David Remnick: These are very hard times for democracy and for democracies all over the world. If you look around the globe, you'll find plenty of evidence for that. Of the many authoritarian rulers who rose to power in recent years, perhaps none embraced violence as gleefully as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Like Donald Trump, Duterte liked to joke about hurting people, except he wasn't really joking. Duterte said he would execute criminals without an arrest or a trial. If someone was suspected of being a drug dealer or even a drug user, he would have them executed right on the street. The first such killings happened within a day of his inauguration.
Officially, the Philippines says that about 6,000 people were killed under Duterte's regime, but the number is almost certainly higher. Maybe the most horrifying of all, this was done by a leader who won an election in 2016 on the promise of murder.
Patricia Evangelista: To believe in Rodrigo Duterte, you had to believe he was a killer, or that he wasn't joking when he said he was a killer. You had to believe in the specter of a Narco-state or you had to believe he was only playing to the crowd. You had to believe drug addiction is criminal, that drug addicts are not human, and that their massacre can be considered acceptable public policy.
David Remnick: Patricia Evangelista documented the violence for the news site Rappler in the Philippines.
Patricia Evangelista: You had to believe the intended dead would be drug lords and rapists, only drug lords and rapists, and not your cousins who go off into Liguasan Marsh to pick up their bags of meth. You had to believe there would be a warning before the gunshots ring out. To believe in Rodrigue Duterte, you had to believe he was just. You had to believe he was honest. You had to believe he was untainted by the oligarchy and beholden to no one. You had to believe he was your father, you had to believe he was your savior. You had to believe he loved you, because you love him enough to carry his name.
David Remnick: Evangelista was based until recently in Manila, and she's just published the remarkable book, Some People Need Killing, which to my mind is an astonishing chronicle of a reign of terror, and it's put Evangelista herself in enormous danger. Let's start with you. You were a staff writer at a newspaper in the Philippines that has a reputation for, I would say, intense independence and rare independence. Tell me how your career started.
Patricia Evangelista: Well, I've been a trauma journalist for more than a decade. It means I go to places where people die. I pack my bags, I interview the survivors, I file my stories, and then I go home to wait for the next catastrophe. I don't wait very long. For most of the time I spent as an investigative reporter for Rappler, I did the same for them. In 2016, a man named Rodrigo Duterte ran for the presidency of the Philippines. He ran on a platform of death, and that's not an exaggeration. He promised that the fish would feed fat on the corpses of criminals. He said morticians would grow rich with a deluge of dead. He said that if your neighbor's child is an addict, kill them yourselves. It would be a kindness to their parents. Duterte won.
David Remnick: What was the context in which he was running for office in 2016? There's not a country I can think of without a drug addiction problem, without a drug trafficking problem to go along with it. What was he running against and why?
Patricia Evangelista: Well, when he ran, things were generally stable, so to speak, but what was necessary was to create a specter that he could run against. The Philippines has a drug problem, as most countries do, but comparative studies will demonstrate that we have less than half the global average, but that wasn't the picture Duterte painted. What he painted was a picture of drug dealers leaving the country in shambles, that every drug addict was schizophrenic, hallucinatory, will rape your mother and butcher your father, and if he can't find a child to rape, he'll rape a goat. He said, if you don't believe him, if you don't believe how terrible they are, he will give you the drugs himself. Feed it to your children and watch them become monsters.
David Remnick: Now, he was elected in 2016, not a good year for democracy.
Patricia Evangelista: Not quite.
David Remnick: How would you compare Duterte to Donald Trump?
Patricia Evangelista: Well, certainly they make promises, but there are charismatic men all over the world who will make promises, who will say outrageous things, and people will laugh, and they will draw crowds, and sometimes it's funny. Then they say more terrible things, "Kill the drug addicts."
Rodrigo Duterte: It could never be a crime to say that I will kill you if you destroy my country. That is a very legitimate statement.
Patricia Evangelista: People will find maybe that's a little acceptable because they make my life terrible. Then later, they'll say, "Kill the activists, and then kill the journalists, and kill whoever it is." Are they similar men? Certainly in that they liked the outrageous, and they liked the applause and certainly they know how to entertain a crowd. Perhaps one of the differences is that Duterte keeps his promise. Not all of them. He didn't end drugs in the Philippines or criminality or corruption, but he said kill them all, and people died.
David Remnick: "Kill them all," he said. This is a quote, "Kill them all." It resounds through your book like a ghostly chorus. You use the phrase drug pusher in the book, but this also includes a number of people, including drug users.
Patricia Evangelista: Yes. In Filipino, Duterte calls them 'drugistas', meaning drug dealers, drug users, and junkies, anything essentially. He calls them when you're into drugs. It can be any sort of association, sometimes even refers to people who wants to protect individuals who are castigated for using drugs.
David Remnick: Now, tell me about Rappler, the publication you were writing for. Maria Ressa is the famous editor of it, and co-winner of the Nobel Prize. She has been on this show. Did extraordinary work. Tell me about how you started working on the Duterte regime's brutality. What your day-to-day life was like, and what kind of danger you were in day-to-day?
