COVER STORY

Silent nights: The first Christmas without them

Christmas is fast approaching and for some families, it would feel colder than usual this year, as they celebrate it facing an empty seat at the dining table for the first time.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — During past Christmas days, after celebrating mass in the communities where he had been assigned, Father Mark Ventura would come home to his family and give each of them gifts — typically religious items, like the figurine of the Holy Family he once gave to his mother, Evangeline Ventura.

"It's beautiful, a love of family and a model of Christian life," she said.

But, this Christmas, he would not be donning festive vestments to celebrate mass nor would he hand out any more figurines.

A new priest has taken his place in Cagayan, where Father Mark was last assigned.

fr-mark-ventura-funeral_CNNPH.jpg Priests accompany Father Mark Ventura to his final resting place after an assailant took his life last April.  

One Sunday morning in April, he last celebrated mass in Gattaran, Cagayan, but did not get to finish it. A man on a motorcycle stained his white vestments in blood, shattering the Ventura family.

Evangeline could not even speak about what happened to her son.

"It was really painful for me to go back to remember the pain I had, sorry," she said. She never expected that her son would go out this way.

Father Mark is one of two Catholic priests who fell to killers this year, prompting outrage from the clergy. Just two months after him, two men on a motorcycle took Father Richmond Nilo down before he celebrated evening Mass. In December 2017, Father Marcelito Paez went down in a similar manner.

Murdered-Priests_CNNPH.jpg Three priests have been felled under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, attributed by critics to his fiery rhetoric against the clergy. From left to right: Father Richmond Nilo, Father Mark Ventura and Father Marcelito Paez.  

Critics attributed these to President Rodrigo Duterte's fiery rhetoric against the Philippine Catholic Church — which includes corruption and child abuse allegations and a call for bishops who criticize his administration to be taken down — which has slammed his brutal drug war.

Duterte brushed off this link in a speech days after Nilo's death. "Sabi nung nabasa ko sa ano (What I read was), 'Stop persecuting priests.' Wala naman akong sinabi (I did not say anything)," he said.

But in the same breath, the President rehashed his claim that the reason that happened to Father Mark was because of his illicit affairs – a lead, which the police has given more weight than his anti-mining advocacy.

Whatever the motive, Father Mark is gone. At the table for his family's Christmas meal, a chair previously occupied by a "caring, obedient and God-fearing" son would be vacant for the first time.

'I'm coming home'

In another home in the northern Philippines, shoes that mining tractor operator Moises Bautista left are being filled by his wife, Irene Martin, who would be preparing his Christmas specialties - spaghetti, macaroni and pancit - upon the insistence of their two children.

"Kahit ganun 'yung nangyari sa ama nila, 'yun ang kaugalian ng kanilang ama eh. Kapag Pasko, masaya," Irene Bautista said over the phone, taking long pauses in between phrases. "Pero sa akin talaga, eh hindi masaya."

[Translation: Even if that's what happened to their father, it was what their father always practiced. We need to be happy during Christmas. But for me, it's not happy.]

Moises was working in a mine in Itogon, Benguet during the onslaught of Typhoon Ompong, whose heavy rains triggered landslides in the small-scale mining community in September. As mud and rock rushed down the slopes, Irene said, her husband called his mother to tell her not to worry as he is coming home - and then his phone went silent.

"Na-shock ako. 'Di ko akalain ganun-ganun na lang. (I was shocked. I didn't expect that it would happen like that,)" Irene said.

It took a day before her husband was actually brought home from the rubble that buried close to 100 people, most of whom were working and living in an abandoned mining area. Some of them took refuge in a makeshift church, supposedly without permission from the local government, which gave in when a huge chunk of the mountain collapsed.

Local authorities blamed the landslide on mining, an occupation from where many of the residents in the Benguet town earn their living. This prompted the government to halt small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera region.

Ucab Benguet landslide - Martin San Diego- 0001 - 5MS02670.jpg A landslide in Benguet is triggered by heavy rainfall brought by Typhoon Ompong.  

