BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homeless -- New Internationalist

Homeless -- New Internationalist

Month-old babies are gasping for air. The mothers are hysterical. An old woman has collapsed. And another. Men are coughing non-stop. The intoxicating smoke of tear gas fills the place. Their eyes are red because of the harmful chemical; their clothes are drenched by the fury of the water canon.

Used bottles, rocks, stones and pieces of wood are flying in the air, thrown by members of the demolition team at the defiant urban poor community. There are snipers positioned on top of a nearby building. A half-naked 12-year-old boy, thin, helpless and lanky, is black and blue, beaten by the dispersing authorities.

In seconds, the violent dispersal is over and the demolition starts. Men in green shirts victoriously tear into pieces the slabs of wood of these makeshift shanties.

The residents are forced to leave. They have no time to pack their things, as if a wild fire has ripped through their houses.

Welcome to Barangay Corazon de Jesus (‘The heart of Jesus’) in the city of San Juan in the eastern part of the capital region. It is a city governed by the son of former Philippine president Joseph Estrada, the actor-turned-politician who has been trumpeting a pro-poor agenda.

Yesterday, 25 January 2011, even before the roosters woke up and the sun came out, residents of this poor urban community braced for a throng of gun-wielding police officers who warned them that their homes would be demolished.

Photo by Jes Aznar.

For several months now, the police have repeatedly said that each and every house in the community would be torn down completely because the city mayor wants to build a new municipal hall on the site.

But the residents stood their ground because the three-hectare lot had been awarded to them by previous administrations. They put whatever iron sheets and wooden panels they could find as a barricade to close the streets and protect their homes.

Home to them is a labyrinthine community of tattered shelters and crudely built shanties. It is an informal dwelling for some 8,000 people, most of whom do not have decent-paying jobs.

April Nuyda, 18 years old, like many of her neighbours did not go to school yesterday or the day before, because she wanted to protect her family’s only home when the police came. April dreams of becoming a teacher when she graduates, but today such dreams are far from her mind. All she can think of is the impending dispersal.

In a show of force, the men, women and children of Corazon de Jesus formed a human barrier. For hours until the police came, they banged their pots and pans in protest.

Photo by Jes Aznar.

The police did come, as expected. And they came like a storm – swift, strong, ruthless and unstoppable.

The dispersal became violent, and the demolition team showed no mercy. A thick blanket of tear gas smoke filled the place, drowning the wails of helpless infants and children who could barely breathe.

In seconds, bloodied men and women dispersed and ran in all directions for safety. The demolition team proceeded to tear down their homes.

When the mayhem subsided, each and every resident unwillingly walked out of the community, their heads bowed in hopelessness, their eyes red from tear gas.

Photo by Jes Aznar.

And so tonight, under a glistening moon, the evicted residents of Barangay Corazon de Jesus will be sleeping on the cold pavement in nearby streets or communities because the mayor they voted for wants to build a new municipal hall in the lot where they had built their homes.

Because the same mayor is the son of a former Philippine president who claimed to be pro-poor; because the government could not provide them gainful employment opportunities so they could afford homes of their own; because the relocation site assigned to them is far-flung and isolated.

And simply because a ruthless team of gun-wielding police officers demolished their homes and snatched what little hope they had for a better life.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Soothing Powers of Water - TH!NK ABOUT IT

The Soothing Powers of Water - TH!NK ABOUT IT

As with my fellow bloggers here, I am excited about the many, many things to write about water. In my country, the Philippines, the list of issues on water is endless. There's the problem of urban development as highlighted in World Water Day 2011, sanitation, migration, climate change, environmental degradation, supply and costs. Indeed, as TH!NK 5 editor Hanna Mclean noted in her TH!NKspiration post, there's also the issues of the politics of water.
Then of course, there's also the soothing and healing powers of water. Who can deny this? Who can discount this? So allow me the pleasure of writing about the magical powers of water. I am sure that at one point in our lives all of us have turned into water as a refuge or oasis for our tired and weary souls.
The music of a flowing river or the intensity of waterfalls is magical. The first drop of rain after a long drought or summer is heavenly, as heavenly perhaps as a warm bath after a tired and exhausting day.
Water, oh water. Whose hearts can survive without experiencing its magical prowess?


It is 1:30 am, an hour when most of the world is already in slumber.  Jes and I drive to 10th avenue, Caloocan to attend the wake of Ed Manalo's brother. The heavy rains all night have just subsided. We reach the street. There is a black cloth bearing the name of the funeral service company. At this godly hour, men, women and children are still wide awake -- drinking coffee, drinking gin and whisky, playing cards and what-have-you. 

Ed's brother is a kapitan. His colleagues and all those he helped are in mourning. He left behind grown up children and a teenage daughter. The mother of the children is in tears. She is wearing a white shirt. Ed's brother succumbed to cancer. In between sips of whisky, Ed shares vignettes about the place, the life of his brother, friends who lived in the maze-like interior and years and years of living. 

