EDITORIAL: Collateral damage

WHEN law enforcers raided a house in a gated subdivision in Cararayan, Naga City last March 15, two persons were left dead. The spot report of the Philippine National Police (PNP) showed that the police and soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army were about to serve the warrant of arrest against Joey Fajardo, secretary of the Bicol Regional Party Committee of the National Democratic Front (NDF), when they “were fired upon by the subject person which led into a brief fire fight resulting to the death of above-named subject person and one unidentified female person.” Joey Fajardo was later identified as Alfredo Merilos and the female victim as Liz Ocampo, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) who hailed from Iriga City, sho happened to be staying at the house of Lualhati Balcueva, at the time of the incident. Merilos was acknowledged by comrades at the NDF as one of their own but Ocampo turned out to have just arrived from the Middle East and was barely two months of her stay here. Ocampo can be considered a collateral damage in this case because she was killed as non-combatant during an attack on legitimate military target. The legitimate target here was Merilos because aside from being a member of the communist movement, the police investigator accused him of firing the gun before authorities could serve the arrest warrant on several cases that included murder. With only the police and Army soldiers present during the serving of the warrant of arrest, no contravening statement can be heard regarding the veracity of the alleged firefight. Of course, the police investigators will rely on the statements of those who were present in the operation. But most disheartening was the death of Ocampo who had decided to stay in Camarines Sur for good after working hard in the Middle East for 10 years. The interviews conducted by the Bicol Mail among Balcueva’s immediate neighbors showed no shoot-out happened. Assuming that Merilos fired the first shot, it was natural for the security forces to shoot back at the rebel who was inside the house. But the house of Balcueva reveals no pockmark or explosive-induced damage from the outside. More revealing were the absence of signs of forcible entry if indeed Merilos resisted and the initial findings of the medico-legal on how Ocampo was shot by a man sitting in front of her. Given these circumstances, they indicate that the arresting law enforcers and security forces were allowed to come inside the house. But why do they have to kill Ocampo if their target was Merilos? Is it a case of the dead telling no tales or more than that? In the present times under the current administration where impunity goes on unabated, it will be very hard for an ordinary citizen to seek justice. In the war on drugs for example, not one from the police force had been meted punishment even in the most obvious cases of extra-judicial killing like the hapless case of teenager Kian Santos in Manila. Some people may put the blame on Ocampo because she allowed Merilos to stay in the house while he was undergoing treatment for his ailment. However, the code of conduct and engagement that make bloody encounters humane is not followed if the law enforcers and security forces kill or punish the innocent non-combatant whose mistake was to acquaint herself with their target. What had happened to Ocampo did not only show the brutality of the ideological war against the communist movement but the kind of state forces that the government has. They leave no mercy knowing they can get away using the worn-out script of killing those resisting and drawing guns against law enforcers. With President Duterte offering financial reward to government forces and civilians for killing NPA rebels, we can only foresee more violations of human rights and deaths of people under suspicion of being rebels or outright tagging people as rebels for financial reward. Thank God that even if the military tagged Ocampo as NPA rebel, they did not shoot her in her vagina (as Duterte had recommended against women rebels) but on the lower part of her abdomen.