By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
THE poor woman seen clutching her Santo Niño and weeping bitterly on the front page of the March 5 Inquirer is Angelita Villaruel. Two weeks earlier I praised her courage and that of the other women of Navotas who resisted efforts of the Navotas police to shove aside their human barricade and demolish their houses. The women were water-cannoned and knocked down; they climbed to their feet and were knocked down again; they were clubbed by the police, but still they resisted. For two more weeks they resisted with the help of Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez, Fathers Allan Lopez and Robert Reyes and the lawyer and staff of Urban Poor Associates, CO Multiversity and COPE. Finally, on March 4, they were overwhelmed and their homes destroyed: 100 shanties were knocked down and 243 families (1,200 men, women and mostly children) were left homeless.
The demolition was illegal and all the government officials involved, from the highest in the DPWH down to the demolition crew, knew that, because there was no relocation. The officials’ justifications for the action seem right out of the half-mad, half-wacky world of “Alice in Wonderland.” The mayor of Navotas says he issued the Certificate of Compliance (COC) needed for a demolition because the DPWH told him it had a relocation spot, even when it hadn’t one. The
DPWH then turned around and said they had to demolish the homes because the mayor had ordered them to do so in the COC.
The people now sleep in the rubble. There is nowhere else to go. They ate together the night of the eviction, red eggs and noodles and rice from the parish. Children play on the back hoe and women cry quietly. Two weeks ago the women asked, “How can they beat us? We’re old enough to be their grandmothers?” They now ask, “How can they leave us homeless with our children?”
The day before the eviction the women and their supporters met with government officials at the National Housing Authority. No solution was reached, but at the end of a long, often heated discussion, the government promised to send its people from various agencies to the site the next morning (March 5) to do what was possible to stop the eviction and mitigate the suffering of the poor. The government people were not there when the eviction started the next morning. One or two came later, but were of little help.
Maybe because evictions are so common and the lives of the poor so alien to the better-off members of society, we have forgotten how huge a tragedy evictions are. It is traumatic for children to see men tear down their homes and to see their mothers knocked to the ground by water cannons. Studies show it ordinarily takes five years for a family to recover economically from a demolition. Women grieve as they see the homes, where they had their children, torn down as if they were junk. The men lose work days; there is more sickness requiring medicine. Distant relocation often means the loss of a job or separation from one’s family for long periods of time. They borrow money to see them through the hard times that is hard to repay. Poor women as well as well-off women feel their house is an extension of themselves—as a man feels his professional work is part of himself—so to see their houses torn down is extremely painful.
In the aftermath of “Ondoy” the government talked of the need to evict huge numbers of poor people from waterways, including the Manggahan Floodway and Lupang Arienda. The number of people affected could be between half a million and one million. Is the wider society prepared to allow the poor to suffer on such a scale? In-city and near-city relocation are far less painful than distant relocation. Can we make them the rule? There is sufficient time left to examine every community, big or small, to determine exactly which ones have to move and where it is best to move them. Surely not all the 200,000 families nominated for relocation need to be sent to far-off resettlement camps from which 35 percent to 40 percent will return, as has been the norm in the past.
The urban poor will most likely vote for candidates such as Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas, I’m told, who have promised the poor to end illegal forced evictions. Demolitions and the fear of demolitions poison urban poor life. On the other hand, a government that treats its poor decently with a sense of dignity, respect for law and the humanity ordered by the Constitution, will have very devoted followers. The first rule of government, as of doctors, should be “do no harm.” Other considerations can come later.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.