The empty chair at Christmas

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — For Father Mark Ventura, Christmases started by celebrating Mass in the church of a remote community and ended with him giving gifts to his family in their home in the afternoon. His gifts were typically religious items, like the figurine of the Holy Family he once gave to his mother, Evangeline.

But there will be no more figurines from Father Mark starting this Christmas.

A new priest has taken his place in Gattaran, Cagayan where he was last assigned.

Priests accompany Father Mark Ventura to his final resting place after an assailant took his life last April.

On the last Mass he celebrated in the church of that town in the northern Philippines in April 2018, Father Mark did not even get to give his parishioners a final blessing. A man on a motorcycle shot the 37-year-old priest, turning his white vestment red. His body and blood laid on the altar for all to see.

This shocked the entire town and shattered the Ventura family. Evangeline could not even speak about what happened.

"It’s really painful for me to go back and remember the pain," she said, apologizing. She never imagined her son would go out this way.

Father Mark was one of two Catholic priests to fall this year, sparking outrage from the clergy, the faithful, and human rights advocates. Just two months after Father Mark, two men on a motorcycle fired at Father Richmond Nilo just as he was getting ready to celebrate evening Mass.

This was also the fate of Father Marcelito Paez, who fell in December 2017.

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 blamed the attacks on President Rodrigo Duterte's fiery — often rude and inflammatory — rhetoric against the Catholic Church in the Philippines, which is highly critical of the administration’s brutal drug war. Duterte’s tirades range from corruption and child abuse allegations to calls for bishops critical of his administration to be taken down.

Father Richmond had yet to be laid in his final resting place when Duterte brushed off this link.

"Sabi nung nabasa ko sa ano, 'Stop persecuting priests.' Wala naman akong sinabi,” he declared.

In the same breath, Duterte repeated his claim that Father Mark was felled because of his illicit affairs — a lead which the police gave more weight to than the danger the activist priest faced as a result of his anti-mining advocacy.

Whatever the motive, it does not change the fact that Father Mark is gone. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, a chair once occupied by a caring, obedient and God-loving son—the guiding light of the Ventura family—will be empty for the first time.

'I'm coming home'

Like Father Mark, mining tractor operator Moises Bautista will not be coming home this Christmas.

His wife, Irene Martin, is left with their two children and is struggling to fill his shoes. Their kids are craving for their father’s Christmas specialties — spaghetti, macaroni salad and pancit — but they will have to settle with Irene’s cooking.

"'Yun ang kaugalian ng kanilang ama eh. Kapag Pasko, masaya," Irene said over the phone, taking long pauses in between phrases. "Pero sa akin talaga, eh hindi masaya."

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

"Na-shock ako. 'Di ko akalain ganun-ganun na lang," Irene said glumly.

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

Local authorities blamed the landslide on mining activities in the area — the main occupation of people in the Benguet town — prompting the government to halt small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera region.

A landslide in Benguet is triggered by heavy rainfall brought by Typhoon Ompong.

Calls for the mines to reopen fell on deaf ears. Instead, the government ordered the declaration of a “minahang bayan” or a common area where small-scale miners can do their work. "Minero kayo noon, minero pa rin kayo ngayon, at mga minero pa rin kayo sa mga susunod na panahon," Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said.

The halting of mining operations forced relatives of Irene and Moises 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'

Jessica Demafelis and her sister have heard many horror stories from friends and neighbors about working abroad — but this did not deter Joanna from heading out of the country.

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

Joanna had hoped for good fortune in working as a domestic helper in Kuwait. She believed this would bring her enough money to rebuild their house in Iloilo and redeem their pawned paddy field, which Supertyphoon Yolanda both destroyed in 2013.

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

Her departure for Kuwait the following year had marred Christmas gatherings of the Demafelis family at Jessica’s small shack in a Las Piñas subdivision, erected on a plot of land lent to her by the homeowner’s association of the gated enclave. In that space, Joanna was the life of the party — cracking jokes, teasing relatives and giving them gifts. She was the only one who gave everyone gifts.