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu rejected in October the request of small-scale miners in Cordillera to lift the suspension and, instead, ordered the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board to fast-track the declaration of a "minahang bayan" or a common area where small-scale miners can do their work. He said this is the only legal way for them to continue mining.

"Minero kayo noon, minero pa rin kayo ngayon, at mga minero pa rin kayo sa mga susunod na panahon," Cimatu said.

[Translation: You were miners before, you are miners now, and you would still be miners in the future.]

The halting of mining operations have prompted Irene and Moises' kin to seek work elsewhere as tricycle drivers or carpenters. But if the mines open again, Irene said, they would still return despite the risks.

'Everything's okay'

While this would be the first Christmas Irene and her children would be celebrating without her husband, it would not be the first for the family of Joanna Demafelis, who was an overseas worker. 

Her family and sister have missed Joanna in Christmas gatherings at their small wooden house since 2014. It's a shame, her sister Jessica Demafelis said, as Joanna was the life of the party.

"Siya 'yung nagpapatawa. 'Yung pangharot niya sa amin. Siyempre, siya 'yung wala pang asawa sa amin. Siyempre, isip namin 'yung regalo. Siya lang nagreregalo sa amin eh," Jessica said.

[Translation: She always made us laugh. She was playful with us. Of course, she's still single. And of course, we thought of the gifts. She's the only one who gives us gifts.]

Since then, the two sisters would only feel each other's presence through phone calls, with Joanna saying everything was well in Kuwait. She once hoped working there would bring her enough money to rebuild their house and redeem their pawned paddy field, which Supertyphoon Yolanda destroyed in 2013.

READ: A daughter's promise: The house that Joanna built

"Pinigilan po namin 'yun," Jessica said. "Kaso lang, 'yung sa kanya 'yung nasunod, na talagang aalis siya kasi gusto niyang maahon niya sa hirap 'yung magulang namin."

[Translation: We tried to stop her. But she always did what she wanted like leaving again to help our parents get out of poverty.]

Joanna's contract only lasted for a year, but her employers decided to extend her stay. They did not allow her to go home, her sister said.

Despite this, Joanna always assured her sister that there were no problems — except there were — and that everything was okay — except it was not.

Joanna-Demafelis_CNNPH.jpg Jessica Demafelis admits that she has not yet gotten over the loss of her sister, Joanna, and keeps a portrait of her prominently displayed on a table next to a plastic bamboo ornament decorated to look like a Christmas tree.  

Jessica last heard from Joanna in September 2016 and after three months of radio silence, the Demafelis family sought the help of Philippine authorities, but to no avail. The employment agency which helped Demafelis work in Kuwait had shut down because of recruitment infractions.

It was only in January when Jessica, while working as a househelp in the country, heard her sister's name on television and saw her picture donning a hijab on social media. News items were saying a Filipino worker has been found in a freezer.  Authorities believe she had been there for over a year.

"Siyempre, masakit din sa amin na nawala siya, eh siyempre wala na rin kaming magagawa. 'Yun ang nangyari sa kanya," Jessica said.

[Translation: Of course, it hurts us that she's gone, but then again we can't do anything about it. That's what happened to her.]

Joanna's passing prompted President Duterte to ban deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait and to order Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to bring home distressed Filipino workers there within 72 hours.

Following this, the Kuwaiti government initiated talks with the Philippines for an agreement which would protect Filipino workers — a deal that should have long been in place before the deployment of Filipinos there, as required by the Migrant Workers Act.

The two employers of Demafelis, Nader Essam Assaf and Mona Hassoun, were also quickly arrested in Lebanon and Syria, and sentenced to hanging. But this has yet to be enforced as Nader is Lebanese and Mona is a Syrian. They are held by authorities in their respective countries, leaving the Demafelis family still longing for justice.

"Sinabihan din kami ng [Overseas Workers Welfare Administration] na dapat nga daw i-ano namin ulit 'yan kay Pangulong Duterte nang maaksyunan talaga. Kasi ang balita daw doon, hindi naman talaga nakulong," Jessica said.