Patricia Evangelista: What was good about working for Rappler was that there was no editor who said, "Step back, it's dangerous." Maria was something like a lightning rod. When the government was angry, they directed the anger at her. Those of us on the field had the freedom to cover what we needed to cover. We were small-staffed, we had very few resources. We had two cars.
David Remnick: Two cars?
Patricia Evangelista: Two cars.
David Remnick: How many people on the staff?
Patricia Evangelista: For reporters, less than 20.
David Remnick: Tiny.
Patricia Evangelista: Tiny. To your question, why I started or how I started covering the drug war, a lot of us saw it coming. Early on, I was doing analysis for Rappler, looking at the narratives that the presidential candidates were using to sell themselves. There was a story, the final story I wrote before the election, it was called 'The Rapture of Rodrigo Duterte'. I thought I went terribly purple on that piece. The final line was, "The streets will run red if Rodrigo Duterte is elected." I regretted that line because I thought it was too dramatic. Then I was standing by the side of a road and there was somebody on the ground. I stepped over the gutter and the blood ran red over my boots. Then I understood, the only way I could survive that on a daily basis was that at the height of the drug war, when there were corpses every night--
David Remnick: On the streets of Manila.
Patricia Evangelista: On the streets of Manila. Then the night shift and I, a group of very talented photographers and writers from from everywhere, we would go body to body, crime scene to crime scene. At the height of the killings when there were so many, I would ask the same questions every night, "Was it a body dump? Was it a salvaging? Was it a by-bus? Was it a drive-by?"
David Remnick: Police reporting.
Patricia Evangelista: Police reporting, essentially. "Was the killer a cop or a vigilante? Were the hands bound? Was the head wrapped in tape? Was the body stuffed in a bag? Was there a gun on the ground," that sort of thing? Then, you learn to develop a better checklist so you don't miss anything. Then, and this is the new thing, you learn to stand still and listen for the screaming. That's when you find out who the family is. Then you go up to them, you apologize, you condole. You keep your voice low. You ask simple questions. "What was his name? When did you last see him? How did you know he was gone." Mostly, what they ask was, tell me a story, tell me your story, and then tell me what happened next. The methodology was important to me because it kept me on the scene in my mind. I would test it every time. If I could close my eyes, and see the room or the highway or the alley in 360 degrees, know where the bullet came in, how the light pitched through the window if there was a window, know the bikini briefs or red and white polka dots, then it meant I could go home, and I could live it in my head, so I could tell the story again.
David Remnick: What's the effect on you to do this night after night after night?
Patricia Evangelista: I knew this question was coming, I still don't have an answer. Usually, the question people ask is how do you survive it? I have a pretty good answer for that. It's caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, but that's the throwaway line.
David Remnick: That's the glib version.
Patricia Evangelista: That's the glib version, the not-so-glib version is that it is very hard to keep my universe in place, in that I appear to be a functioning member of society, in that when I was filing stories, I was delivering the word count, and I could lie perfectly well when I couldn't, but you pay for it. You pay for what you do. I think the best explanation was something some war correspondent said before that, you're not a camera, in that you take all of this in. I take all of this in.
I live with it every day, every story, every interview I never published lives in my head. They play back at 3:00 AM in the morning. Then every phone call from an unknown number, I think someone's going to tell me someone's dead, and it's because of something I wrote. You can't explain why the nightmares play out the way they do, and you can't explain why sometimes you just sit there, and then your brain goes in a loop and the loop doesn't stop. To get that book out, I'm hoping the loop may stop a little bit.
David Remnick: Do you think the writing of it may in some way end your nightly nightmares and purge them?
Patricia Evangelista: [chuckles] No. I made a mistake. I thought if I took a break from the night reporting and wrote a book, maybe that was a safer place for my head.
David Remnick: Or it may have just clarified the story.
Patricia Evangelista: It clarifies the stories, and maybe it was good because I didn't intend to write this book in first person. This was meant to be a reportorial book, third person, "Here are the dead, here's what happened. Here's who's responsible," but I understood through the process, I had to take accountability, that all this whole dramatic, "I am an objective reporter, I write in the third person," that's not the moral high ground. That's a failure of nerve, because I can tell you the worst of all of this. It's that I go to cover a story, and there's your blood in the ground. There's all of that and I'm used to that.
It's the aftermath of going to Starbucks and getting a cappuccino, because I can go to Starbucks and get a cappuccino. I know two blocks down some family can't even afford the coffin to bury the kid, but you have to divide your brain, because if you help one family, it means you bought the story. I feel like I'm making moral judgments every step of the way, and if I stray out of the way just one bit, I won't have control. This is why I'm terribly inarticulate about all of this. I try not to think about it, and I hang on by my fingertips.
David Remnick: Pat, you wrote these stories again and again and again, as did your colleagues, and yet the drug war, to use Duterte's phrase for this kind of murderous extra-legal ongoing assault, was popular. Describe the popularity of it and why.
