Himamaylan, Philippines – The dark evening air was pierced by the sound of an M16 gunshot. Then another. And another. In total, 53 bullet casings were found by police outside the bamboo and thatched wood house of Emelda Fausto and her husband, Roly, where they were killed on June 14 along with their children Ben, 14, and Ravin, 11.
Police and military claim the New People’s Army (NPA), an armed communist rebel group, killed the Faustos after learning that Roly, 52, was supposedly working with the military.
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But several relatives, including two of their surviving children, told Al Jazeera they believe the military is behind the killings. Emelda, 51, reported military harassment before her death, they said.
The police, military, and government officials are all looking for Emely Fausto, their eldest daughter. Her husband and father-in-law have been floated as potential suspects. Emely, however, insists they are innocent, and that her father was not a military asset.
“Our safety is in danger,” Emely told Al Jazeera. “We want some kind of protection.”
It’s the latest, and bloodiest, in a spree of killings on the central island of Negros that has revived memories of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos Sr, the father of current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
On May 3, Crispin Tingal, a farmer and peasant leader, was killed in a military operation in a rural area outside nearby Kabankalan. The military said Tingal was a member of the NPA.
But multiple family members and neighbours told Al Jazeera that Tingal had been “red-tagged“, or falsely labelled as having ties to the NPA and its political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Since Marcos Jr was sworn in on June 30, 2022, 24 farmers have been killed, according to the International Coalition on Human Rights in the Philippines, which attributes the killings to state forces.
Living in fear
Roly and Emelda knew the military was watching them.
The military had red-tagged the Baclayan-Bito-Cabagal Farmers and Farmworkers Association, their peasant organisation, for years.
Like many poor Negrenese farmers, the couple grew sustenance crops on idle land, a practice called “bungkalan” that state authorities have repeatedly called an act of “terrorism”.
During martial law under Marcos Sr, military forces and private armies hired by monopolistic landowners violently quashed land reform efforts. The government has failed to keep new promises of land reform in the years since, leading to the popularity of bungkalan farming and peasant unionisation efforts.
Negros has been a hotbed of peasant organisation ever since, and rural farmers are frequently red-tagged.
In 2018, then-President Rodrigo Duterte issued orders sending more troops to Negros and establishing an anti-communist task force, part of his promise to wipe out rebels by the following year.
The 94th Infantry Battalion, which operates in much of northern Negros, has been accused of numerous human rights violations in the years since, including bombing civilian areas and forcibly evacuating communities outside the city of Himamaylan.
In May 2022, the battalion brought Roly to a nearby encampment, where they put a handkerchief around his neck and asked him what he knew about the NPA.
“He was interrogated and tortured,” Emely Fausto said. “When he refused to answer, it was tightened to suffocate him.”
But when Roly was asked to report back to the encampment every two weeks, he refused. That was when things got worse.
In March, Emelda Fausto filed a report with the local government saying eight men in military uniforms had searched the home where she stayed, leaving her belongings scattered and spilling bags of rice and corn on the floor. Days later, men in civilian clothes searched her home again.
Emelda filed a second report in May, describing a third search. That month, a local radio programme run by the 94th Infantry Battalion also red-tagged Roly, accusing him of collaborating with the NPA.
“When she saw soldiers, she always got nervous,” Emely recalled of her mother’s final months. “It became traumatic.”
The same pattern of intensifying military pressure has preceded several other attacks on red-tagged civilians, including the killing of Negros activist Zara Alvarez in 2020 and the attempted murder of US citizen and activist Brandon Lee in 2019.
On the night of June 14, Emely recalls that one of her parents’ neighbours called her, saying he had heard gunshots. At around 11pm, Emely, a sibling and a neighbour entered the bamboo hut her parents called home. “I immediately saw my mother at the front door. She had gunshot wounds that broke her skull,” Emely said.
They then went inside the house, to the rear.
