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.