Philippines, Can An Iconic Photograph Stop Duterte And His Vigilantes?

Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency agents at work
Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency agents at work
Arne Perras

MANILA â€" 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" â€" 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 â€" it’s a terrible temptation for many who want to escape the misery. A sachet of crystal meth â€" here they call it, Shabu â€" costs as much as a coffee in the mall. And it’s enough for three.

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.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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