Daniel Berehulak documents the inhumanity of Duterte’s drug war in ‘They are slaughtering us like animals’

I thought very hard about whether or not to write about this particular article because of how sick reading it made me feel, but I figured, given recent events, it might be good to revisit one of the most disturbing photo essays to come out of one of the darkest periods in Philippine history.

I’m very sorry if the photos I’ve chosen make anyone feel uneasy.

Daniel Berehulak documented Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs in his photo-essay, ‘They are slaughtering us like animals.’ The essay details, plainly, scenes of violence as Berehulak witnessed them. Included are quick eye-witness accounts and the reactions of those at the scene as Berehulak gives life to feelings of fear and terror.

What I first noticed in the pictures Berehulak had taken was how much background detail he managed to include in each shot. In crime scenes the bodies are highlighted under street lamps or the light of torches, but in the background you can see clearly the reactions of bystanders. People crowd in the shadows around the corner of alleys or from behind storefront glasses, horrified but curious, as Berehulak narrated they had been when he’d make his visits to these very crime scenes. Each photo is shrouded under the cover of darkness. His photos were taken at night, of course, but the effect is an amplification of the fear he narrates in the story — fear, and a palpable sense of surrounding, all-encompassing terror.

The breakneck pace in which he narrates the many, many crime scenes he witnessed takes on new meaning juxtaposed with his photographs, and with the crowds mulling about in the background of each tableau. Berehulak makes a point to explain the classist element of the drug war and how it seemed to target only those of low income. As he breezes through the many names and captures the many faces that populate the story, be they alive or dead, the scale of the drug war becomes apparent — as well as its target demographic. This is a war against the Philippines’ poor, Berehulak seems to say.

I also thought something about the photographs seemed plain and everyday, even though they were very clearly stylized. I wondered what it was, until I realized I was associating his descriptions of the victims with the photos I was seeing. Michael Araja, 29, who went out to buy cigarettes. Erika Fernandez, 17, and Jericho Camitan, 23, girlfriend and boyfriend. Joselito Jumaquio, who had been playing video games. Crisostomo Diaz, who did odd jobs. These were normal Filipinos as much as I and my neighbors and my own friends who had perished under the drug war had been normal Filipinos, I find myself thinking each time I revisit this photo essay. To see them splayed out across the street like that further laid bare the inhumanity of the war on drugs. These normal Filipinos had been treated like they were less than human.

Berehulak sets his eye also on the appalling conditions of the Philippine penal system under the drug war. He explains that almost 800,000 Filipinos had turned themselves in at the onset of the new administration, and were forced to crowd into the jails of Manila. He supplements this with photos of Quezon City jail — dirty, sweaty, dark, crowded, with hundreds of Filipinos cramped onto a single floor.

The title of the photo essay is the thesis statement of the entire piece. ‘They are slaughtering us like animals,’ reads the title. Coupled with photos of blood-spattered bodies face down in alleyways, with jail cells filled to bursting point, with wakes and wailing relatives and an ever-present police force whose faces seem to read, “This is business as usual,” Berehulak presents truth to this very thesis statement — that the poor of the Philippines are being slaughtered like animals. Berehulak’s photos work hand-in-hand with his words in materializing the very real horror of Duterte’s dug war.

I’ve heard people call Berehulak’s photographs sensationalist exaggerations. I chalk that up to a numbness on the part of many Filipinos after years living under the shadow of the drug war. Berehulak came here as a foreigner who had never experienced the drug war, however, and his photographs represent fresh, much-needed eyes for a desensitized nation.

Photographs © Daniel Berehulak

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories. instagram.com/aloveyoutoo