By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
PANDI, Bulacan – Sometime in 2019, just two years after the successful Occupy movement of homeless families, residents would wake up in the dead of the night to the sound of a screeching metal as their neighbors would drag iron rods on the uneven cemented roads of a government housing facility in Pandi, Bulacan. Among those who were making rounds were their neighbors who once fought alongside them but have opted to “surrender” to the government, following months of being subjected to relentless harassment and red-tagging.
Grace Sionicio, a resident of Pandi Village 2, said she hoped that their silence during those chilling nights would de-escalate the tension in their community and protect her family. She feared that if she would step out of their home and send them away, a fight might break and spiral out of control.
“We would suppress our own cough to keep them from hearing us,” she told Bulatlat.
It has been four years then but Sionicio remembered those nights still with dread as she sat outside her friend’s house one December morning. She was among the residents who welcomed a group of Bulatlat reporters for an interview for a special report.
In 2017, urban poor families occupied an idle government housing facility in Pandi, Bulacan. This project was originally intended for government soldiers. However, urban poor group Kadamay earlier said that the occupied housing units only cover 13 percent of the total number of idle units in the entire country intended for government troops, attributing it to the “dismal conditions of the housing projects and the lack of job opportunities in the area.”
While there are still many struggles yet to win, she said she can look back with pride at the fight they won.
“I only wanted to have our own house and I never thought it would lead us here,” said Sionicio, “But the government is really after Kadamay and their members even if what we are struggling for is a basic right that should be afforded to us.”
Long victims of social injustice
Before the Occupy movement, Kadamay and its members had been holding dialogues over the idle housing program. The dialogues began as early as 2016, just months after former President Rodrigo Duterte won the elections.
They were promised that their pleas would be addressed as soon as possible. But for urban poor families, the wait was too antagonizing, especially if they have long been victims of social injustice.
For one, Sionicio said their family is used to transferring from one location to another, depending on where her husband, who works as a truck driver, is assigned. When they heard the ongoing struggles for a housing facility, she did not think twice, saying that they were “determined to have a place of our own.”
Their fight brought them to protest actions such as those in front of the satellite offices of the National Housing Authority, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and even the US embassy.
After the Occupy movement in Pandi, Bulacan, Sionicio and hundreds of urban poor families from Bulacan were hoping to occupy an idle government housing in Bocaue. However, they were prevented by the local police, forcing them to return to Pandi. Here, her family occupied a housing unit in Phase 2, more known to residents as “Atlantica.”
Meanwhile, Sionicio’s neighbor, Eliza Nazareno, hailed from a family of farm workers from Zamboanga del Sur. Her family moved to Metro Manila like many others who were blinded by the hopes that the “light” in Metro Manila would bring them better living conditions. Instead, she worked in a garments factory in Cavite, south of the Philippine capital, from 1996 to 2005, where she earned minimum wage.
When she married, she supported her husband’s small income as an ice cream vendor by washing clothes on the side. They used to rent a small house at about $27 monthly along a creek in Bocaue, Bulacan, just eight kilometers from the government housing facility where they are now residing.
In the months leading to the Occupy movement, news roamed in their community that there was a housing facility they could avail of. “In my head, I thought that we would just walk in and be provided with all the documents we needed. But the fight that we waged was unimaginable. Even when we were eventually handed the housing units, we still had to fight every inch of it, from the water to electricity supply.”
Sowing disunity and terror
After threatening to arrest and shoot families involved in the Occupy movement, former President Duterte later announced he would award the occupied housing units, urging police and soldiers to give up their claims as “they need it more.” Such pronouncement, however, was followed by a series of attacks against community organizers and residents that continue to hound them until now.
In 2019, the local government of Pandi passed a resolution declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA as persona non grata. The resolution was in line with the national government’s earlier memorandum prohibiting support to revolutionary groups and the whole-of-nation approach to end the local communist armed conflict.
The 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, which covers the occupied units, claimed that the local government “did right,” saying that the housing issue was used by organizations “by giving promises of decent shelter if they join them through illegal and unauthorized protests and rallies.”
Such disunity and terror sowed in Pandi nearly took Jose Potia’s wife Mercedes in 2019.
“We were at home when they barged in. They wanted us to join them and we refused,” said Potia, also a resident of Atlantica, referring to their neighbors-turned-surrenderers.