Ana warns Ed to take it easy with his drinking and smoking. Life is short, Ed replies, so better enjoy it. 

It's time for us to leave. We say goodbye. The relatives offer to lead us out. "Bawal maghatid," I say, referring to the Filipino tradition. 

It is almost 4 am. In a few hours, the roosters will be crowing and the sun will be out and it will be another day to live and survive. It can be another day to be with our loved ones and to enjoy each moment with them. It can be another day to fulfill one's dreams and to confront one's nightmares; to wake up happy and to be thankful for all the blessings; to nurture a relationship; to forgive; to drink whisky; to hold hands; to write; to take a photograph; to capture a moment; to embrace one's child; to smile; to hug; to melt in each other's arms; to love and be loved. To hang a curtain in the new house. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Philippine floods death toll: 57 lives - TH!NK ABOUT IT

Philippine floods death toll: 57 lives - TH!NK ABOUT IT

It is raining nonstop in this cold afternoon here in the Philippine capital of Manila. The clock reads 6:27 pm, the thermometer, 26 degrees Celsius, below the usual temperature of 39 degrees. The sun, usually glistening in this Southeast Asian country, has not been seen the last couple of days.

But I shouldn’t be complaining. Elsewhere, right this very minute, in some parts of this place we all call home, people are buried in flood because of nonstop rains.

There is flood because of the poor waste disposal system implemented by the government for decades now and people who do not do anything about it.

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the central government office that acts on disasters and calamities, the death toll from floods in the southern parts of the Philippines has risen to 57 while 32 others remained missing.

The statistics are stark and telling. According to the government disaster office, as reported, the floods and landslides have affected at least 323,149 families or 1,650,754 people in 1,823 villages in 162 towns and 17 cities in 25 provinces around the country.

Furthermore, it also said in the report that “some 12,523 families or 61,054 people are housed in 74 evacuation centers. At least 395 houses were destroyed while 1,902 were damaged.”

Needless, to say, there is a need for the government to act and put in place long-term solutions.

The real solutions include strictly implementing proper waste disposal systems and not just acting on the matter only after every time a tragedy strikes.

Suggestions anyone? What can my government do? Let’s all think about it.

Never Forget: The Ampatuan Massacre -- New Internationalist

Never Forget: The Ampatuan Massacre -- New Internationalist

Never Forget: The Ampatuan Massacre

Posted by Iris C. Gonzales | 0
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In Vietnam, thousands flock to the war museum everyday to see photographs of the Vietnam War. The photos are brazen and piercing. Photos of the victims of Agent Orange, the extremely toxic chemical used by the US military during the war which lasted from 1955 to 1975, still bring tears to the hundreds of visitors that come to the museum daily.

Provocative images, indeed, will stick to one’s soul far longer than any story, poetry or prose ever could.

Because of this, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), an organization of working journalist unions, put up a roaming exhibition, Never Forget: The Ampatuan Massacre, so that the world would remember the Philippines’ worst incident of election-related violence.

Photo by Veejay Villafranca.

NUJP hopes that through these bold and striking photographs, the world will never forget that more than a year ago, under a glistening sun in a place they called home, 58 people were massacred by a member of a ruling clan desperate to stay in power.

Never Forget, curated by Filipino documentary photographer Jes Aznar, is presented by theNUJP along with the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines and the Philippine Center for Photojournalism.

Photo by Jes Aznar.

‘Never Forget explores how the beautiful yet troubled province of Maguindanao has bred the culture of impunity that paved the way for the Ampatuan Massacre. It revisits the aftermath of that gruesome day of 23 November 2009. It also shows the collective grief and rage through numerous protest rallies and commemorative vigils by colleagues, friends and supporters, here and abroad.

‘Never Forget features the works of members of the NUJP, the PCP and photojournalist colleagues from all over the country as well as worldwide. Never Forget is a work in progress, with more photos to be added as the coverage of the issue continues. Never Forget is also a travelling exhibit as we aim to bring it to public spaces, schools and communities who wish to host it,’ the NUJP said.

Photo by Carsten Stormer and Nonoy Espina.

Never Forget has been exhibited in different universities around Metro Manila. These include University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and the University of Santo Tomas College of Arts and Letters.

NUJP said that for 2011, the exhibit would again be put up in one of the country’s schools on 23 January 2011, the 14th month anniversary of the massacre.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Surfacing: my nth wall -- New Internationalist

Surfacing: my nth wall -- New Internationalist

It is Saturday night in the busy streets of Quezon City, a place next to Manila, the Philippine capital. In a small café, artists, photographers, theatre actors, folk singers, writers and activists are gathered.

There’s ice-cold beer, the usual grilled pork skewers and what-have-you. There’s good music, too. And tonight, as on most nights in this watering hole, there’s lots of laughter and jamming.

Suddenly, as if lightning had struck, two photographers dashed inside the café. They sat down, gulped some drinks, listened to musicians on stage, laughed with friends and looked around to choose the best spot and in seconds, started spreading paste on the wall.

