Salvage | Inquirer Opinion
Method To Madness

Salvage

Under the bridge in E. Rodriguez Avenue, by the side of the river, a woman named Girly Bonza stands guard. Her legs are knee-deep in murky water. The home she watches is a tent propped on stilts. She is seven months pregnant, and she is worried about losing her bed. When the waters rise, so does her home.

Girly is a single mother to four boys and a baby girl. The children are in school, and they are good boys, smart boys. She has had three husbands, and knows that the child will be the last – she has learned not to look for love.

Every morning, she wades into the water and digs in the muck for the plastic bottles of soft drinks and mineral water that have washed into the river. Each bottle is cleaned carefully of soil and grit. They are more expensive this way, she says. She wades to her home, a small woman in a white dress whose neckline shows off the ample breasts of a heavily pregnant mother. The dress is a donation from the time a fire burned down the shanties.

On July 31, a demolition team will rip down the homes of several hundred families along the waterways of E. Rodriguez, and with just cause. The city government has recognized that shanties crowding waterways do not only endanger those who live in them, but also a city unable to manage the floods storming an already crowded metropolis.

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Girly says she will not be removed. The government has taken her and her neighbors on a long bus ride to Montalban to show them their new homes, and she says she would rather risk running from E. Rodriguez’s floodwaters than the landslides in Montalban. There will be no jobs there, no schools or hospitals or the possibility of digging for plastic in the muck. Residents once relocated to Montalban because of typhoon “Ondoy” have already made their way back to crowd E. Rodriguez and the slums of Marikina.

Today, the squatters of E. Rodriguez have a message for the city government. Girly is ready with her placards, and the women have readied the pots for the noise barrage.

On the day the demolishers come, Girly will be eight months pregnant. She will stand in her borrowed dress before the backhoe and the men with batons. She is not afraid, she says. She is strong. She is a mother.

She has already sent away the children. They might get hurt.

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Curfew begins at 10 p.m in the shantytowns of Navotas. A reminder is spray-painted on the wall of a police outpost – If you walk, you walk with God.

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The homes begin on the edge of a cemetery, where the dead are piled in layers like floors on an apartment building. A group of young boys plays basketball. The hoop has been nailed to a marker six feet above the ground, right over the date of birth.

Navotas is where 27-year-old fisherman Jerwin de Antonio used to live before he was killed on April 21 this year. De Antonio had been jailed for drug use when he was younger, and had spent the last years supporting his sisters and mother. His membership in activist group Anakbayan was still provisional on the night he was arrested. Although his death has been pegged as another activist execution, De Antonio only expressed interest in joining, but never had the time after long hours on the lake.

Karapatan’s report said that three policemen forced De Antonio into a patrol vehicle. He was beaten up, booked for vagrancy, and beaten again. Witnesses say the policemen told De Antonio to run and then gunshots were heard after which they were seen putting him inside a tricycle. He was declared dead on arrival at the Tondo General Hospital. He died of four bullet wounds. His sisters found his body in the morgue.

The three policemen were suspended after the initial clamor, but are now allegedly back on the streets. No cases have been filed.

A police report calls the shooting self-defense.

In the cemetery outside, the basketball has been stored inside an open tomb. A shrieking swordfight has begun among the smaller boys. The swords they clutch are dirty bones.

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Along Mother Ignacia Avenue, in a small room four feet square, a woman named Julie holds her week-old baby. The boy is her fourth, and they have yet to decide on a name. Her husband Joseph would like the boy named for himself, but Julie refuses. She says, smiling, that the boy might grow up into his father.

Three other toddlers crowd the room; two of them cling to Julie’s legs while another laughs with Joseph. Julie hikes up her shirt and cups her breast. Her stomach is covered with sores, her nipple is dark with infections. The baby begins to suckle.

This is a rare night for Julie and Joseph and their family. Most nights are spent along Panay Avenue, inside a blue van parked across a convent. They have lived in the van for years. Showers are rare for the couple, although the small children are bathed every two days. The van is crowded with old blankets and small toys, a pink Barbie backpack is hung on the place of honor. When typhoon “Falcon” flooded Panay Avenue, Julie wrapped her babies in blankets and rushed them up the church steps. Only her daughter’s schoolbag was saved when the water engulfed the old van.

In the weeks after, Julie and Joseph thought of adoption. Joseph said he would allow it, for as long as he never saw his child first. Julie said she couldn’t put another baby through the life she leads, especially after someone stole the pedicab Joseph used to make a living. His one dream is to be a janitor with a regular paycheck, but every time he is given a chance, employers discover he has no IDs, no money for an NBI clearance, and cannot read or write. It does not stop him from haunting the front offices of Quezon City buildings. Now he assists residents parking cars.

The night Julie gave birth on July 7, Joseph took her to the small shanty along Mother Ignacia, borrowed from a sympathetic squatter who said she could stay until the floods stopped coming. It was an easy birth, she said. One moment the baby was inside her, the next moment he was hers.

Joseph walked down Panay Avenue that day with a grin on his face, announcing to anyone who would listen that he had another son.

They will go home soon, they say. They will see what is left of their home. At least, says Julie, nobody can take her children away.

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Email to [email protected]. The writer thanks researchers Cris Bringas, Shayne Ruebe, Philip Manalang and Bea Bermundo, as well as Storyline ANC and Newsbreak Online for their support. “Julie will decide” can be viewed on Newsbreak.ph.

TAGS: demolition, Informal settlers, Poverty, squatters

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