News & Features

Sleepless in San Juan: Villagers unite to stop demolition

Traces of the 2019 midterm elections hang on the houses in Burol, alongside calls to stop threats of demolition. Photo by Patrick Quintos/Altermidya
Sleepless in San Juan: Villagers unite to stop demolition
Patrick Quintos

Restless nights have plagued the Burol community in Kabayanan Village, San Juan City, fearing that someone might burn their homes to the ground—small shacks made of wood, tin sheets, and a little bit of low-quality concrete.

“Hindi ako makatulog. Alam mo naman ‘yang mga ‘yan, sunog e. ‘Yun ang kinatatakutan ko. Lalo na ito, puro light material, said bed-ridden resident Alfredo Capulong, 86, recalling the 2012 fire that scorched homes in the nearby St. Joseph Village—a community also threatened by demolition at that time.

(I can’t sleep well. We know their strategy—fire. That’s what I fear. Look at our home, it’s made of light materials.)

Early morning last May 20, policemen carrying long firearms escorted truckloads of men to Burol—men in civilian clothes, wielding sledgehammers, knives, and icepicks. They threatened to smash their homes into pieces of rubble despite the residents’ pending motion before the court.

But some early risers in the neighborhood have already spotted the armed men before they came down to Burol, and were able to sound the alarm. To the still sleepy residents, it was like waking up to a bad, bad dream, except that it was not just a nightmare—it was real.

Siyempre ‘yung iba na-trauma, naglabasan na ng mga gamit. Siyempre gulat, e galing ka ba naman sa tulog tapos ganoon. Takot talaga. May mga may sakit, siyempre aalalayan,” said 60-year-old Lina Balingasa, who owns a small store along the street.

(Of course, some of us were traumatized. We got took our things and ran. We were shocked. Imagine, we were just sleeping then we woke up to that. It was really terrifying. There were people who were ill and had to be assisted.)

It was an early morning panic sequence as Burol residents abandoned their breakfasts or coffee and scurried out to the streets, bringing children and elderlies to safety, trying to secure documents, clothes, and money.

The bed-ridden Capulong, who just woke up at that time, had to be carried by his thin-framed grandson and namesake, Dos, to safety.

In the confusion, some residents tried to setup a small barricade to stop the demolition crew from proceeding to their houses. Those who were finished with securing their things later on replaced the ones in the barricade.

Tension rose when the police came, trying to insist on smashing their homes with sledgehammers. But wielding documents from the court, residents of Burol were able to fend off the demolition team after a few hours of verbal exchange with the cops.

But residents of Burol are not convinced that the ordeal is over. Experience tells them that the people behind the demolition would stop at nothing until they are gone from the area. They have to be vigilant.

“Hindi nga kami magigiba, sunog naman kami. Mas malala naman. E mabilis kumalat ‘yan dito kasi luma na ‘to,” said the 24-year-old Dos, who until the time of the interview has not recovered from the paranoia caused by the incident.

(They may not succeed in destroying our homes but they may also set this place on fire. That’s worse. The blaze will definitely spread quickly because houses here are made of old materials.)

Dos is among a number of community volunteers who do rotational shifts watching over the neighborhood during the wee ours of the night, making sure no one burns their homes to the ground. In the morning and afternoon, another set of volunteers regularly patrol the neighborhood just to make sure the coast is clear.

No relocation plans for residents

For decades, residents of Burol have lived in peace without anyone claiming rights to the land. That is why when a certain 77D Holdings suddenly came in 2011, claiming parcels of land, the residents, especially the elderlies, couldn’t believe what they heard.

“Nananahimik kami tas biglang maliligalig kami. Pati kalooban namin at isipan, di namin alam. Umiiral sa amin ang takot. Bakit nagkaroon ng ganito, dati tahimik naman kami,” said 76-year-old Rosalino Empero, a resident of Burol since 1957.

(We were living in peace until they came and brought a sense of terror. Our minds and hearts are troubled. We are in constant fear. Why did this happen when we were just living here quietly before.)

Around 500 families—mostly original residents of more than 50 years—living in Kabayanan Village, including Burol, Elago, and Urbino, are facing the threat of demolition. No plans of relocation have been laid out, residents said.

Lina Balingasa opens her store early. When the demolition crew came, she said she even gave some of the men free cigarettes and coffee. Photo by Patrick Quintos/Altermidya

“’Yun talaga ang masakit,” added 62-year-old Leonora Guinto, who recalled having seen his elder brothers and their friends literally carrying their house to Burol in a tradition called “Bayanihan” or communal unity.

(The things that are happening now are really painful for us.)

