Brutality in the Philippines and a Conversation with Daniel Berehulak

02/08/2017 04:02 pm ET

"What happens when you write about something so important and nothing happens". That was my question.

"There will always be people who will be compelled to act. There will always be those who are affected, and who are affected and moved to action." These words spoken as a response were those of Daniel Berehulak, esteemed and seasoned photojournalist. We spoke via Skype about his recent piece for the New York Times (12/7/16), "They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals".

The point here is, Daniel feels, that even if it seems worthless to become a witness to cruelty and brutality, it is not. Either now or later as part of history, some people will protest and take action.

The turmoil in our country might make the Philippines seem beside the point. However, if you take a further look at the story, at the words and at the images--of the people-- you will not feel these people targeted are far away. You will not be able to.

Rodrigo Duterte is the President of the Philippines. He is proud to be like Hitler; just as Hitler massacred 3 million Jews (yes it was in fact 6 million) he would be happy to massacre three million drug addicts in the Philippines, to be their Hitler. He has said this and it is available on YouTube. I kid you not.

The subject of the piece I'm referring to is the violence wrought upon thousands of Filipinos in their leadership's unique version of a war on drugs. Police-driven and -enacted and applauded sudden invasions into households and killing people without trial in their living rooms, on the streets, is shocking. To me it is shocking and obviously to many others. But thus far it has been a source of pride for many Filipinos who seem to worship the toughness of someone who promises a country without drug use but who dangerously damns drug use as the central problem of all time.

I am shocked and stunned and saddened in advance as part of what I see as a world of disinterest. But Daniel's words ring: "There will always be those people who are affected, and who are affected and motivated to action. People get affected by images and pass them on. It's hard to quantify what a reaction might be." In fact his being haunted by the images and by the people has translated into the most feedback he has ever received on any story, from people across the globe who want to be of help.

Why, with all that he has covered, in war torn countries and the Ebola epidemic, has this tormented him in new ways? He said in part it was the anguish of those left behind, the cries of loved ones and families of those who were taken with no mercy and no money even for them to pay for a funeral.

He added, "This really felt different, like a breakdown of society, to have government-sanctioned killings that were relentless and happening every single day. It was so ruthless, because you had a leader who was openly bragging, who said if he had the time he would slaughter every one of them. These are the poorest of the poor who are being targeted. There was no understanding of this. If it was for the sake of fixing the drug problem, there has to be a better way than slaughtering people.

When you're addicted, you don't have a choice. This is about targeting people who don't know their rights and don't have money to hire lawyers. Police were shooting people dead in their living rooms. It was something I'd never seen before. Some of the population doesn't know this is going on. They have a leader who will make some change, who has come a long way. People believe he is free from corruption and that he is going to address the petty crime of the country. Duterte got a lot of world attention when he was rising to power. I was paying attention."

Daniel was paying attention. He kept paying attention after he got there, and stayed behind after bodies were carted away, to get to talk to those left behind. Filipino journalists had already been reporting on this butchering for months; they had been left exhausted, exhausted and discouraged because there was isolation and censorship. With increased collaboration among the journalists, with Daniel in the mix, there was more hope of being heard.

This, perhaps, can't be underestimated. The idea is that we need company in our daring to be witness. Solitary confinement as a journalist is not tenable. It has to be crazy making to be alone in the seeing of something so important and yet so belittled by so many.

It is easy to become distracted, cold, detached or overwhelmed. But ultimately it seems we can't afford to have that happen for too long, and that at least some of us are alive to the images and the sounds which Daniel was describing.

He said, "After a while you get desensitized to the scenes but what awakens you are the screams of family and loved ones that pierce anything. It's the pain you feel from others that spurs you on to keep going."

There is desperation in the Philippines. I hope that we here in America will be able to be of help to the people suffering there. I also hope we will find ways to make sure we don't lose our own press, our own freedoms--and that we gather our forces to better perceive how we can interrupt the terrible fears and divisions here at home.

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