By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — We crouched under a tree, tugged my bag and placed it firmly on top of my head. Stones, bottles and “T-bombs” — plastic bags filled with human feces — were flying and landing almost everywhere. We were caught in the middle of a crossfire in the violent demolition in Barangay Corazon de Jesus, San Juan City, last Tuesday.
“Cris! Cris! Cris!” I shouted as I lost my concentration and began to panic, calling my buddy Cris Balleta of Kodao Production. We had to move somewhere more safe. As we ran side by side toward one of the houses, a stone hit my bag and, by sheer luck, another flew right between our heads.
But just when we thought we were already safe, a canister of teargas was fired at our direction. We had to run again, this time toward the inner alleys of the community. Cris handed me his towel and water. But as we ran deeper into the alleys, I lost track of him. I called my editor to describe the situation we found ourselves in but talking on the phone was hardly possible as the teargas started to choke me.
Thankfully, through the help of a British photographer who I met earlier that day, I managed to reach the other side of Barangay Corazon de Jesus. I was still crying when I phoned my editor again. I called to say that I was fine but clueless on the whereabouts of my Kodao buddies Cris and Jaime. As soon as I hung up the phone, I realized that I had just narrowly escaped being teargassed.
I felt relieved. But not for long.
I noticed that the demolition crew had already started to destroy the houses along the road. It seemed that the barricade put up by the residents in front of St. John the Baptist Church had already collapsed. Not far from the site, some of the residents were asking, “Bakit bahay ko?” Some were just staring blankly, probably wondering what would happen to them now that their homes were gone.
And then it happened. A pang of guilt. Unlike me, who escaped the teargas, the stones, the bottles and the “T-bombs,” the residents didn’t know what the future holds for them. The uncertainty probably tortured and hurt them more than the blows coming from the demolition crew.
I could not stand what I was seeing. So I tried to focus on locating Cris and Jaime. Good thing that Cris and Jaime were easy to find among the throng, especially Jaime who was wearing a bright violet shirt.
My short private jokes with them were cut short when my eyes started to well up again at the sight of residents trying to scamper for safety or to salvage whatever belongings they could still save — mattresses, electric fans, plates, frying pans, kettles, clothes, books, teddy bears. Many of the residents, in a last-ditch effort to stop the demolition crew from demolishing their homes, had fought back. Many were arrested, several were injured.
I was too exhausted to cry. The residents did not need my tears. They needed help. And if reporting on their struggles and exposing what they had to go through could help, why would I deny it to them?
I started taking videos, interviewing residents. I was, finally and again, in control of myself.
Right after the press conference, where former president Joseph Estrada and his son, San Juan Rep. JV Ejercito, blamed activists from the Left for the violence, my Kodao buddies and I went to the community’s basketball court where the remaining residents and their supporters gathered. There, the outrage was still palpable and their courageous spirit permeated the atmosphere.
Listening to them, it became clear to me that while the police managed to get through the barricades, tear down their homes and violated them in ways that could easily break anybody down, the folks of Corazon de Jesus were never demoralized and remained determined to fight for their right.