• FEATURE

    Drug users live a new life in Ifugao

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    KIANGAN, Ifugao: No drug user has died here in the past 11 months, a stark contrast to the plight of drug dependents in other parts of the country who got killed almost everyday either by police or unidentified gunmen sometimes in front of their families or even while they were asleep.

    Drug users in these cool mountains are rehabilitated and become productive citizens, through an unconventional rehabilitation program which is a joint initiative of the barangay (village), municipal and provincial governments with the communities galvanized by the longstanding Ifugao tradition of giving a high regard for a clan member’s welfare.

    “Assuming that the police killed a drug user, the family of the drug user will not think of the shooter as a member of the PNP. The family will see someone who belongs to a certain clan [who killed their clan member]. It will spark a clan war. It’s like courting your own demise,” Roscoe Kalaw, Ifugao’s supervising tourism operations officer said.

    The users’ second life starts with the Ifugao Rehabilitation Center (IRC) adopting a camping-style reformation program where drug users stay in the IRC camp for six days and go back to their families for three weeks armed with an action plan.

    DRUG-FREE Von Puguon (left) and Noel Balachawe (right) with fellow IRC camper and graduate outside one of their tents. PHOTO BY LLANESCA T. PANTI

    Once the three weeks are over, the dependents now called IRC campers, should have accomplished their action plan – to stop taking drugs or improve their relationship with family members. Thereafter, they will have to return to the IRC camp for six days straight, and the cycle is repeated for six months.

    The IRC campers stay in tents like scouts. Following a strict health and spiritual regimen on top of lectures on the effects of illegal drugs, getting rid of the bad habit, as well as managing their anger and stress.

    The campers only eat meat or chicken three times a week since their detox diet consists of root crops, boiled banana, vegetables, rice and lemongrass iced tea. IRC campers are not allowed to smoke, chew moma (a local concoction) or accept food from well-wishers.

    The cost of the IRC campers’ uniform, beddings, food and session lecturers are shouldered by the local governments while they bring their own toiletries.

    Personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology guard the IRC camp.

    There is also a medical doctor on call for 24 hours a day to look after the campers who also undergo a weekly check up.

    “We use tents for their rehabilitation facility because we want the participants to feel that they are just out camping, learning something new, instead of being detained. Their families are required to fetch them during their break and bring them back here. That’s a requirement because we want the family support to be intact,” Joyce Niwane of the Provincial Anti Drug Abuse Council told The Manila Times.

    Niwane said the drug users were drawn to shabu either to fight fatigue over farm work, to deal with family problems, due to peer pressure, or plain curiosity.

    “After their graduation, there’s Phase 2 for livelihood training, and so our graduates end up getting employed as traffic enforcers, farming, one even grew ornamental plants to sell. Initially, of course, there were some who resisted because they thought being in rehab is as good as having them killed. But words spread around that IRC is effective, and so it drew the drug users to come in,” Niwane added.

    Government employee Noel Balachawe and farmer Von Mason Puguon are two of the 109 former drug users and traffickers who benefited from the IRC program.

    Balachawe, 49, revealed he was one of those who used drugs because of peer pressure. His friends told him that shabu prevents a person from getting drunk. Being a college graduate (he has a criminology degree) who works in the municipal hall and with a poultry farm on the side, Balachawe said his friends often turn to him to sell shabu having more financial resources than his farmer peers.

    He later sold drugs to finance his shabu fix, but it only made it worse because he tended to be generous and just gave shabu for free. With his money running out, he sold his two SUV vehicles for a pittance and just settled for a tricycle.

    “The police told us that we need to be in IRC so our names will be delisted from the watch list. I did not think twice about getting into rehab because I was being neglectful of my wife and three children because of drugs. Also, I can’t take care of our poultry farm anymore,” he said.

    ‘We could have died’
    “I came here to IRC thinking I am not an addict. IRC is really a big help. If not for it, we may have ended up dead like what is happening in other provinces,” Balachawe said.

    “In IRC, we learned about the effects of drugs, we engaged in physical activities, shared experiences, but of all of our activities, what struck me was the story of the prodigal son. I have come to accept my failures. I repented for my sins. I realized I was wrong and I opened my heart to God,” he added, referring to a Biblical story.

    Puguon, 30, used shabu so he can work in the farm longer hours to tend to his plantation of cabbage, tomatoes and chili.

    “I used shabu so that I won’t feel tired from farming. When I take shabu, my farming speed is doubled. It’s efficient. Instead of finishing 10 plots, I am able to do 20 plots. I did drugs for a year,” said Puguon, whose wife works in Saudi Arabia as domestic helper so they can have a bigger house.

    Like Balachawe, using shabu drained Puguon’s pockets and prompted him to sell his belongings. He pawned his mobile phone 10 times for shabu money and eventually sold his high-end mobile phone for a pittance.

    “I almost returned to using drugs during the second week of rehab, but I managed to fight it. Being in the IRC also led me to God. Now, I feel better. Sometimes, I think, if I continued using drugs, I would have been dead by now,” Puguon added.

    New life
    Aside from being an LGU employee, Balachawe and his wife now run a small videoke bar which operates from 5 to 9 p.m.

    “After our IRC graduation, I was able to return home and work as a traffic enforcer. I am thankful to our mayor. I earn P300 a day,” Puguon said.

    The successful journey of shabu users to being drug free, however, is more than the inclusive drug rehabilitation program. The time-honored Ifugao tradition of looking after their clan members is so strong that policemen do not conduct anti-drug operations with out the barangay officials.

    Ifugao Provincial Planning Officer Carmelita Buyuccan said least 603 drug dependents have voluntarily surrendered to authorities since July 2016. Of this, 109 from two batches already graduated and rest of the surrenderers will be joining the IRC camp in succeeding batches because the camp can only accommodate a certain number.

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