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With the Children Behind the Prison Bars

April 5, 2005 ·  By Mary T. Martin - PREDA Volunteer from Ireland

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With the Children Behind the Prison BarsI was entering into my second month in the Philippines the day I arrived at PREDA, and while I had genuinely at this point fallen head over heals in love with the country, a country where the warmth of (both the weather and) the people can not be matched anywhere across the globe, there was a part of me that couldn¹t help being a little disappointed. I had just returned from a one-month placement in the beautiful city of Dumagete. I cannot deny that the people there had hearts of gold ­ this was plain for anyone to see, and while this was comforting, it was on the other hand the key problem. The people there showed us unnecessary respect simply based on the fact that we were Westerners. They tried to avert our eyes towards the beautiful coastline any time we passed a badjao, quickly changed conversation when we tried to inquire about their shantytowns. They seemed to want to hide the reality of how difficult life can be in the beautiful but troubled country that is the Philippines.

After spending one month in this environment, and wondering if I would ever really get close to the reality of life in the Philippines, I was very ready and willing to “get my hands dirty”.

This was something that I was sure that the controversial but admirable organisation of PREDA was sure to be “ready and willing” to offer me for the one-month placement that I was honoured to spend there. That is the precise reason why, when we returned from “down town” Olongapo on the evening of our first day on the PREDA team, I have to admit that I was a little disheartened.

We arrived at Olongapo on the morning of August 2nd, after a brief introduction to some of the staff, we were told to relax as we were kindly shown to our private apartment with TV and warm shower. Due to irrepressible urge of a true backpacker to explore, instead of relaxing as instructed, we went instead for a walk to discover Olongapo, the restless city that was to be our home for the next four weeks. As we walked around the city, the previously mentioned “backpacker’s urge to explore” was almost immediately replaced by another familiar feeling guilt. Guilt at being a regular tourist, guilt at eating ice cream while the street children tugged at our arms for money, guilt at returning back to our TV and our hot shower while just a kilometre away, a group of boys slept under a bridge by a cold muddy river. Guilt that people at home had sponsored me their hard earned money to come here.

As we returned to the house on the hill that is home to PREDA, with our hearts sinking lower by the minute, convinced that this would be yet another placement where we would be treated as honoured guests instead of the missionaries that felt we were, we were greeted at the door by possibly the kindest girl in all of the Philippines, who we would within 24 hours class as a long lost friend, one of the Jail rescue team Joan Conanan. Joan shyly told us “Fr. Shay has an assignment for you”. My spirits suddenly lifted as Joan explained we would be going on a jail rescue mission in Manila the following morning. She explained that we would be rescuing three boys from prison, all between the ages on 15 and 17. Although I have to admit my jaw dropped when informed that I would have to be up at 3.30 am the following morning! (a time I would usually get to bed after a night out at home!)

We woke at 3 am and gathered our things. It was pitch dark and pouring rain as we began to make our way towards the long road to Manila. We made our way in a tired silence, drifting in and out of sleep. Many hours later, as the sky became increasingly brighter and the roadside became increasingly built up I soon caught my first sight of Manila. I saw the famous cloud of smog that everyone associates with Manila. A hazy cloud just above the road, kind of covering the cars, blurring your vision. It was exciting and sad to see the city waking up. Merchants and beggars waking up side by side. I saw families waking up with the fly over they slept under as their only shelter. As the children ran around with no clothes on I was overwhelmed with an admiration for these people. It’s hard to see how people can wake up to that every day and still have the energy to do it over and over again.

When we reached the jail, the sun was high in the sky and the air was sticky. We entered the gates to the prison and the guards eyed us with suspicion. Their features softened once our presence was explained however a feeling of tension still hung in the air. There was darkness in their eyes and I wondered what those eyes had witnessed behind the walls that they guarded. The shoes of the prison warden caught my eye. They were so shiny you could actually see your reflection in them, my eyes followed the dusty ground to see in stark contrast, a pair or bare rough and dirty feet, as I looked up I was greeted by a prisoner, only then did I notice other prisoners starting to emerge from hiding, or should I say, parts of prisoners! An eye peering through a hole in the wall, arms and legs reaching out of cells. I followed the passageway of cells. The faces pressed against the bars were friendly as they reached their arms out to touch me. The heat was intensified by the smell of sweat and urine that surrounded us as we moved deeper into the confines of the prison walls. We climbed the staircase to reach the juvenile’s cell.

The boys backed away from the bars as the warden approached. He led us in, locked the door behind us and left without saying a word. The boys looked very curious to see three Western girls entering their cell but they sat down obediently when asked. Their cell was lined with bunks two beds high. There were some saucepans and buckets in the corner and it was difficult to tell if they were supposed to be a makeshift kitchen or a toilet. The cell was dark and damp; it crawled with insects and just like the rest of the prison, had a faint smell of sewage. [End]

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