They worked fast. It must have been their nth wall. In a few minutes, blown-up black and white photo of Edith Burgos, the mother of missing Filipino activist Jonas Burgos, filled the wall. It was not one giant photo but small squares put together piece by piece like a puzzle.

Jonas, a 36-year-old activist, has not been seen since 28 April 2007. Witnesses say gunmen dragged him from a mall in the northern part of the city to a waiting vehicle whose licence plate was traced to another car impounded in a military camp.

On another wall, the group started pasting the photograph of Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon, a journalist killed in the gruesome 23 November 2009 massacre of 58 people on the southern Philippine island of Maguindanao.

Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon.

Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon. Photo by Sandino Nartea.

People at the café started helping, filling their hands with home-cooked paste and making sure that every piece of the photograph fell right into place.

It’s called Dikit’rato, which means photo-graffiti, or literally, photos pasted on walls.

Dikit’rato is all about raising awareness about the country’s human rights situation. It is a series of photo-graffiti activities on various public spaces, cafés and state universities to call attention to the worsening situation. It is part of a larger project dubbed Surfacing, wherein a number of Filipino photographers portray the struggles against human rights violations of their friends and families.

‘We want to make these photos visible and accessible to the common Filipino, who comprise the vast majority of victims of these human rights abuses, and who therefore need to be informed the most. By mounting photos in public spaces and by enjoining communities and groups to participate, they are also empowered to act as “curators” in their own neighbourhood or setting and not just passive observers and “receivers” of information,’ the organizers behind the Surfacing project say on their website

Furthermore, the group said that ‘Dikit’rato is thus a rethinking of the concept of photographic exhibition – to think out of the box and be unboxed, to liberate the viewing of photographs from the limited confines of a traditional gallery’s box. It is also our statement against the intrusion of commercial advertising into public spaces – against the visual pollution of product promotion. Dikit’rato is therefore also a “reclaiming” of public spaces, which we believe should be the domain of people’s art rather than mind-numbing advertisement.’

In the Philippines, the human rights situation is defined by the increasing number of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, a cold-blooded massacre of 58 people, a growing culture of impunity, of desperate widows and orphaned children and a government that allows it to happen.

But this is what the government and the perpetrators of these inhuman acts do not know – that for every human rights victim, there are countless individuals who will stand up for them.

There will be loud voices of protest. There will be piercing words. There will be court battles. There will be fighting mothers. And yes, there will hundreds of photos plastered on walls and the calls for justice will reverberate through and through even in the dead of night.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Filipino Christmas -- New Internationalist

A Filipino Christmas -- New Internationalist

A Filipino Christmas

Posted by Iris C. Gonzales | 0 Share this:

For at least one night a year, a sacred tradition goes on in a country in which politicians live in posh mansions and out-of-school youths sleep on the streets in the dead of the night.

Where a cold-blooded murderer of 58 people has yet to be convicted even as pieces after pieces of hard evidence have been presented before the courts. Where bloodied fetuses are found inside bathrooms of churches and airports. Where one out of five people afflicted with HIV are teenagers. Where Filipinos have to work overseas because there are no jobs at home.

Welcome to the Philippines, a land of both hope and desperation, of defeat and victory, of joy and suffering, of never-ending stories.

It is Christmas and for at least one night every year, Filipinos come together to spend the occasion with their families.

Whether it’s in dimly lit shanties, in makeshift tents in the dark streets of Metro Manila, in tattered shelters by the dirtiest creeks or in tightly guarded condominiums and exclusive subdivisions, Filipinos spend Christmas together. Nobody breaks this tradition in this predominantly Catholic country.

The overseas Filipino works the whole year to be able to go home for Christmas. Doctors and nurses trade all ungodly hours with their colleagues just to be able to spend Christmas Eve with their families. A taxi driver will sacrifice several hundred pesos to spend the traditional Christmas Eve dinner with the loved ones. Oh, and the mistresses and paramours steal a few hours to spend time with each other on this sacred day.

This is Christmas, Philippine style. Filipinos from everywhere in the world move heaven and earth just to make it home for Christmas. It’s about the only time they’re together with their loved ones.

To some, it’s the only thing they look forward to throughout the year.

Mothers bring out the new tablecloth for Christmas Eve, usually bright red and green. The dinner table is filled with sumptuous gastronomic delights – there’s the traditional Christmas ham, red wine, grapes, fruit salads and cheese.

Families usually leave after dinner to celebrate yuletide mass and then gift-giving traditionally happens just before the clock strikes twelve.

The morning after, on Christmas Day, the tables are filled with leftover food. Everyone is still sound asleep from the night’s festivities.

In the coming days it will all be back to normal. Those working abroad would soon be flying back to their host countries, the children will be going back to school, the executives will be going back to work, the mistresses will be back in their paramours’ arms albeit momentarily, the pickpockets will be stealing other people’s hard earned cash again, the cabbies will be driving around Metro Manila again for a few hundreds of pesos, etc. etc.

It’s the same old story, here in this place we all call home.