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A mournful young boy

12:12 AM December 08, 2015

When I was a young priest I often visited the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in the Carmona Resettlement area. The sisters and I had failed to stop the eviction of poor people from the railroad tracks in Manila. The sisters followed up by moving with the people to Carmona. The Jesuits were not so decisive. I was just a visitor. The sisters were trying to create jobs, like dressmaking, for the people in Carmona.

The first hundred or so houses in the resettlement were spread out along the spine of a hill. It was dry, rocky ground and a terrible place for adults; it was far from work; there were no doctors or nurses; food prices were high. For children, however, who had lived in crowded slums, it was in many ways a wonderland of hills, streams and places to hide.

I was in my room after lunch about to lie down for a while when I heard people outside the door. I opened it to find a dozen or so children and a man carrying the body of a boy who seemed 10 or 11 years old. I stepped back and they came in and put the boy on my bed. You are the priest, the children seemed to say, here is our dead companion.

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I knelt down by the bed which was more of a cot than a regular bed. The boy’s clothes and skin were wet. The children told me they were playing in the stream at the bottom of a gorge nearby when they saw the boy face down in the water. They didn’t know what had happened to him.

I had read about the ways of helping people recover their ability to breathe, but I had never seen it actually done. I bent over the boy and tilted his head back to clear his throat. I put my finger in his mouth to free it of foreign matter. There was little there. Then I began breathing into the boy’s mouth. I could feel his chest rise and fall. Slowly, I told myself. I was breathing at about the rate I thought the boy would breathe. There was absolute silence in the room. I looked around and saw the children were breathing at the same rate. The little girls had their hands folded in prayer, just as the sisters taught them. Breathing like that can make you dizzy, so I stopped. I smiled for the children’s sake and started again.

I felt something stir in the boy’s chest. I tried to sustain that movement of life. I thought we were winning. I imagined myself telling the story to the other Jesuits that night, and then suddenly there was no more movement. I kept breathing until one of the sisters shook my shoulder. “He’s dead, Father. The boy’s dead.”

I saw myself as a foolish person who somehow thought God would work through him and do marvelous things. We couldn’t keep the people in Manila, and we couldn’t keep the boy alive. The children were crying, so I suggested we say prayers for Marlon, which was the boy’s name. We were praying when the boy’s mother and father came, together with two policemen. I told the mother her boy was with God. She merely nodded.

Then the mother lay down on the bed next to her boy and began to weep like a wounded animal. The father stood quietly by for some minutes, then helped his wife up and they went off with their boy and the police.

A little later I took the bus back to Manila. I blamed myself. I should have known better what to do. I blamed the colonel in charge of the relocation; it was still martial law. There were many doctors near the railroad tracks where the boy had lived. Anyone could have saved the boy. I blamed the government for its thoughtless behavior in sending poor people to this lonely, barren site. Here, seeds of life fall on rocky ground and die. There was no satisfaction in my criticism however.

Since Marlon died, 35 years ago, the government has sent (sentenced?) 300,000 families to distant resettlement camps. I don’t have an exact figure, but the National Housing Authority told me that 90,000 families were sent to such camps just from the North and South Railroad tracks in the years 2005-2009. The figure 300,000 is most probably an underestimation. Two-thirds of that number were poor children shipped to mediocre schools, malnourishing diets and a world of defeatism.

Poor children are God’s special love. We have much to be sorry for.

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Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).

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TAGS: column, Denis Murphy, Government, resettlement areas
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