[Translation: We were told by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration that we should follow this up with President Duterte so they could take action. Because the news there is that they are not in jail.]

"Kung anong ginawa sa kapatid ko, eh ganun din ang gagawin sa kanila," she said firmly. "Ano bang kasalanan ni Joanna? Napakasipag 'yan."

[Translation: Whatever they did to my sister, that should also be done to them. What did Joanna do wrong? She's very hardworking.]

Even before the reports, Joanna's family already had a hunch about her fate. In dreams, her sister said, Joanna appeared, asking for help from family members.

But help did not come to her until it was too little and too late. Even if a welfare official was recalled over her inaction on her case, even if her employers have been convicted, even if the Demafelis family's house had been repaired and their pawned paddy field had been redeemed through the help of government officials, these do not change the fact that Joanna is gone.

"Natupad nga rin 'yung pangarap ni Joanna, nawala naman siya sa amin," Jessica said.

[Translation: Joanna's dreams may have been fulfilled, but she is no longer with us.]

She admitted that she has still not gotten over the loss of her sister, but she tried her best to fight back tears, at times going silent to keep herself composed. She still keeps Joanna's portrait prominently displayed on a table in her house next to a plastic bamboo ornament decorated to look like a Christmas tree.

'Let's put up the Christmas tree'

Jessica's home in Las Piñas is a stark contrast to that of the Lirazans, which has remained bare as Theresa Lirazan has refused to decorate.

"Parang ayaw ko. Kasi siya lang naman 'yung nagsasabing, 'Ma, maglagay tayo ng Christmas tree,'" she said, referring to her son, Emmanuel Lirazan.

[Translation: I may not want to because he's the only who said, "Mom, let's put up a Christmas tree."]

Emmanuel left his mother and father Gualberto Lirazan abruptly — in just a span of two weeks. Jumong, as he is known to his family, went from running around his neighborhood in Makati City and being active in his school and the church, to getting easily tired, not being able to lie down straight, having stomach aches, firing up with fever, vomiting black and losing his left lung.

Emanuel-Lizaran-Parents_CNNPH.jpg Ma. Theresa and Gualbero Lirazan sit on the bed once occupied by their son, Emmanuel, before he passed on months after he received the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia. With Emmanuel gone, Theresa has decided not to decorate their home for Christmas.  

"Minsan sinisisi ko sarili ko. Dapat hindi ko na siya pina-inject ng Dengvaxia. Kasi hindi siya sakitin—kahit lagnat, ubo, sipon—hindi talaga siya sakitin. Ito lang huli na umpisa nung na-inject siya," Theresa said.

[Translation: Sometimes I blame myself. I should not have gotten him vaccinated with Dengvaxia. Because he was not sickly—even fever, cough, colds—he never got sick. It was only after he was vaccinated.]

But for Theresa and Gualberto, the blame ultimately falls on the anti-dengue vaccine. They say that it is because of this vaccine that Jumong would no longer be able to attend their church organization's Christmas party this year. The chubby kid was always first to queue at the potluck table. It is because of Dengvaxia that at Simbang Gabi, the songs of the choir, of which Jumong was part, pierces the heart of his sister, Vangie, moving her to tears.

After all, its manufacturer Sanofi-Pasteur admitted that the vaccine does cause "severe disease" among those who have not yet been infected with dengue.

For them, there is no other culprit but the dreaded Dengvaxia, which was administered to over 800,000 schoolchildren before Sanofi-Pasteur's disclosure. This belief is bolstered by the similar medical findings among those who passed on after they were given the anti-dengue vaccine.

But the couple told another tale often buried under the gruesome details of the illnesses that felled over a hundred children who were given the vaccine.

Jumong's clinical abstract revealed that he had severe dengue and dengue hepatitis - a far cry from sore throat, which was his initial diagnosis. While their son felt he was drowning while lying in bed and suffering from stomachaches, the couple pleaded to a public hospital in Makati City to admit him. But it did not heed their call, and, instead, sent him home with some antibiotics that never made Jumong better.