“I saw [Ravin] at the door of the kitchen,” she said, where he was hanging headfirst over the ledge, his white T-shirt drenched in blood. “He was swinging, half his body inside the house, half his body outside.”
Ben, her older brother, lay dead in his bedroom, his body wrapped in bloodied blankets.
When Emely returned to the family’s home the next day, military officers on the scene told her the Faustos had supported the NPA and given food to rebels who passed by.
“We thought then that the military is responsible,” she said.
A family traumatised
Crispin Tingal had also faced military pressure before his death.
Months earlier, in the early morning, armed men in military uniforms with patches reading “Scout Ranger” had searched the home of Tingal and his wife, Dolly – along with the homes of his brother, Ramon, and three other neighbours – accusing the families of supporting communist rebels.
“They said if we see [the] NPA, we’ll kill anyone in the house,” said Ramon, 36. “They said, ‘We can kill you in front of your wife. We don’t care.'”
On May 3, Crispin had just returned to his community of Hilamonan from the nearby city of Kabankalan, according to his wife, where he had been attending a conference on catfish farming.
That afternoon, Ramon was helping a group of students cross a stream near his home in the pouring rain when he saw the same soldier who searched his home in December. The Tingals believe the soldiers were searching for nearby NPA rebels. When they spotted Ramon, they accused him of being one.
“He said, ‘You’re still the one! Second time,’” Ramon recalled. He then pointed his gun and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed.
Ramon was forced to lie face down on the ground as the soldiers ordered the children to do popular TikTok dances in the heavy rain.
When they were released, Ramon walked by his brother’s home and saw Crispin, face down on the ground, with two armed soldiers pointing guns at him. “We heard his cries,” Ramon said. But the soldiers ordered them to keep walking.
“I thought, he’s still alive. He has no record. He’s active in government projects,” Dolly, 38, recalled thinking when Ramon told her what had happened. “I thought he’d be ok.”
As the group walked down the stream, gunfire rained down from the hill overlooking Crispin’s home. Crispin’s 11-year-old son ducked and covered his head.
“I was thinking my mother and father might be killed,” he said.
The next day, Dolly was called to a funeral parlour, where Crispin lay lifeless. She has been trying to piece together what happened ever since.
The military had descended from a grassy hill above their home, firing dozens of bullets into two homes belonging to the Tingal family. Ramon suspects that after failing to find NPA rebels, the military had to kill someone to show something for their efforts. “They spent too many bullets,” he speculated.
The 94th Infantry Battalion published a photo of Crispin holding an M16 rifle, with a backpack full of supplies strewn to his side. A single gunshot wound was visible in the middle of his back.
Dolly and Ramon Tingal say that while the man in the photo is Crispin, the rifle and backpack are not his.
“I don’t think [Tingal] was a member of the NPA,” said Lourdes Grande, a community official in Hilamonan. “He was very active in the Department of Social Welfare and Development activities provided by the city.”
The Faustos are no closer to finding justice.
Himamaylan police chief Reynante Jomomacan told reporters that investigators had determined the NPA was responsible for the killings.
Police have not cooperated with the country’s Commission on Human Rights in its attempts to investigate the murders, according to regional chief Vincent Pera. But police have begun identifying Emely Fausto’s husband and his father as primary suspects.
The Fausto children are hiding, fearful that they and their relatives will be arrested or forced to falsely surrender as NPA rebels.
When reached by Al Jazeera, a Himamaylan police official refused to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. The military also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I don’t believe Roly was a military asset,” said Arlene Entierro, a government official from the Faustos’ community of Buenavista. “He was a farmer. They were a poor family.”
Entierro said the military harassment the Faustos say they experienced is common in her community, and farmers like Emelda and Roly are “caught in the middle” of the military’s anti-communist operations.
“He didn’t want to get involved,” Emely said of her father, who she remembers for his kindness and willingness to share food, even when he had none. “He wanted to be a farmer.”