was that it would become so ordinary, so acceptable, and even much applauded,” she says in a Zoom call with Young STAR.

The author followed Duterte long before his presidency. Even in Davao, where his tenure as mayor was lauded with praise, his vulgar sound bites had already been a point of conversation.

I felt it was no longer sufficient to ask who the dead were and how they died. I wanted to know why we let them die.

Evangelista shares that she views the world in language and stories. Over the five years of writing the book, it became more apparent to her that the stories we hear—whether about ourselves or the country—form the world we live in, making it nearly impossible for her to look away. “Rodrigo Duterte told a story. He took every Filipino’s fear, fueled by decades of uncertainty, and he gave it a name. He called it the scourge of illegal drugs.”

The memoir tells the grave consequences of a dictator ascending to power. It presents a mix of stories from the carnage tied by a common thread: the power of language and its influence on our perception. It takes me back to moments when Duterte's supporters and his own spokesperson would redefine the meaning of his crude language. Do your duty, our President would say. And the result was a toll of lifeless bodies.

Books like Some People Need Killing are crucial for a nation whose collective memory is fractured.

“He would make an effort to say that he was like every other person. ‘I’m one of you, I’m no one special, I’m an ordinary killer,’” Evangelista recalls. “Because he made himself into every man, every man would be Rodrigo Duterte.”

Evangelista delves deeper by exploring the grammar of violence and how the use of active voice, to the dismay of linguists, is hard to apply to the salvages in the Philippines. She notes how the absence of indicted suspects has blurred accountability, leaving national discourse to be narrated in a passive voice. Even the word “salvage” has acquired a violent meaning in the country—a linguistic corruption, as Evangelista calls it, stemming from the Spanish "salvaje" and the Filipino "salbahe," only adapted during the Marcos regime.

Keeping a record to remember

Writing the memoir meant risking her safety, yet she wrote it still to give voice to the deaths whose gravity felt diminished by mere statistics. “If I were to wish for anyone to take away (anything) from the book, I hope it is the knowledge that stories have power, that words have power, and all of us also have the capacity to listen and to reckon with ourselves every time.”

“(I hope people) remember that there are people involved in it, that every life we lose whirlpools across communities. In most cases, if a record doesn’t exist, it’s as if atrocities, tragedies, and deaths didn’t happen.”

Evangelista begins her writing with the bone before the flesh: “If you’re at the crime scene, you look at the color of the shoe, you hear the terror of the scream, you remember the piece of paper that said that the dead man was a dealer, (and how it) was folded four times, stuffed at the back of the shorts. The font was Times New Roman, all caps, size 12, and it says, ‘I am a drug dealer.’”

Losing autonomy even amid loss

A trauma journalist for over a decade, Evangelista further outlines her approach, especially when faced with the loved ones of victims. First, understand there’s no single response to trauma. Second, recognize that trauma survivors are rarely aware they have the power to say “no” and what they say can be used against them. And third, know that testimonies may not make sense. They’re not only dealing with the emotional impact of the tragedy but also the practical: “Who takes care of the children?” “Who pays for the burial?”

And with every instance, she abides by a fundamental rule: Make no promises on the field—especially a promise of justice. What she offers back instead is control. “Every choice has been taken away from them so you allow them to say when, where, how they’re interviewed or photographed. You give them an option.”

In one chapter of her memoir, she recounts the sequence of events following the slaughter of Djastin, an epileptic man shot repeatedly at a Manila railway, whose mother, moments after his son’s death, pleads, “I want (to choose) my own funeral parlor. Please give me that much.” And yet even that was not granted.

Through her gripping reportage, Evangelista delves into lives lost and the nation’s complicity. She creates a harrowing picture of how these deaths existed in the lives of others, too. “I felt it was no longer sufficient to ask who the dead were and how they died. I wanted to know why we let them die,” she explains.

Stories like Some People Need Killing are crucial for a nation whose collective memory is fractured. It serves as both a testimony to the terrors witnessed under the Duterte regime and a call to remember, lest we forget.

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Some People Need Killing is now available in bookstores nationwide. You may also take part in Ituloy ang Kuwento, an initiative where you can donate copies of the book. It will run until May 10 at Fully Booked stores.