Sunday, March 17, 2013

Parola fire—joy and sorrow

By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Recently in Parola, Tondo, a fire driven by tornado-like winds destroyed 100 hollow-block houses in which an estimated 300 families lived. We walked a few days later in the blackened ruins. It looked as if we were moving through a prison block of fire-scorched cells. The alley, however, was alive with children playing, men rebuilding, and the banging of hammers on roofs of GI sheets.

There were tragic stories. A two-year-old girl was trapped in her house. The neighbors told us they could hear the little girl crying for help even over the roar of the wind and fire. The crying went on for some time. Young men tried to reach her, but couldn’t. Then the crying stopped, and hours later firemen carried out the small body.

There were happy stories. One-year-old Rafael Iscala was trapped on the upper floor of his house with his aunt. His mother watched helplessly from the alleyway and then two hands appeared at the window; it was the aunt holding the baby. After a few seconds of hesitation, the aunt dropped the child. Men from Oceanlink Trucking caught him 15 feet below.

We met Rafael later in the relief center. When the crowd of children there heard his story, they looked up at the little boy in his mother’s arms as if he were the world’s first baby astronaut just back from outer space. Rafael accepted the attention with great modesty and his thumb in his mouth.

The survivors we met were happy to be alive. Laurie Cantero, the mother of four young boys, was grateful: “At least I still have my boys.” The little girl died only a few meters away. We asked Fe Galaban, a grandmother who lived with three of her own children and five grandchildren in her house, if she still believed in God. She was surprised at the question. “Siyempre (of course)! I don’t blame God. God didn’t do this.” The neighbors call Aling Fe “Mama.” When the mothers work, she watches their children.

The people are generally not critical, but some questions should be asked. The government did a good job with relief work. There is a new evacuation center built near the Del Pan Sports Center where the people were able to go. There is more than enough food there. On the other hand, the men doing the repair work have to labor by themselves. If they have money or the ability to borrow, they take out a loan from the bumbay at the usual 5-6 interest rate. If a man or woman head of the household has no money, there is no repair work. We didn’t see any cooperative repair work. “Kanya-kanya,” Vicente Mendiola said. “That’s all there is.” If a man has male relatives, they will help, but the neighbors are busy with their own houses. If people leave their newly bought housing materials unwatched, these will be stolen by outsiders. Even the burned lumber and GI sheets recovered from the ruins of the fire are stolen.

The government can take advantage of such fires and disasters to reblock homes and subsidize house repair. If a small area were rehabilitated, it would be a model for the rest of a large area—for Parola, for example.

Nowadays, as much time is given to rehabilitation as to emergency relief. If we don’t move ahead, we drift and fall back. Disaster can be totally tragic, or it can lead to new and welcome initiatives.

Joseph Estrada and Vice President Jojo Binay were there to give food and money. Liberal Party people were not seen in the fire area, nor were priests or nuns. No one brought the people together to plan better ways of rebuilding, or to pray. It’s not too soon to talk of the future. Such talk gives hope and a purpose in the hard situation.

Ironically, the house where the fire began is neat and swept clear of all debris, while most of the houses are still full of rubble.

There were hundreds of little children in the new relief center. At 4 p.m. the loudspeaker announced there was “merienda” on the first floor for children, and suddenly the children stampeded through the corridors and down the stairs. Step out of the way or be trampled. The children were laughing: It was all a game.

Parola lies at the mouth of the Pasig River. There are approximately 12,000 families packed into some 10-12 hectares of land, and it has so far defied efforts to develop it. The land was proclaimed for the homes of the residents by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Recently, the mayor took steps to get land titled for the people. A workable plan is still needed.

We left Parola with mixed memories. The people are resilient and sensitive to the sorrow of others. Not all of them, however: There are hungry people and bad guys who steal from the victims. The children are unmatched anywhere. The government, the Church, the political parties and the NGOs must do more. They all gave relief but now development is needed, which is more difficult to organize. Can the government, the people and all other groups develop a plan that will improve the lives of all the poor of Parola? “Kanya-kanya” is not enough for people. They have to unite and cooperate with one another to establish their own influential place in this society.

We will remember the two-year-old girl and her cries for help. We will remember young Rafael falling calmly 15 feet with his thumb in his mouth. We will remember Fe Galaban, the grandmother who was surprised when she was asked if she still believed in God.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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