Remains of drug war victims exhumed after lease on graves expired

Rodzon Enriquez’s skeletal remains are pulled out of a coffin-sized tomb in Manila and placed in a body bag. Five years after the 21-year-old was killed in the Philippines’ drug war, the lease on his grave is expiring.

Activists estimate tens of thousands of people have died since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police to go after drug addicts and dealers in a widely-condemned campaign that has largely targeted poor men.

Many of the dead were put in “apartment” tombs stacked meters high in jam-packed cemeteries across the sprawling capital, where a five-year lease on a rectangular concrete box costs about 5,000 pesos ($100).

As leases run out, a Catholic charity is helping families unable to afford the renewal fee to retrieve the bones of their loved ones with the aim of having them cremated and put in a permanent burial site.

“I don’t want his remains thrown away,” Corazon Enriquez, 63, told AFP, after her son’s bones were carried away on a stretcher by two men wearing masks, gloves and protective coats.

The mother of seven had welcomed Duterte’s promise to rid the country of drugs.

“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” Duterte told the public soon after he was sworn into office.

But Enriquez never imagined the campaign would target her own family.

Rodzon, a fishing port worker who used methamphetamine to stay awake during overnight shifts, was shot dead by police in his bed weeks after Duterte took power, she said.

“I wanted to have him at home — even if his physical body is no longer here, I know he’s still there,” said Enriquez of the ashes she plans to keep until another location is found.

“I still feel the pain — I would have wanted to swap places with my son.”

Father Flavie Villanueva, a vocal critic of Duterte, is spearheading the exhumation effort. He said thousands of cremations could be needed in the coming years as leases expire.

Villanueva hopes to eventually store the ashes in a columbarium to give victims a “dignified” final resting place — and help families find closure.

“It’s already too much that you lose a loved one — should you also lose his remains?” said the priest, who is raising money to finance the ambitious plan.

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