Raymond Alzona, who chairs Burol’s neighborhood association, said they were told by the sheriff that a local court had already ruled against their pending motion quash. However, he said the ruling has not been served to them or even their lawyers.

Alzona added that denying a motion to quash is not the end of case as they still have a lot of legal remedies to exhaust before 77D Holdings can say with finality that they have won. “Tapusin niyo muna ang kaso namin. Kapag kami, natalo sa kaso, aalis kami sa lupa,” he said.

(They should let us see this case through. We’ll only leave if we have really lost the case.)

The last time Burol was threatened with demolition was in 2016, he recalled, but they were able to file cases before the court against 77D Holdings.

However, Alzona said they sensed that the lawyer who were helping them back then have compromised with the corporation, so they broke off and formed another group to file a new case to fight for their right to live in Burol.

Hope under new rule?

Alzona also suspects the push to remove them from Burol could be a revenge of outgoing San Juan City Mayor Guia Gomez, part of the Ejercito-Estrada political dynasty, who has lost in Kabayanan Village for 2 straight elections.

He cited that Gomez has even established an in-city relocation in Kabayanan Village but the settlers who got units in the housing project were from other villages.

“Bawal ang Kabayanan, kasi hindi sila nanalo dito. Ang binigyan nila Barangay Batis at Barangay Salapan e dapat sa Barangay Kabayanan… Baka bawi ‘yan kasi talo na naman sila dito,” he said.

(Kabayanan residents weren’t allowed in that project because they did not win here. They gave the housing to the villages of Batis and Salapan, instead of this village. Maybe they are just doing that because they lost here.)

Now that decades of Estrada rule in San Juan are over and incoming Mayor Francis Zamora is set to take office next month, Alzona said that residents are hoping for changes, especially when it comes to treating the urban poor.

Residents of Burol barricaded the street going to their homes, calling for the stop the planned demolition as they still have a pending case before the court. Photo by Avon Ang/Altermidya

San Juan City is not new to violent demolitions as the villages of St. Joseph and Corazon de Jesus have seen wounded residents and burnt down homes way back in 2011 and 2012.

Some of the residents were forced to relocate to far-flung areas like Bulacan and Rizal, where job, water, and electricity is scare. Zamora has vowed to the residents that there will be no more demolitions when he takes office.

“Ang tao dito, gusto na ng pagbabago. Hindi dahil kay Francis. Kung sino mang umupo at lumaban, kakampihan nila kasi sawa na ang mga tao sa mga Estrada. Ayaw na talaga nila,” he said.

(People here want change. Not just because of Francis. Whoever sits and fights, people will support because the people here are really sick of the Estradas.)

An appeal for help

Until then, the residents will continue to fight for their rights.

Balingasa appealed to the authorities to at least know the truth first and investigate before coming down to Burol with all their sledgehammers and firearms, ready to “shock and awe” their way into demolishing their houses.

“Hindi komo iskwater, mahihirap, dinadaan nila sa harassment. Siyempre sila, nakapuwesto, nakabaril ano ba namang panlaban namin,” she said.

(They should not harass us just because we’re squatters, poor people. They are the people in position who have power and firearms, how could we even fight them?)

“Basta ang pinaglalaban ko lang dito yung karapatan lang. Sa tinagal-tagal ba naman namin dito, hindi nila sabihin na may may-ari pala nito. Dapat noon pa lang sinabi na nila na sila ang may may-ari,” added Guinto, still worried about the coming days.

(We are fighting for our rights. We’ve been here for a long time and no one told us someone owns this place. If someone really have claims on this land, they should have told us a long time ago.)

“Sana ‘yung pakiusap namin, manatili na kami dito, tutal dito na rin napanatag ang kalooban namin,” Empero softly said, expressing hope that things will soon go back to normal in the small community of Burol.

(We hope they allow us to stay here because this is where our peace is.)

Alfredo Capulong, an original resident of Burol, has been immobile for 2 years because of an illness. Photo by Patrick Quintos/Altermidya

Meanwhile, inside his sweltering street-side shanty, the 86-year-old Capulong, one of the oldest residents of Burol, hopes the government could at least give him the peace of mind, knowing his sons and grandsons can have a place to call their own home before he dies.

“Sino ba naman ang hindi maghahangad na bago man lang ako pumanaw, makita ko man lang na matiwasay ang mga anak ko. E wala e, hindi ka makapirmi ng pag-iisip. Baka pag-ano bigla na lang magtakbuhan,” he said.

(Who would not want to die in peace, knowing their sons are secured. Right now, I could not stay calm because anytime something might happen and we have to run again.)

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