They had rushed in and out of the hospital for two weeks, until one midnight in September, when a doctor told Theresa, "Mommy, magdasal na kayo kasi kritikal 'yung anak niyo. [Mommy, please pray as your son is in a critical condition.]"

"Kung naagapan lang, sana buhay pa siya. (If only it was prevented from getting worse, he would still be alive.)" she said.

'This would be the last'

The certainty of the end of life had always been a matter of fact for lawyer Ben Ramos, who used to wake his family when the clock strikes at midnight on New Year's Day. Ramos often told his annoyed wife and children, "You will never know, maybe this would be the last."

"Alam niya siguro, dahil sa trabaho niya, someday may mangyayari sa kanya. [Perhaps he knew that someday, because of his job, something will happen to him.]" his wife, Clarissa, said.

Ben was a human rights lawyer who represented farmers in land disputes against landlords. He was also the executive director of Paghidaet sa Kauswagan Development Group, which gives human rights trainings to peasants in Negros Occidental for them to own land. Clarissa said people from all over the province would visit her husband, offering him just about anything for them to be represented in court, even if he would gladly accept cases without payment.

Among his last clients were the nine National Federation of Sugar Workers farmers who were felled in a sugar plantation in Sagay, Negros Occidental.

Working in Paghidaet herself, Clarissa knew of the atrocities committed against farmers in more remote towns of their province, but she never expected that, despite the threats, her husband would go down in the same manner in the city, near a police station.

"Hindi ko alam kung ano ang magiging reaction ko doon. Hindi ako makaiyak, hindi ako makasigaw. Wala. Talagang nagblanko ang isip ko noon," Clarissa said. "Isang lawyer siya eh. Parang wala na ba talagang respeto ang gobyerno?"

[Translation: I don't know what my reaction would be. I can't cry, I can't scream. Nothing. My mind went blank. He's a lawyer. Doesn't the government have any respect?]

Ben-Ramos-Family_CNNPH.jpg With Atty. Ben Ramos gone, his family vows to continue what he had started.  

The National Union of People's Lawyers, of which he was a founding member, said Ben was the 34th lawyer to fall under the Duterte administration, excluding judges and prosecutors.

As police said his work as a lawyer or his alleged involvement in gambling could be blamed, the Palace said it was "reckless, irresponsible and baseless to blame" the government for what happened to Ramos.

But Clarissa believes otherwise. In April, the man, who danced funny at his family's Christmas parties and had a hearty laugh, was included in an alleged list from the police which linked him to communist rebels.

"Kasalanan na ba ngayon ang makipagusap sa mga tao at i-explain sa kanila 'yung mga rights nila? Kasalan na ba 'yun na nilalapitan si Ben ng mga mahihirap na hindi kayang magbayad ng kaso?" she said with an activist's cadence.

[Translation: Is it now wrong to talk to people and explain to them their rights? Is it now wrong that poor people who can't afford legal fees go to Ben?]

"Halos lahat ng mahihirap ay namamatay na sa gutom, namamatay na sa pagpaslang nila. 'Yun ba ang gusto nilang manatili sa Pilipinas, 'yun bang mga sumusunod lang sa kanila o mayroon pa silang puso para sa mga mahihirap na mga tao?"

[Translation: Almost all of the poor are dying of hunger, dying because they are being killed. Do they want that the only people to be left are those that follow them? Do they still have a heart for the poor?]

'Let's eat'

The search for a better life prompted Liza Pasto to leave Misamis Oriental and head to Bulacan. But this move also led to her separation from her son, Vincent Beimen, who stayed in their province where he was a construction worker.

Vincent had been longing for Liza in the three years they have not seen each other for Christmas and only heard their weeping voices through the phone. He planned to head to Bulacan to spend Christmas with his mother this year, but instead, Liza is struggling to gather money to head home and see her son's body.

"Malas naman 'yung Pasko ko, anak ko pa 'yung mawawala. Sabi ko, 'di bale nang walang pera, basta 'yung anak ko 'wag mawawala," Liza said wailing through the phone.