Patricia Evangelista: Yes. What Rodrigo Duterte did was he told a story. He started with language. I know we spoke of this earlier in that I promise not to deploy profanity during your interview. I find it very odd to sit in a polite setting, expected to be polite-
David Remnick: Don't be.
Patricia Evangelista: -speaking about the man who decided to break language.
Rodrigo Duterte: You can go to hell. Mr. Obama, you can go to hell. EU, better choose purgatory.
Patricia Evangelista: A large part of the fact-checking of the book is to discover the nuances of when he said 'putang ina' in Filipino, did he mean 'motherfucker' or 'son of a bitch'?
David Remnick: This is on national broadcasts, major speeches.
Patricia Evangelista: This is a national broadcast. Generally, regardless of which culture you're from, a public figure, a politician, a head of state, is not expected to deploy profanity in public speeches, and he said, "Fuck that." He said Barack Obama was a son of a bitch. He said the Pope was a son of a bitch. Many people, many institutions were sons of bitches; the European Union, the United States, journalists, the United Nations, activists, drug dealers, everyone.
David Remnick: He, like Donald Trump, discovered that had enormous connective appeal.
Patricia Evangelista: Precisely, and he said many things that other presidents never said before. He said he would kill 100,000 criminals when he's elected. He said he wanted to rape an Australian missionary, except he couldn't because she was dead by the time he showed up.
David Remnick: He said, I believe, he wanted to be the first one there.
Patricia Evangelista: Yes, he said journalists are legitimate targets of assassination. He said he killed cops, he killed kidnappers, he killed--
David Remnick: He himself. He personalized it.
Patricia Evangelista: He himself. He used that language. Then he would say, "Sometimes I only killed 3, or 300, or 1,000." It doesn't matter because listen to the language. "I killed. I shot. I saved. I ordered, I. I, Rodrigo Duterte." It's that sort of mythology that exploded. Rodrigo Duterte, the one who will save us all.
David Remnick: What did you learn about your fellow Philippine citizens? What did you learn about your own country that you didn't know before? We ask ourselves this, where Donald Trump is concerned, it wasn't that Donald Trump came in and it was a conservative beating a liberal. It was something else. We learned things about the state of the country, the division of the country, what people feel, what they're reacting to, and not all of it is pretty.
Patricia Evangelista: I learned that in as much as Duterte made himself the every man, it meant every man could be Duterte if they wanted. Duterte may have provided the language, he provided the vernacular, he provided the narrative, but we wanted it to. We decided some people didn't deserve to live.
David Remnick: What effect has this had on the country as a whole? You write these stories, and what effect did this have on the populace?
Patricia Evangelista: I hesitate to use the word trauma because I'm told this is a word that is overused in general, but we're a traumatized nation. The trouble is, in the aftermath, after six years of Duterte, we elected the son of another dictator. We elected Duterte's daughter. It's the dictator's son with the punisher's daughter.
David Remnick: Bongbong.
Patricia Evangelista: Bongbong Marcos. There's no accountability there. There's no reckoning. If you don't know there are wounds, you can't fix things. There are many children and many generations of people who will continue to believe that some people, because of some failure of virtue, or some sickness, or whatever any politicians say, some people did not deserve to live.
David Remnick: Now, how long has it been since you left the Philippines?
Patricia Evangelista: Give or take, a few months. It was recommended that it was in my best interest.
David Remnick: What does that mean?
Patricia Evangelista: It means we don't know the risk of having released this book.
David Remnick: Do you think you'll go back?
Patricia Evangelista: Yes, absolutely. When I'll go back, it's not certain, but I have to go back. In that, it's not that moral patriotism or anything. That's my home. The story is ongoing. It's not over, people are still dying on the streets. Journalists have been shopping in Manila, and there are many other stories that have to be told about my country. I'm a field reporter. That's where I belong and I'm also formerly Catholic. I own the guilt. How can I sit in New York when the people whose stories I told, who took the risk to tell me their stories, are sitting in shanties across the country and might be at risk because of things they told me?
David Remnick: In the book, you describe yourself as a citizen of a nation I cannot recognize as my own. Do you still feel that way?
Patricia Evangelista: Yes, but in a more nuanced fashion in that I am Filipino. I take accountability for the choices we made. We voted for Duterte. I may not have, but that's under my watch as well. I refuse to believe this is the only possibility for my country. I don't think this is the only future possible for us. Do I believe that journalism is the way forward? I don't know, because I have learned after many years to negotiate my expectations as a journalist. If I believed my story saved lives or changed things, I would've stopped working. I wouldn't have been able to get up in the morning. Now, all I believe is my job is to keep a record, and that's it. If someday that record is necessary, then it's out there.
David Remnick: You don't think your stories changed anything?
Patricia Evangelista: No. No. Maybe, I don't know. I hope, if nothing else, because if journalism doesn't save the world and it doesn't, we both know that. I would like to have honored the people who risked their lives to tell their stories. They didn't have to talk to me, and they did. They are living examples of what happens when autocrats and dictators rise and we let them.
David Remnick: Patricia Evangelista, thank you so much.
Patricia Evangelista: Thank you.
David Remnick: Patricia Evangelista's new book is called Some People Need Killing.
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