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One week of horror in Manila’s shantytown

AJ Ledesma (model)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The author has been based in Manila since 1986 when he left a colorful career in his hometown in Davao as reporter for Ang Pahayagang Malaya (The Free Press) and the defunct We Forum. In Manila, while serving as editor of the defunct People’s Evening Express, he stays with his relatives in Intramuros, where he has been witness to the plight of the urban poor communities in that historic district’s shantytown. Because he is a reporter, squatter groups there sought his advice whenever they have problems. Soon, however, their problems became his problems as Manila police and civilian authorities began what later became a botched effort to relocate the squatters. As a conscientious recorder of the events, and equipped with a first-hand view of what had been happening in Intramuros, Almenario used his pen to write about the case. Soon, the issue was given political color by certain overzealous, imaginative police officers, who saw “Red” in the squatters’ bid to assert their rights. Almenario learned through reliable sources that he was being tagged by a ranking ultra-rightist police officer as a communist agitator. Knowledge that he was being watched soon turned into horror. Since May 30 to June 8 of that year, he has been on the receiving end of a string of incidents as armed men have been stalking him and, on two occasions, tried to abduct him. Following is his first-person account of his story.)

 

For a while I thought lasting press freedom would come to us under the Aquino government, whose denouncement of human rights abuses under the previous regime is being echoed time and again.

For a while, too, I enjoyed “peace”, in the sense of being free relatively from the furious and bloody encounters between AFP and NDF elements in Davao where I had a brief encounter with terror and violence at the height of the Marcos dictatorship.

After the popular EDSA Revolution that ultimately installed this government that takes pride in being democratic and compassionate to the plight of the most impoverished sectors in our society, I returned to Manila, this time to look into the main social problems besetting urban poor communities.

Working for the urban poor is fulfilling and satisfying, especially to a man whose simplest dream is to see them become part of a humane society that can immediately respond to their needs. It is in this area that where I found peace, solace and contentment in the performance of my duty as “free recorder of events” without biases. But it was a short-lived peace I had. It seems I was not really free to help the urban poor assert their rights to at least to be listened to by local officials. The following chronology of events says why:

Sunset by Manila Bay

• May 30 at 8:30 p.m. --- A group of unidentified armed men aboard an owner-type jeep and Ford Fierra started casing my house in Intramuros, apparently to stop me from pursuing the cause for the urban poor.

• May 31 at 6 a.m. --- A barangay official came to my house and advised me to be extra careful because some “misinformed” Manila policemen are conducting surveillance on me reportedly on orders of a high ranking police officer who suspects that I have communist leanings.

• May 31 at 11:30 p.m. --- Another group of unidentified armed men aboard a white Ford Fiera accosted me along Beaterio and Muralla Streets (in Intramuros) and tried to abduct me. I was immediately freed when two cars were about to pass by.

• June 2 at 2:30 p.m. --- A blue car with tinted mirror blocked my way while I was crossing Avenida Rizal near Tayuman Street in Sta. Cruz. I ran to a nearby clinic when a man with long arms got off the car and tried to grab me.

• June 4 at about 6 a.m. --- A white Ford Fiera and an owner-type jeep coming from two opposite directions tried to pin me down while I was walking along Anda Street in Intramuros. Again, I was able to escape.

• June 8 at 3:30 p.m. --- A trusted friend called me up at the We Forum office, declaring: “Kuya, mag-ingat kang mabuti. May patong ka na raw sa ulo at hindi sila titigil hangga’t hindi ka nila nakukuha. Ito ang narinig namin kay Danny, isang pulis (Brother, be careful. They will not stop until they get you. This is what we heard from Danny, a policeman).”

Manila Bay

With these incidents, it has become crystal clear that media practitioners are still facing the muzzle of a gun and are not totally free to report on the wrongdoings in high places. It saddens me to recall that by presenting a credible picture of the fate of the urban poor communities in Intramuros, the price would be “liquidation!”

What is wrong with calling on Congress to an urban land reform bill which will resolve the problem of the poor city dwellers? What is wrong with reorienting the Metropolitan police such that they will stay out of politics and become the real protectors of the oppressed citizenry, and no longer the fascist instruments that they were molded into by the Marcos regime? What is wrong, indeed, with exposing land grabbing in Intramuros by big local capitalists in collusion with some government officials and hired gunmen used as shadows by the ruling elite?

 

It saddens me to realize that this government (Cory Aquino regime) for which I volunteered my services during the 1986 snap elections has done not just physical violence to media practitioners. It has, in fact, institutionalized violence by fielding feeble-minded military assets who immediately pinpoint wrong persons for a fee. What keeps me going is the knowledge that I am not alone in this struggle for genuine press freedom.

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