First Person | In Montalban, injustice thick as sludge

Residents try to clean the mud even without tap water. (Photo by Ilang-Ilang Quijano)

A journalist shares her insights after going back to Kasiglahan Village.

Related stories: Kasiglahan’s miserable state highlights disregard for the poor’s right decent housing

‘Life was the only thing we managed to save’

By ILANG-ILANG QUIJANO
Bulatlat.com

It’s difficult to begin expressing what I felt visiting Kasiglahan Village. Its been a little more than a week since Typhoon Ulysses hit; since we all saw those images of residents in Montalban, Rizal trapped on their roof, waiting for rescue amid swirling floods. Since then, the floods in Cagayan–with an even greater number of people stranded on their roof–has overshadowed those dramatic images in Kasiglahan. Though people’s hardships have only risen with the subsiding of the floods, the truth is, images of Ulysses’ destruction are beginning to fade from collective memory as we speak.

I guess my discomfort started on the route itself. Going to Montalban, one is forced to share the road with huge, dusty trucks going in and out the landing stations of quarrying companies. These quarry stations appear regularly, like bends along the winding road, against the backdrop of the very mountain it has chipped away at for the past several decades. The Sierra Madre, denuded and abused as it was, still looks like the miracle that it is–a majestic mountain range that shields Metro Manila from the worst of typhoons.

Kasiglahan is an urban poor relocation site lying at its foothills. At the entrance, things seemed to be back to normal. A mini-mall with a McDonald’s and grocery store was clean and uncrowded. But just a few meters on, the aftermath of tragedy begins to manifest itself. The road slowly chokes up with hordes of people lining up for relief and vehicles that bring them. Heaps of muddied clothes stink by the wayside–whether these are already deemed garbage or can still be salvaged is anyone’s guess. More and more houses had mud-caked furniture and appliances strewn outside. Turns out that residents of these houses were actually the lucky ones, because the real affected people were not in houses at all. They were standing under the sun, clutching a stub, irate and hoping for a relief pack.  In the nearby high school building that serves as an evacuation center, their families were cramped in a classroom shared with 20 other families, waiting to be fed. From below, pieces of clothing fluttered from the windows–little flags that spoke of dignity surrendered temporarily.

Kasiglahan Village residents line up for food packs. (Photo by King Catoy)

Interviewing flood victims felt more like being on the receiving end of catharsis rather than interviews at all. It’s not very often that I get that sense–like you’ve turned a faucet on and the sentiments just keep pouring out. Their fear the night of the storm. The feeling of being lucky enough to have survived the flash flood only because their neighbour woke them up. The loss of everything they had, except the clothes on their back. Their overwhelming anxieties at being stuck in an evacuation center, receiving little or no aid.

Most of all, their common demand: relocation. Of all my interviewees, nobody seemed to want to go back, except for one whose reason nonetheless tugged at my heart: she had wished to be awarded her home because she wanted to build a second floor. “So that when the floods come again, we have somewhere to go.” Her statement struck me for two things. First, that despite paying five years amortization for substandard housing in a recognized danger zone, many relocatees have not even been awarded their homes. Second, that the poor could sometimes expect so little for themselves that they would settle for that kind of home.

Deep into Kasiglahan Village, the real destruction lay. A broken dike with a portion of its concrete wall on the ground. Sidecars, children’s bicycles and motorcycles alike half buried in mud. Pieces of multi-colored trash hanging on treetops. The houses themselves were swamps of thick mud, inside and out. Rows and rows of them like ghost towns.

Only a few people in boots had dared to start clearing their homes out. Watching them, one saw both the futility and doggedness of the task. “We have no choice,” said a woman, slogging through bucketfuls of thick sludge she retrieved from inside the bowels of her house to dump onto what used to be an alley but is now a viscous river of mud. I myself could only cross through pillows that a man placed on my path–I found myself squishing underfoot the same pillows that used to cradle a resting head to sleep.  “I wish we had a choice, but we don’t,” the woman repeated. “I wish President Duterte can give us a good home.”

Kasiglahan Village residents are cramped at the evacuation center. (Photo by Ilang-Ilang Quijano)

I couldn’t tell her that it wasn’t probably on the president’s priority list, even though my heart was screaming, why shouldn’t it be? Why are they even here in the first place? Sitting at the confluence of three rivers that drain into the Marikina River, it is an ill-conceived relocation site, more so if you factor in the rapid degradation of the mountains that lie above. Reading through an article I wrote back in 2012, when habagat rains caused flooding of similar nature, I rediscovered just how ill-conceived it was. Residents told me then that a portion of Kasiglahan Village used to part of the river system, “tinambakan lang,” or covered with soil by private developers who with the government turned it into a relocation site. It is the stuff of which class suits are made of, if by a not-so-remote stroke of bad luck it were bodies they were digging out of the muck, instead of clothes and cabinets and pieces of bed frames.

Maralita sa panahon ng baha: Mula ‘danger zone’ tungo sa ‘death zone’

Another question that ran through my mind is, why can’t the president’s beloved soldiers do the cleaning up? It would take an army of people with proper equipment–a thousand spades, a handful of backhoes and firetrucks at least–to make the place even a bit habitable. Instead you have victims, who don’t even know where to get their next meal, digging at the mud with their bare hands. It is the state’s irresponsibility that got them here; it is the state’s responsibility to get them out.

But I couldn’t tell the woman pining for a response from Duterte that the government is likely to forget them and leave them to fend for themselves, like they’ve always done. In my 2012 story, it was the exact same disaster, and the exact same lack of response. The only difference is that back then, I couldn’t remember so much mud. It’s as if the greed and neglect piled upon more greed and neglect has turned into something thick and viscid, and like mud threatens to harden into something more permanent. I can only hope that that something is awakening, and not despair.

Upon leaving, I notice a private car going around giving away meals. People flocked it like fish to crumbs. The mini-mall was no longer uncrowded; people surrounded it in lines, likely not to buy burgers but to wait for another relief mission. An exiting dump truck of a quarry company bore the sign, “Bangon Montalban.” I couldn’t help myself and gave it the dirty finger as it rolled by.  (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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