After she left, Jessica would only hear from her sister through phone calls, with Joanna saying that everything was well in Kuwait. Everything was well when Joanna’s contract was extended beyond 2015. Everything was well even when her employers barred her from coming home.

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

Then came silence. No word from Joanna since September 2016, except in dreams of family members where she was asking for help.

But help did not come to Joanna until it was too late.

Jessica was washing dishes as a maid when she heard Joanna’s name on television. Her sister’s rounded hijab-wrapped face was on her social media feed. A Filipino worker had been found in a freezer, the news said. 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.

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.

The discovery of Joanna’s body spun the wheel of fortune in favor of her, her family and other Filipino workers in Kuwait.

No more Filipino workers were allowed to head to the Middle Eastern country. All distressed laborers were returned to the county in 72 hours. Kuwait bargained for an agreement to protect Filipino workers — a deal that should have long been in place before the deployment of Filipinos there, as required by law.

A welfare official was recalled over her inaction on Joanna’s case. Donations poured in and their typhoon-battered house was repaired. The Demafelises’ pawned rice paddy was also redeemed.

Joanna’s employers, Nader Essam Assaf and Mona Hassoun, were quickly arrested in Lebanon and Syria, and sentenced to hanging.

But these things can only do so much to appease the grief of the Demafelis family. Before, they were certain that Joanna would one day return to the country and join them at their Christmas gathering, bringing back her laugher, jokes and even more gifts. Like in the past four Christmases, Joanna and everything she brought will be absent from her family’s annual gathering at Jessica’s shack — and all celebrations after that.

"Natupad nga rin 'yung pangarap ni Joanna, nawala naman siya sa amin," Jessica said, fighting back the tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes.

In Jessica’s shack, Joanna only remains as a framed 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 in stark contrast to that of the Lirazans, the only house in their neighborhood that has remained free from Christmas decor.

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

Emmanuel left his mother and father, Gualberto, abruptly — in just a span of two weeks. Jumong, as he was known to his family, went from being a chubby kid beating drums in a marching band, running around in his neighborhood in Makati City, and eagerly participating in school and church activities to being lethargic, unable to lie down straight, having stomach aches, firing up with fever, vomiting black liquid and losing his left lung.

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.

Theresa and Gualberto squarely put the blame for the ill fate of their son on the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia. It is the reason why the queue to the potluck table at their church organization’s Christmas party will be missing Jumong, who was always first to line up. It is the reason why songs sung at Simbang Gabi gleefully heralding the coming of the Christ would now always sound different for Jumong’s sister, Vangie, as the choir would be missing her brother’s voice.

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

The Lirazans’ belief that the vaccine felled their child is bolstered by similar medical findings among those who passed on after they were given the anti-dengue vaccine. But Theresa and Gualberto told another tale often buried under the gruesome details of the illnesses that felled over a hundred children who were given the shot.

Jumong was initially diagnosed with sore throat — a far cry from severe dengue and dengue hepatitis, which took him down. When he felt like he was drowning while lying in bed and suffered from stomach aches, the hospital refused to admit him. Instead, Jumong was sent home with antibiotics that never made him better.

Jumong got rushed in and out of hospitals in the span of two weeks, but he just kept getting worse until one midnight in September, the only treatment a doctor could offer was, “Mommy, magdasal na kayo kasi kritikal 'yung anak niyo."

"Kung naagapan lang, sana buhay pa siya," Theresa said.

'This would be the last'

Lawyer Ben Ramos never beat around the bush when it comes to talking about the end of life. When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, Ben would wake his dazed wife and children with a reminder of their mortality. “You will never know, maybe this would be the last," he would say.

"Alam niya siguro, dahil sa trabaho niya, someday may mangyayari sa kanya," his wife, Clarissa, said.

Ben was a human rights lawyer who represented farmers in disputes against landlords. He was also the executive director of Paghidaet sa Kauswagan Development Group, which teaches peasants in Negros Occidental about their right to own land. People from all over the province would visit her husband, offering him just about anything—including bananas—just so he would represent them in court, even if he would gladly accept the cases without payment.

