Six Years After the Tragedy: Payatas Revisited

By Father Shay Cullen, PREDA Foundation

his week is the 6th anniversary of the one of the most tragic events in recent Philippine history.Hong Kong Students view the Payatas garbage dump On 10 July in the great garbage dump of Metro Manila, a mountain of compressed methane filled trash began to move. The rains had been torrential, non-stop for a week and the mountain of garbage was saturated. It was only inevitable that a tragedy would occur. Hundreds of squatter's huts where the scavengers and trash pickers lived were at the base of the giant trash pile that towered into the sky and smoldered on most dry days like a dangerous volcano. It was as dangerous as one. Without warning, the mountain began to slide; it developed into an avalanche, so powerful nothing could stand in its way. The people didn't have a chance. At least 500 were buried alive in an instant; only 150 bodies were recovered by rescuers.

Now, six years later, it is off limits to scavengers but garbage is still being dumped there and if it continues, another terrible tragedy could happen. Today, the survivors are still waging a campaign for safe housing, compensation and work with dignity. What they earn from the existing livelihood projects in the old dump area is not enough to give them a decent life. They recycle plastics, make candles and soap but it is still a life of poverty. No schooling for kids working in Payatas garbage dumpThe government is threatening to relocate them to a distant part of the countryside where there is no work and a long expensive trip to the city.

Three years before the avalanche that engulfed the entire village and killed most of the people, I went to ‘Payatas’ dump with Alex Corpus Hermoso, the Preda Foundation Programme Director for livelihoods and a celebrity friend from Hollywood, Martin Sheen.

I can count Martin among my friends; he is a staunch Catholic actor and star of the West Wing Television series in which he portrays a liberal democratic US president. Martin is well known for his Christian activism for justice in the US and is proud is to say he has been arrested more than 50 times for civil disobedience mostly in front of the US Congress.

Alex Corpus Hermoso, Martin Sheen and I went to the ‘Payatas’ garbage dump to campaign for help and support for the redevelopment of the area as it was deadly and dangerous for the hundreds of people living and working there in sub-human Crossing canal of putrid liquid at Payatas garbage dumpconditions. ‘Payatas’ was then, (but not much better now), a giant heap of putrid stinking garbage where the poor suffered endlessly. The men, women and above all, the children spent their lives scratching the garbage for scraps to live on. Today, thousands of families are so poor that have nothing to live on but the garbage. Thousands around the Philippines still live on dumps and garbage tips.

The acrid smoke that covers the dump comes from the smoldering toxic waste. It causes lung diseases, asthma and endless ill heath. When we were there, Martin trudged silently through this garbage pit of hopelessness. His inner anger was controlled as he surveyed the depths of human misery, his face expressed feelings of pain and frustration. No one should be silent when humans should be forced in such inhuman conditions.

Here the poverty is profound. He showed only compassion and caring, no revulsion at the nauseating stench that clung to our hair and clothes. Relegated to a deplorable existence at Payatas garbage dumpThe people were covered with the filth, the smell, the dirt and dust of the garbage. It stuck to them like a shroud of death. To the world of the well off, they are outcasts, untouchables and lepers but to Martin, they were just people that were happy we were there in solidarity with them. Martin embraced an old woman, he held the hands of the children and called them God's people and asked me to give his apologies for intruding on their lives.

He told me that he felt he was in a holy place, unworthy to be where God is present in the poorest of the poor asking us to be one with them in compassion and solidarity to help, in any small way, to change their suffering into even a little joy. There were positive changes brought by the visit and the activities of the dedicated social workers but the great landslide came and killed many of those whom we had held and embraced.

After his visit to the Philippines, Martin never forgot the experience and joined more campaigns for human rights and social justice.

Father Shay Cullen
PREDA Foundation, Inc.

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