He is only 13 years old and we can call him Jaybe. He has no formal education, cannot read or write and is one of hundreds of thousands of lost children of the Philippine slums. His father left the family for another woman and abandoned him with his two brothers and a three-year-old sister, Jinna.
His mother helped them all survive as a street vendor selling rejected vegetables from the market to people as poor as she is to support the four children. The family of Jaybe lived, as millions still do, in dire poverty. Their home is a tiny room made of flattened tin cans in a small hovel in a crowded slum in Metro Manila. Nearby, a creek, black with dirt was giving off smells of feces and rotten eggs. The stink is a daily punishment for being alive and poor in the Philippines. They had no electricity or water. Jaybe stood for an hour daily with a plastic bucket to get water from a communal faucet.
The smell did not reach the towering condominiums of the wealthy elite that own or control the wealth of the nation. The soaring condos stood tall on the skyline, glittering in the night. Such wealth and prosperity were far from the wildest imaginations of Jaybe and his family.
The family was always hungry as were his brothers and his three-year-old sister Jinna. His only possessions were a dirty T-Shirt and cotton shorts. He went barefooted unless he found castaway flip-flops in the garbage dump.
Jaybe scavenged for junk behind supermarkets and earned a few pesos. He bought cheap overripe bananas that were turning as black as the filthy creek. The children hungrily devoured them while he guarded them against the slinky evil-looking men that hung around when the children were playing in the mud and their mother Janis, was outselling rejected vegetables from the market to people as poor as herself.
Janis bought pagpag for the family and brought it home in an old plastic biscuit box from which they all ate with their hands. Pagpag is the re-cooked leftover half-eaten food thrown out by the restaurants. It is survival food for the extremely poor.
Lolo Jojo was a neighbor of Jaybe. He was old, skinny, and emaciated. His sun-burnt gaunt face was marked by a life of poverty and human suffering. He was a pedicab driver. Every dawn, he walked on spidery legs to the edge of the slum and rented out the rickety pedicab from the owner.
He paid 250 pesos a day and heaved and peddled that rusting bike carrying two heavy passengers along the back streets of the city. It was exhausting work and he shared his meager earnings with his aging wife and a grandchild. He was a dying man.
One warm muggy evening, when Jaybe was waiting for his mother to arrive with the pagpag and hopefully a little rice, there was a sudden loud frightening sound of gunshots that drove everyone into the ghetto of clustered hovels.
Jaybe grabbed his brother and bundled them inside the hovel. “Where was Jinna?”He asked for she was missing. He ran out and saw three uniformed men with guns. More shots split the night, and cries were heard. He ducked back inside.
A loud voice was heard shouting in Tagalog “Don’t shoot, I am unarmed!”. More gunshots rang out. Voices were shouting and someone screamed. Then it was quiet, a car started, a siren whined loud and nervously, and the men drove away.
The dastardly deed was done, four bodies lay in the mud, dead, and among them Lolo Jojo. His eyes in hollowed sockets were staring into nothingness. His skeletal body sprawled at the door of his hovel. His disabled wife was crying. People emerged from hiding like frightened rabbits.
Further down the path was baby Jinna, three years old, blood all over her dress. Shot dead by a stray bullet during the police operation. Three dangerous criminals had been “neutralized”. “They fought back” a police report later said, as it always did. Was Lolo Jojo a dangerous criminal? And baby Jinna, why was she killed? Was Lolo JoJo taking “crystal meth” known as shabu? Possibly, but was he a drug courier, likely not. Being a mere suspect is enough to get the death penalty there in the slum. As many as 6,600 had died that way. Many more have died, says groups keeping count.
If Lolo Jojo was a shabu user, then it was his self-medication. He could have spent fifty pesos for a shot of shabu and that would boost him and give him the energy to peddle longer and earn an additional 200 pesos. He could work longer and earn a bit more, but no one ever knew, there was no possession, no evidence, no charge; he was just killed.
Jaybe ran to Jinna, he was crying, calling for help, but there was none. Then his mother arrived, she screamed in agony at the sight of her little child. There was no ambulance, no one cared. They were too poor for a hospital or an undertaker to make money out of them.
The lights were shining in the tall condos. There, the drug lords lived, with the rich elite, secure, safe, all living in luxury and untouchable. Below, in slum valley among the alleyways of darkness, a drug war was going on. There, one secretive group was eliminating the competition clearing the way for a new more powerful drug cartel and distribution network. For Lolo Jojo and baby Jinna, well, they were “collateral damage”, as one politician called it and said, “Shit happens”.