Misery in Manila, June 2002
by Gregg

After two weeks in Manila, I was heading south the next day. I'd met Sunshine for lunch and she'd mentioned something about how the night before some squatter homes had been demolished by the authorities -- in her neighborhood. But we didn't have much time and I didn't get the details.

In the evening I was due at her place - her seven year old daughter was in a procession and I was invited. The taxi dropped me on the main road and I ducked into the alley that lead to her barrio. Suddenly something felt wrong. Had I gone the wrong way? Then it hit me, my god, all those houses are gone.

Wood planks and corrugated metal littered the ground. Exposed to the darkening skies, a chair stood here, a refrigerator there. Not much actually as these had been simple dwellings. Homes nonetheless. 35 families in 35 homes. Some had been built of concrete and had been there ten years or more.

These were Sunny's neighbors. She lives in the neighborhood she grew up in and to which she returned when she started her own family. Her parents were squatters here too, in their day.

Later, after the procession, I went with Sunny's husband to a gathering that had formed in the area of the demolished houses. A program was underway organized by activist students from the nearby university. They had a megaphone and a sound system. Kids were doing dance routines for the small crowd. Earlier this had been a demonstration of social activism. Now it was fun time. Time for folks to get their minds off the fact that they no longer had a roof over their heads.

We wandered about, tripping in the dark over the remnants of the houses. Talking with an organizer from an NGO - very bitter. He was keeping a vigil, cooking rice. And then I met one of the families. At fourteen members this family was the largest. The kids were sprawled out on a board under the stars. The adults sat on a few pieces of furniture with no walls around.

This family posed for a photo. Excitedly. Smiling. Proud, despite their circumstance, to be photographed by an American.

I returned to Manila a week later and again was having lunch with Sunshine. "There's a follow up story", she told me. "About the family whose picture you took." The family had a six year old son. The day after I'd been there, and two days after the houses had been torn down, the child had fallen and hit his head. He'd seemed okay afterwards but a week later he died.

I thought of the disarray of the demolished homes; of the rudimentary bridges across the creek that had also been destroyed. I though of the photo I'd taken and wondered if the child on his mother's lap was the one who was now gone.

Again I left town and so I wasn't back in Sunshine's neighborhood until another week later. The story had changed. The child had stepped on a nail and subsequently developed a fever. And it wasn't a son but rather a daughter.

A third version didn't mention a fall or a nail in the foot. The girl had had nightmares and trouble sleeping in the days following the demolition of her home. She'd developed a fever and died.

I showed Sunshine the photo. She pointed out the girl. The one with the biggest smile of all.

We went over to show the family. They were still squatting on the land. Starting with a couple of shacks constructed for the funeral, the area was full once again with simple structures.

The girl's mother had an aura of sadness around her but greeted me warmly. The extended family gathered around and waited expectantly as my laptop booted; pulling in closer as the photo graced the screen.

copyright ©2002 - Gregg Butensky

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