Hometown of Jastine Valdez prepares for her funeral

Shock, grief and many unanswered questions abound in Jastine’s home town of Aritao

 

Aritao is a town like thousands of others in the northern Philippines. Just 37,000 people live in the impoverished municipality and at times it seems like all of them knew Jastine Valdez, the 24-year-old woman abducted and murdered in Enniskerry last month, whose remains are now back in her home town.

The word you hear most often is “shock”. Even people who speak very little English in Aritao know the word. It’s a small community, very tight with one another. And, just like Jastine’s own family, the townspeople are trying to process what happened.

Gina Ambros owns a general store across the road from Jastine’s school, St Teresita’s Academy in Aritao. The shop is packed with merchandise, selling everything from drinks and sweets and prawn crackers to SIM cards and washing basins.

“I knew her. Jas was a very popular girl, everyone was very sad about it. She used to come in to the shop with all the other teenage girls from St Teresita’s Academy. They would come in before they go to school,” she said.

Social media

Jastine went missing on May 19th, and her body was found two days later in undergrowth in Rathmichael. The whole town followed the case closely on social media.

“The whole town was very shocked,” said Nizza Jane Fernando, who didn’t know her well, but was also upset when she heard the news.

There is little sign of any particular hostility to Ireland. When people heard that her killer, 40-year-old Mark Hennessy from Ballybrack in Co Dublin, was shot dead by a garda the next day in Carrickmines, there was general approval. This is, after all, a country where popular tough-guy president Rodrigo Duterte has waged a campaign against drugs which has seen thousands of suspected drug dealers and users shot by death squads without trial. Summary justice is not necessarily a problem here.

However, people have questions about what happened. Some have expressed concern that Hennessy had been shot before the body had been located.

The Garda have not established any previous connection between the victim and her killer, and this aspect is baffling for the townspeople. The randomness of this act of savagery has left people puzzled.

Aritao is a poor town, mostly agricultural, with farmers growing rice and onions. The most common form of transport is scooter or motorbikes with sidecar welded on.

Elaborately decorated chrome-bedecked Jeepneys, which are a modified form of Jeep that serve as both a bus and a community service all over the Philippines, chug up and down the streets of the town.

One of those Jeepneys has the name Jeryl across the top of the windscreen. Jastine’s nickname from her aunt Florida was Jeryl, and her uncle named his Jeepney Jeryl after her. She was the first niece in the family.

While Jastine Valdez is home, she is not at rest yet.

Funeral

The funeral had been set for Saturday but has been delayed as the family await the arrival of other members from Singapore and Italy. It could be delayed until June 29th, which is Jastine’s birthday.

You can see how tight the community is in hundreds of well-wishers trailing into the family home to view the body lying in an open casket.

“We live from our crops here, rice mostly,” said John Estrada, who owns a noodle shop in the town. He was a schoolmate of Jastine’s at St Teresita’s Academy.

“This is a small community, everybody pretty much knows each other. Many people knew she had gone to Ireland. We found out through our friends, but many found out the news through online portals,” he said.

Like Ireland, emigration for work is engrained in the social fabric. Jastine’s family are spread out all over the world. The fact they are spread all over the world is one reason why her funeral is being delayed.

The treatment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) is a sensitive issue. People are the Philippines’ biggest export and the remittances from people working abroad are vital to the economy, making up 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

About 10 per cent of the Philippines’ 100 million people work overseas and the OFWs are treated as heroes because of the contribution they make, sending home around €1 billion a month.

Religion

Ireland, like the rest of western Europe, is seen as a safe destination and it has the added bonus that many Irish people are Catholics.

This means a lot in the Philippines, which is a deeply religious place. Signs on the approach to the town say “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and there are many churches and crosses dotted through the countryside. Most are Catholic but there are also many evangelical Christian churches. Mosques are not common in the north of the Philippines.

Ireland’s decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment was greeted with dismay. The fact it coincided with Jastine Valdez’s abduction and murder meant Ireland was very much in the news in the Philippines late last month.

On the Facebook page for St Teresita’s Academy alumni and friends, which has a post on the repeal vote saying “How sad that Ireland is rejoicing that it can now kill babies,” the last post related to Jastine Valdez is “Another Filipina abducted and killed in Ireland. Justice for our kababayan [fellow citizen].”

Inside the school, groups of teenagers are hanging around, some skateboarding, some playing volleyball, while others are taking advantage of the weekend quiet to study in the shade of the giant trees overhanging the schoolyard.

“I heard about it on Facebook. The principal was very shocked when she heard one of her students lost her life,” said Aaron Cabradilla, who is 15, and going into grade 11.

A group of students taking shelter from a sudden rain shower also told of their shock.

“Why did he do it? Do you know why the man killed Jastine?” asked one young girl.