During the commotion, 69-year-old Mercedes’s blood pressure shot up, and was brought to the hospital. She suffered a mild stroke which affected her ability to speak. Four years later, Mercedes, who is a member of Kadamay, can hardly walk.
Since the incident, Potia, who hailed from Balagtas, Bulacan, has stepped up to resist attempts to silence them. “There were times when our neighbors, accompanied by soldiers, would knock on our door at 2:00 a.m. looking for our community organizer. He was hardworking and they wanted him out of the way.”
Sionicio said all of these are attempts to derail the full realization of their right to housing under the pretext of the government’s counterinsurgency program. She said that the surrenderers were not NPA guerrillas but civilians who joined the fight for affordable housing.
Those who have so-called “surrendered” into admitting to being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the CPP, reportedly received an amount somewhere between P2,000 ($36) to P5,000 ($90) and grocery items. Still, others only received a bag of grocery items. Government aid was also used to prevent residents from resisting, with the distribution of cash aid or grocery bags always coinciding with schedules of protest actions.
Residents said this was a confusing time for them as there were community organizers who once led them in the fight but also “surrendered” to the government. During these difficult times, Antonio said they held onto the lessons that were imparted to them.
“I’m already here. We were politicized in the process and there’s no turning back,” she said.
Eventually, Kadamay’s local chapter in the housing facility received reports that those who surrendered had difficulties getting their police clearances, which they need as an employment requirement as there are “hits” in their records indicating rebellion.
Other communities are also suffering
Now under a Marcos Jr. administration, such attacks against urban poor families are also happening elsewhere.
Urban poor leaders like Eufemia Doringo, for one, cannot remember when was the last time she visited her family. Doringo, Kadamay chairperson, said she has received many reports of suspected government agents looking for her.
Among the most recent includes reports that she is organizing the transport strike in Caloocan. On most days, she is being branded as a recruiter of NPA fighters.
“I want to be with my family but I worry for their safety, especially for my children,” she said.
The situation has also caused anxiety for community organizers like Estrellita Bagasbas of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City. She has been relentlessly red-tagged, with her name being mentioned by the government’s counterinsurgency arm over their radio program.
“The NTF-ELCAC would always claim that it brings no danger to us red-tagged activists. But it is enough to torture our minds, our hearts, and our stomachs. How do they expect us to sleep at night, or even eat? Fear hovers over us,” she told Bulatlat at the sidelines of the International Human Rights Day protest, Dec. 10.
In the Philippines, red-tagging often translates to other forms of attacks, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Bagasbas admitted that she attended fewer community gatherings last year due to the red-tagging. But this year, she said she is slowly becoming more active, particularly in their campaign against the demolition of their homes at the heart of Quezon City.
“They would tell me to leave the community for my safety. But how can I possibly do that when there is a bigger fight for our right to decent housing?” Bagasbas said.
Right to housing and other basic rights
Last September 2023, about 40 residents reportedly disassociated with urban poor group Kadamay, and that they would instead join a local organization established by the government’s counterinsurgency arm.
But for Pandi residents who spoke to Bulatlat, these continuing attacks will not deter them in their struggle, especially when a lot has more to be done. While they have their housing units now, these were without water and electricity supply.
“It took about a year for electricity to be installed into certain parts of our community while about five years for water,” said Nazareno, adding that as of now, only 18 of the 26 houses in Nazareno’s residential block have access to electricity.
Residents have long been insisting that such basic services should be considered a “package deal” when the housing units were awarded to them. However, families were not provided a copy of the loan agreement they signed with the government, which could have been their basis in holding to account the obligations due to them.
Instead, what was provided was a mere payment schedule, which they have to follow strictly, otherwise they might be evicted from the housing facility.
But if there is anything that the struggle for their right to housing taught them, Sionicio said that there are other fights they have to win, particularly their right to a decent living. Some of their neighbors, for one, are engaged in the fight against the phaseout of traditional jeepneys.
Sionicio said whenever there are doubts about pursuing their struggle, she realizes that she cannot afford to, not when there are members who still need help. “It can be taxing on most days. But whenever someone would send a message, I cannot help but reach out as well. We will carry on.” (with additional interviews from Alyssa Mae Clarin and Aleli Madrigal) (RVO)
This story is supported by the German Embassy Manila as part of Bulatlat’s project titled, “Advancing human rights reporting in the Philippines as a tool for upholding gender fairness, democracy and accountability.”