[Translation: My Christmas is very unfortunate, my son is gone. I said, 'It's fine if I don't have money, as long as my son won't pass on.]

Liza was told that in November, her son, along with Clifford Abales and Don Remar Andales, were eating at a neighbor's house when the police came and asked who they were. Vincent, she said, even offered police to eat.

The three men were said to have been invited to the police station for questioning, but never returned home. The police told their relatives they had been released and gone home.

But the truth would only be revealed two days after they were taken in for questioning, when their bodies were found some 40 kilometers away from their homes in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental with gunshot wounds to their heads. Liza said a bullet pierced through Vincent's eye and one of his arms was broken.

"Ako nga, hindi ko mapalo 'yung anak ko. Sila pa tuloy ginaganyan nila 'yung anak ko. Parang hayop. (I have never spanked my son, but they treated him like an animal,)" she said.

"'Yung mga bata na 'yun, walang blotter sa mga sityo. Bakit sila pa 'yung pinatay? (Those kids are not facing complaints in the town. Why were they the ones who were killed?)" she said.

Liza said her mother-in-law, who was taking care of her 24-year-old son in Misamis Oriental, tried to confront police about his death, but was told that policemen were having a meeting and could not see her at the time.

Police also did not dare face the screaming and wailing crowd that formed in front of the police station in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental, where the caskets of the three men were displayed for everyone to see the alleged handiwork of policement — a charge that they vehemently denied.

Misamis-Oriental-killings_CNNPH.jpg Relatives of Vincent Beimen, Clifford Abales and Don Remar Andales put their caskets on display in front of the Misamis Oriental police station in Tagaloan town in protest. They say that police killed the three men, a charge which police vehemently deny.  

"Those are serious allegations which remain to be proven in the court of law," Northern Mindanao Police Spokesperson Superintendent Surki Sereñas said.

Rights groups have claimed that 12,000 lives have been taken in extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration, mostly carried out in the course of its drug war. Other killings, including that of the seven T'Boli and Dulangan Manobo people where the military was implicated, happened while Mindanao was under martial law.

READ: Albayalde claims no human rights complaints filed over Mindanao martial law

Of these, only one death has been pinned by the court on the police. Three Caloocan policemen were found guilty of murdering 17-year-old Kian delos Santos during a drug sting in 2017.

For others, like Vincent, Clifford and Don, they remain hoping for justice.

'We will continue'

Life continues for those they left. In Cagayan, Evangeline and her family are shelling out from their own pocket to continue building the church and convent Father Mark started when he was still alive.

"It's for his memory po, especially for his advocacy to help the poor and the marginalized," she said.

When the New Year comes, Moises' wife Irene would only be two months away from finishing her welding course, which she hopes would provide her family a living away from the mines, which took her husband.

Meanwhile, Jessica is fighting off attempts to evict her from the land on which the homeowners' association in a Las Piñas subdivision allowed her to build her house. She said she needs to be in Metro Manila while her sister's case has not yet been fully resolved, hoping that one day, she would be able to fulfill another of Joanna's dreams - to have a house near Manila they can truly call their own.

Theresa and Gualberto are still actively engaged in the battle against Dengvaxia, as much as they are still active in their church organization. The couple and their daughter, Vangie, still went to their church organization's Christmas party and celebrated, even if, at times, they still find themselves in tears.

Christmas this year would feel incomplete without Ben, who usually hosted family functions at his mother's house in Sipalay City, Negros Occidental. But his wife Clarissa said she and her three children would still sit down for a Christmas meal, minding the now-vacant seat left by her husband.

"Sa pagharap namin sa Christmas, kahit wala na siya, kahit hindi na siya kasama sa la mesa, magpa-promise kami na kung ano man ang sinimulan ng tatay nila, itutuloy nila kahit papaano," she said.

[Translation: As we face Christmas, even without him, even if he is no longer at the table with us, we would promise that whatever he has started, we will continue in whatever way we can.]

CNN Philippines' Chad de Guzman and Alwen Saliring contributed to this story.