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Chronicles by a nightcrawler

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 23, 2023 5:00 am

All books take courage to publish, starting with mere gumption that propels some writers to offer yet unconfirmed levels of talent. For outstanding authors in whatever genre, it may still require intrepidity in having to uncover personal stances, whether sharing considerable intellect or creative imagination. Bravery is required in stripping sentiments bare. Then there’s the dauntlessness in taking a stance when dealing with sociopolitical issues.

Brimful with research and reportorial details that could easily have led to outright condemnation of a controversial subject, Patricia Evangelista opts for the edgework courage of being both meticulous and fair.

Her first book, Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country, published by Random House in New York, took five years of commitment to journalistic excellence and the determination to complete a difficult narrative with an exceptional literary voice. The book was launched on Oct. 17 at Columbia University in New York in partnership with PEN America, on the same day that hardbound copies were made available at Fully Booked in Manila.

The New York Times has included it in its Looking-Forward-To list. That should add to the anticipation that the book authored by a young Filipino writer of solid repute will finally blow the lid off what has been perceived and judged as the horrific years of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. In a sense, it does. But all the chronicles accumulated in the course of being a trauma reporter turned “nightcrawler” add up to a personal memoir, towing in the obligation of providing backgrounders on self, setting, and heritage.

The Prologue prepares the reader:

“Every conclusion I published was double-sourced, fact-checked, and hyperlinked. My name might have been below the headlines, but the stories I wrote belonged to other people in other places, families whose grief and pain were so massive that mine were irrelevant."

“All this is true, but it is also true that I was afraid. My inability to hold myself to account was due not only to a misguided commitment to objectivity. It was a failure of nerve."

“This is a book about the dead, and the people who are left behind. It is a very personal story, written in my own voice, as a citizen of a nation I cannot recognize as my own. The thousands who died were killed with the permission of my people. I am writing this book because I refuse to offer mine.”

At 19, Evangelista gained a level of celebrity when she bested scores of country representatives in the 2004 English Speaking Union International Speaking Competition held in London. She proceeded to become a writer for several national publications, until she joined the media site Rappler established by eventual Nobel Prize Winner Maria Ressa.

She became part of an unofficial group billed as the nightcrawlers—photojournalists and reporters who waited in police precincts for nightly alerts on the killings that spiraled at the onset of the drug war. Extrajudicial killings or EJKs, summary executions, “salvagings” were among the terms of endearment that joined the peculiar grammar and syntax employed by Filipinos on all sides of the moral compass.

Evangelista was awarded the Kate Webb Prize for exceptional journalism in dangerous conditions. When she was finally convinced to turn her own documentation into a book, after benefiting from a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship in 2018, it helped to gain more international grants, among these as a New American ASU Future Security Fellow, as well as of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy—especially when her security raised concerns.

Patricia Evangelista was awarded the Kate Webb Prize for exceptional journalism

The horrific cyclorama of violence is mitigated by that literary voice that also deploys understanding of circumstances and historical background. This generosity of acceptance and imagination frames the voluminous documentation of the killings, allowing it a pass from blanket condemnation of the evident carnage. Even the killers are given a voice, so that they wind up justifying their murderous conduct as one that is necessary.

When the intention is to lie, numbers can make extraordinary liars.

The book’s three sections—Memory; Carnage; and Requiem—provide a fitting creative structure. A compressed account of contemporary Philippine history that led to the Marcoses’ downfall in 1986 works well with snappy sentences: “My people saw the tanks. They did not run.” “Once upon a time, we were heroes.”

Escalation of the narrative with the entry of “The Punisher” relies on data on the Davao Death Squad. Readers are given options for appraisal of the psychology of the Filipino, as characterized by the otherwise “decent” man named Dondon who gloried in Duterte’s run for the presidency.

“He did not worry about the mayor’s promise to slaughter criminals and drug addicts, not because he believed the mayor was joking, but because the sort of people who might be killed were not the sort of people Dondon considered necessary to his preservation. … If they died, it would be for the greater good.”

This viewpoint is shared by many other Filipinos in explaining why they vowed to vote for Duterte, even if they knew that the second D in DDS meant death. They weren’t afraid.

Patricia recalls the Miting de Avance for Duterte at Luneta two days before the 2006 election. She paraphrases his speech on why the people should vote for him. “Vote for people like us, he says. People like you and me. There are many of us. Don’t vote for people who defend criminals.” The rest of his rough rhetoric predicates why he received the most number of votes.

“I stand there, scrawling away in my notebook.” … “You elitists, I write. Us versus them, I write. Kill you, I write.”

Among a vigilante group that considered themselves soldiers in Duterte’s war against drugs, even when they felt betrayed, one rationalized his own story of involvement. “’I’m really not a bad guy,’ he said. ‘I’m not all bad. Some people need killing.’”

Eschewing an outright indictment of the drug war, this memoir presents a clear-eyed and deft weaving of a tapestry of arguments for and against necessary or deniable murder.

"… (M)etaphorical wars were of no interest to Rodrigo Duterte, as he is a man who has no love for metaphor. He declared a war on drugs, and when he said kill, he meant death."

"There was no dissent in the aftermath. There was an opposition. There were lawyers and priests and activists, but for those of us documenting Duterte’s war, the protests were no more than a whimper in a hurricane. Life went on as normal for almost everyone else. … Maybe those who had voted for death thought they had voted for a metaphor. There are places in my country, after all, where death is a polite abstraction: a coffin, a bouquet, a sprinkling of holy water."

"I cannot, with any certainty, report the true toll of Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs. Numbers cannot describe the human cost of this war, or adequately measure what happens when individual liberty gives way to state brutality. Even the highest estimate—over 30,000 dead—is likely insufficient to the task."

"When the intention is to lie, numbers can make extraordinary liars."

Of the book’s 428 pages, the last 82 are filled with Acknowledgments and Notes on Sources. They are a significant part of this memoir, which stands as a bulwark against all the lies. As first-rate literature, it weighs heavily in favor of truth and humanity.