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

Working in Paghidaet herself, Clarissa knew that these atrocities against farmers were more common in remote towns of their province, but she never expected that, despite the threats, her husband would be shot dead in the city, near a police station.

Upon hearing the news of Ben’s murder, Clarissa just went blank.

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

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

Ben was the 34th lawyer to fall under the Duterte administration, according to the National Union of People's Lawyers, where he was a founding member.

The police said Ben’s work or his alleged involvement in gambling could be the reason for his demise. Malacañang said it was "reckless, irresponsible and baseless to blame" the government for what happened to Ben.

But Clarissa believes otherwise. In April, her husband, whose hearty laugh and kooky dance moves brought joy to his family’s Christmas parties, was tagged by the police as a communist rebel.

"Kasalanan na ba ngayon ang makipag-usap 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?" Theresa demanded.

"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?”

'Let's eat'

Liza Pasto left her home in Misamis Oriental in search for a better life up north in Bulacan, leaving her son, Vincent Beimen, who stayed in their province where he was a construction worker.

With no means to return home, Liza celebrated the past three Christmases with Vincent through weepy phone calls. This Christmas would have been different, with Vincent having planned to finally visit his mother.

But his mother would be heading home instead, if she gets to gather enough money to go 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 over the phone.

Vincent was eating with his co-workers Clifford Abales and Don Remar Andales at a neighbor’s house in November when the police came. According to Liza, the three were invited to the police station for questioning, but never returned home. When their relatives trooped to the precinct to inquire about their whereabouts, they were told that they had been released and gone home.

But home is far from where the three were. The men were found in a ditch some 40 kilometers away from their homes in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental two days after they were brought in for interrogation. They had gunshot wounds to their heads. 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," Liza said. "'Yung mga bata na 'yun, walang blotter sa mga sityo. Bakit sila pa 'yung pinatay?"

Vincent’s grandmother, who was taking care of him, tried confronting the police about his death, but was told that policemen were having a meeting and could not see her at the time.

The police officers also did not dare face the crowd that screamed and wailed in front of the police station in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental. There, the caskets of the three young men were displayed for everyone to see the alleged handiwork of the police — a charge that they vehemently denied.

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.

The death toll from extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration has reached 12,000, human rights groups claim. Most of them were carried out in the course of the administration’s deadly war on drugs. Other killings, including that of the seven T’Boli and Dulangan Manobo people blamed on the military, happened while Mindanao was under martial law.

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

Only one case has been resolved, with the killers landing behind bars. 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, their relatives remain simply hoping for justice.

'We will continue'

The sorrow of a death lingers in the family long after the burial. It is twice as bitter during the holidays, when the cold December breeze pierces through the bones and the nights, through brightened up by Christmas lights, are infinitely more silent. But life has to go on as calendars everywhere will inevitably mark December 25th and every day after that.

Liza is knocking on every government agency to ask for assistance so she can go home to Misamis Oriental and see the grave of her son, Vincent. She wants to have his body exhumed and undergo another autopsy.

Jessica is still monitoring developments in the case of her sister, Joanna. The death sentence has yet to be enforced on Joanna’s employers as they are still being held in their countries of origin. Jessica has even heard rumors that the two suspects are not even detained.

But keeping tabs on her sister’s case may soon become difficult for Jessica if she fails to fight off attempts to evict her from the land lent to her by the homeowners' association in a Las Piñas subdivision. She said she needs to be in Metro Manila until her sister's case is resolved and while she works to fulfill another of Joanna's dreams — to have a house near Manila that they can truly call their own.

In Cagayan, Evangeline and her family are shelling out from their own pockets 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, Irene would only be two months away from finishing her welding course, which she hopes would provide her family a source of income away from the mines that killed her husband, Moises.

Theresa and Gualberto remain as actively engaged in the battle against Dengvaxia as they are in their church organization. The couple and their daughter, Vangie, still went to its annual Christmas party and celebrated, even if at times, they still find themselves in tears over the untimely death of Jumong.

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 and their three children would still sit down for a Christmas meal, minding the empty chair 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," Clarissa said.

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