In a speech, Patricia Evangelista once described “what terror looks like.”
For a trauma journalist like her, who covered then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war intensively for three years, it meant standing outside a house where five men had been murdered, where families pleaded for the names of the dead, and to whom a police officer would laugh and say, “See, even God is on my side.”
It meant interviewing vigilantes who admitted how they were ordered by the police to kill. It meant attending a wake “empty of mourners” due to chilling fear, or witnessing how “one woman who had just buried a son stood outside a police station standing guard because another son had been arrested.”
At one point, the terror meant seeing young kids in Caloocan painting their street wall with a new name: “Patayan St.,” which literally translates to “Killing Street.”
In her book “Some People Need Killing” — a title quoting one of the hired gunmen she once sat down with — Evangelista recounts in sharp, harrowing detail these faces of terror and many other stories of brutality, which have not let up since Duterte took office and even after he stepped down.
Born in 1985, five months before the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship, Evangelista began her career at ABS-CBN News Channel and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, covering human rights stories such as the 2009 Maguindanao massacre and the forced disappearances of activists under the Arroyo regime, before becoming an investigative and trauma reporter for the independent news outlet Rappler. “People like me work in the uneasy space between what is and what should be,” says Evangelista of trauma reporting.
“Some People Need Killing” has been out in Philippine bookstores, and the author is currently conducting a series of talks following the book’s launch.
But why exactly did Evangelista write the book?
“I think we’re all the sum of what we’ve seen and experienced,” she tells me via email. “What we saw in the six years of the Duterte administration was blood and fear and hate. I’ve been reckoning with the same realities that Filipinos lived all over the country, only in my case the reckoning meant setting the words on paper. It was a difficult process, but it would have been far more difficult to look away.”
She adds, “I didn’t set out to write a book when the slaughter began. I went out on the streets to cover what President Duterte called a war. I wrote many stories in the aftermath of crime scenes, but as body followed body, I felt there was a bigger [story] I needed to understand. It was no longer sufficient to ask who the dead were, and how they died, but why we let them die.”
Covering the carnage
Published by Penguin Random House, “Some People Need Killing” chronicles Evangelista’s encounters while reporting on Duterte’s nationwide tokhang operations and the culture of impunity it has permitted. Tagging with fellow journalists assigned on the night shift, she surveys the horror, “story by story, crime scene by crime scene.” She speaks to victims and witnesses, gathers casualties by the hour of death, sits across hired killers, and probes state authorities — most of which would end up in the news reports and the seven-part investigative series, “Murder in Manila,” that she produced at the peak of the carnage. “There were corpses every night at the height of the killings. Seven, 12, 26, the brutality reduced to a paragraph, sometimes only a sentence each. The language failed as the body count rose,” she writes. These drug war stories would later reap recognition from the Human Rights Press Awards and the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards in 2017 and the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia in 2018, among others.
The book, subtitled “A Memoir of Murder in My Country,” is sectioned into three parts: “Memory,” “Carnage,” and “Requiem,” underscoring respectively Duterte’s origins and emergence to power, his promised drug war, and its murderous legacy. In this sense, Evangelista’s reportage, now more expansive and personal than her original work for Rappler, also becomes sort of an explainer about the state of human rights and political affairs in the Philippines.
And if Raffy Lerma’s “Pieta” stands as the most chilling visual account of Duterte’s reign of terror, then Evangelista’s book might just be its worthy textual counterpart, for how the author pieces the stories together with such masterful dexterity. She appeals to our emotions but never loses sight of the bigger picture, of recording a truthful account of a brutal period in our country that she hopes someday would count for something.
“I want them to remember what happened,” Evangelista tells Rico Hizon on CNN Philippines. “I want them to see the names and see the faces. Imagine the lives that were lost and imagine the lives that were lived. I wrote the book not because I thought I would change policy. I wanted to make sure a record existed for whatever future generations might need as a reckoning. And I hope to honor the families who trusted me with their stories.”
Pulling the trigger via language
In the book, Evangelista also zeroes in on the grammar of violence that has enabled the carnage, scouring Duterte’s speeches and parsing the weight they carry, as well as contextualizing words that “rotate, trade places, [and] repeat in staccato” during the drug war: how the ex-president, for instance, used the word “kill” at least 1,254 times in his first six months in office, or how words like “salvage,” “disappear,” and “nanlaban” acquire different, often violent, meanings in the Philippines.
“What I also hope for people who might be reading [the book] is to recognize that we are told many stories by many people,” says the author. “That those stories matter, they’re not just stories; that language shapes rhetoric; that stories shape realities. And when President Rodrigo told us a story, it mattered how it ended for him. And he said people would die, and a lot of our countrymen applauded. It was just a story but it led to blood on the ground. So I want people to remember that stories matter, and that they can refuse the story.”
“What I also hope for people who might be reading [the book] is to recognize that we are told many stories by many people. That those stories matter, they’re not just stories; that language shapes rhetoric; that stories shape realities."
Yet Evangelista also admits that the book is intended for a foreign audience. “Alam ko naman who I was writing for eh,” she says in a Teka Teka News podcast. “On a practical level, it’s a global publisher, so alam ko that there were [certain] requirements of me but, at the end of the day, Pinoy ako eh, so ang gusto ko sana magbasa, Pilipino. So sana may mabigay ako na hindi nila nakita. And I’m hoping that it articulates something that they may not have been able to articulate.”
But the author also underscores that “this isn’t a story unique to the Philippines. This isn’t the world’s first drug war, nor will it be the last. Cycles of violence follow when populations decide that some lives mean less than others, and ‘drug addict’ here can easily be another specter elsewhere.”
Like the sheer magnitude and volume of the extrajudicial killings ordered under Duterte, “Some People Need Killing” can be quite overwhelming, precisely because of the enormity of evil and how Evangelista renders them on the page. She hunts for gaps and tracks patterns to tell us that what has transpired in our country since that charismatic man from Davao was voted into office is a door of no return. But she also reminds us that, no matter how gargantuan of a task it may seem, it is possible to hold the powerful to account. At least before the crimes they committed only become a part of a memory factory doomed to be forgotten, if not whitewashed.
Lifting of fear?
Until now, the International Criminal Court, dubbed by many as a “court of last resort,” continues its probe into Duterte’s drug war as an alleged crime against humanity. Under Duterte, Evangelista’s security, alongside her fellow reporters, was always at risk, and nothing has changed since. The Philippines, in fact, remains the seventh deadliest country in the world for unsolved journalist executions, based on the 2022 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also recorded 75 attacks on media workers, as of April this year.
Yet Maria Ressa, Evangelista’s former boss, said that the Marcos regime is now lifting the fear that journalists endured under Duterte’s time. This, after the dismissal of the final tax evasion case filed against her and Rappler last September.
Asked to comment about this “lifting of fear,” Evangelista says, “We don’t have to look any further than the recent killing of Juan Jumalon, who was shot in his own radio studio as he delivered commentary live. The Philippines is one of the world’s most dangerous places for media workers, who are harassed, threatened, sometimes murdered for doing their jobs. The dismissal of court cases isn’t a reason to infer a lifting of fear. There is every reason to be afraid.”
“It takes longer to type a sentence than it does to kill a man,” writes Evangelista. And in “Some People Need Killing,” she details, page after page, how and why we have come to this point, when it shouldn’t have been the case at all. We nightcrawl with her, with the gnawing awareness that the tenor of terror is still very much present at every turn.
Special thanks to Kael Co and Ricky Carandang.