Philippines. Shepherding drug users

Sr. Nenet Daño, a Good Shepherd sister and licensed social worker, has passionately undertaken the task of helping drug users and pushers, in an attempt to protect them from imminent death following the government’s war on drugs. Here is Sr. Nenet’s heartbreaking story of her mission to help the victims of the anti-drug campaign.

After emerging from a face-to-face meeting with six drug users, Sr. Maria Juanita Nenet Daño heaves a small sigh of relief that perhaps these men will not meet a bloody end like dozens of others in the San Andres Bukid slum area in Manila, where she works. They have come forward to undergo counseling, hoping to change their ways and avoid becoming victims in the government’s ongoing anti-drug war. 
Still, the sister of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd sees danger ahead for the self-confessed drug users because their names are on the police list. This means they are marked men, targets in massive police operations called Oplan Tokhang (Tokhang is a contraction of the Filipino words that mean “knock” and “invite”), which have been in force since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016.

Depending on who is counting, the anti-drug war has claimed from 2,000 to 7,000 plus lives, both in police operations and vigilante-style or extrajudicial killings, carried out without any due process. Daily news reports carry incidents of summary executions whose perpetrators are unidentified. The killers often leave a note that the death is drug-related.

Grassroots ministry

Daño, a licensed social worker, has been doing outreach work since 2011 in San Andres Bukid, said to be the second most populous area in the Manila Archdiocese. She had spent eight years as missionary in Senegal, returning to the Philippines in 2011. She worked in the sisters’ infirmary for two months before joining the Welcome House/Tahanan, which is one Good Shepherd community with two locations.

Daño works as a counselor at Welcome House/Tahanan but spends half of the week in San Andres Bukid some three kilometers (about two miles) away. Tahanan (which means “home”) is an outreach center that serves as an office, meeting place and Daño’s sleeping quarters when she is in San Andres Bukid, located in a low-income tenement building built by the archdiocese. She is the only Good Shepherd sister working in that area.

San Andres Bukid is congested and overpopulated. There are 26 barangays, the smallest government unit which can vary in size and population, in San Andres Bukid; 11 of them are headed by elected women.

Lay partners

Helping Daño in her ministry is a group of women called Good Shepherd lay partners. These lay partners help gather members of families affected by killings for media interviews. One of the interviewees, Amina Merced, lost her two adult sons and a brother to a police operation in January.

“I was told that two of them, my son Leo and my brother Bimbo were asleep, while Joshua, my other son, was taking a bath and was naked when shot,” she said. “Bimbo was mistaken as his brother Crisanto who was being hunted. I rushed back and found blood all over the wall in our house.” The police had taken their bodies to a funeral parlor that charges 66,000 pesos ($1,320) per body for funeral and burial services, she said, adding she had to borrow money for the burials even when the price was lowered.

The oft-repeated police reason for the killings is that the suspects “fought back,” but in most raids, usually at night, the target suspects are unarmed or even asleep. As to unknown assailants in vigilante-style killings, people can only speculate whether the hired killers are from the police or drug lords, who both want to silence their operators.

The women lay partners and volunteers assist with funerals and join protests. They undergo paralegal training so they can document cases, and help grieving families. They spoke about their first-hand experiences of the drug war, but for security purposes asked not to be identified by their real names. “Ely” says she has had to comfort mothers of those killed and grieves with them. “I am a mother, too,” she says. “Some nights it is hard to sleep when you hear little noises” that might signal a police raid nearby.

Sr. Regina Kuizon, provincial leader for the Philippines and Japan, and co-chair of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, is supportive of Sr. Nenet’s ministry. “Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, Sr. Nenet reaches out to the most in need and the victims of extrajudicial killings,” she said. “Undaunted, she speaks on their behalf and takes the risk to protect them. I pray for her and all those who are fearless to be on the side of the poor in our country.”