By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — The small alley that leads to the community of urban poor dwellers along Agham Road in Quezon City was filled with ashes soaked in water. From being a congested and heavily populated area, all that was left of their community were cemented walls as fire razed most of the residents’ belongings on February 7, Monday night.
The day after the fire, men and children scampered to salvage galvanized iron sheets and other metals they could find. Residents said they would sell it to junk shops so that they would have money for food for the time being. “We do not know how we would be able to survive from here onwards,” Donita Donoga, 41, told Bulatlat.com in Filipino, “This is all that I was able to save,” referring to the clothes that she was wearing.
Donoga was about to close her variety store when she heard her neighbor frantically screaming, “Fire! Fire!” at around 11:00 p.m. Without second thoughts, she woke up her 80-year-old mother and ran for their lives. Their way out was not easy as hundreds of residents rushed toward a narrow alley out of the community. “All I could think of was to get out of here alive,” she said.
From a distance, Donoga said all she could do was cry, wondering why they ended up in that situation and what tomorrow would bring them. When she returned to her home the following morning, “Everything turned into ashes.”
While there have been similar incidents in the past, residents like Julieta Ibareta, 45, Donoga’s friend who has been living in the area for almost 25 years now, said the recent fire that razed the community Monday night was the worst she experienced. The fires before were were merely “small fires” and damaged very little property.
She heard various versions of stories from her neighbors explaining how the fire started. Among these, Ibareta related, was the story that the fire started at the house of a couple who were seen fighting that night. Still, she said, there are others who believe that the fire was caused by a faulty electrical wiring.
But stories that the fire was done on purpose did not die down. “There were three instances when someone tried to burn down the houses over there,” Ibareta said, referring to the urban poor community along Agham Road facing the Office of the Ombudsman, “Yet, it took only one try to burn our area.”
“We do not want to put the blame on anyone but it is hard to keep it off our mind especially because it is common knowledge that this area is part of the QCCBD,” she said, referring to the Quezon City Central Business District.
Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Executive Order No. 670 or the Rationalizing and Speeding up the Development of the East and North Triangle, and the Veterans Memorial Area of Quezon City to give way to the creation of the QCCBD, a 256-hectare project, would supposedly put Quezon City at the forefront of global investments and business interests.
The Ayala Land Inc., a big real estate company, signed an agreement with the National Housing Authority to develop 29.1 hectares of land for the project, at an estimated cost of about $500 million. It would, however, displace thousands of urban poor dwellers and government offices as well.
Notices of demolition have been given to urban poor communities but majority of the residents have chosen to stay and fight for their rights as they would be relocated to Montalban, Rizal. Aside from being far from their work place, residents are worried over the fact that their resettlement area is right in the middle of the Marikina fault line, which, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcano and Seismology, could generate an earthquake with an intensity of 7.2 magnitude.
Last September 23, 2010, the government tried to demolish their homes but the attempt turned violent when residents and the demolition team threw stones and bottles at each other. A temporary restraining order was issued later that afternoon but came a little too late since some of the shanties along EDSA had already been demolished.
Sometime in January this year, residents heard rumors that the Quezon City government and the National Housing Authority are planning to try to demolish their communities again. Because of this, Bea Arellano, chairwoman of the urban poor group Kadamay, said, they could not blame the people if they have doubts whether the fire was really an accident.
A resident from a nearby residential area told Bulatlat.com that if the fire was not intended, “What took the firefighters so long to arrive here. I was in a computer shop when I heard what happened and I immediately went here. But I arrived almost the same time as the firetruck when the fire station is less than a kilometer away.”
Carlito Badion, vice chairman of Kadamay, said intentionally burning the houses of the urban poor is always a possibility when the government is pushing for a project “in the name of development.” He added that the families who lost their homes should accept all the government assistance that they can get aside from the relocation offers.
Badion urged the local government to put up temporary shelters for the homeless families while they are rebuilding their homes. “The struggle against the impending demolition of their houses is a fight of all the urban poor.”