I did some work with an NGO called the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC) on my last visit to the Philippines in Oct 2007 to January 2008.  The CRC works with children who are victims of state violence.  This set of ten images will try to tell just a small part of their current story. As some of you may know, the Philippines is in pretty rough shape these days.  It’s current government is said by human rights groups in country and internationally to be guilty of severe abuses.  It was until last year the 2nd most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist (after Iraq).

According to respected human rights watchdog ‘Karapatan,’ the GMA regime (1 Jan to 30 June 2008) is accused of:

Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions… 910 (2006 was the worst year with 210 killings)
Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances… 193 (2006 was the worst year with 78)

These images start in a Manila jail which houses accused Muslim insurgents (in Bush terms: “Terrorists”), including a dozen former children, now young adults…

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***all images: ©2007-8 alex felipe / All Rights Reserved.

Please contact the photographer with use inquiries***

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In this photo CRC staff are conducting art therapy workshops for both the youth that are their clients, and for anyone else on the Muslim floor of Camp Bagong Diwa.

Something is more than a little off when a 12 year old is accused of kidnapping 52 people and held in captivity without a completed trial into his twenties.

I was able to visit a group of youth (originally numbering twelve) accused Abu Sayaff (the militant Al Quaida offshoot) prisoners at Camp Bagong Diwa [‘Camp New Consciousness’], a prison in metro Manila.

All of the group I met were imprisoned barely into their teens, all are now in their twenties, and none have seen the end of their trials. They were all arrested in Mindanao and brought to Manila to showcase to the media the “success” of the government in routing the Abu Sayaff.

All are accused of crimes that seem outlandishly ridiculous like a 12 year old kidnapping 52 people, but even if they were true what’s happened to them since seems horribly unjust. They live on the first floor of the jail which is dedicated to Muslim detainees all accused of being Abu Sayaff members, of the 130+ most have not completed trial (despite many of them having been imprisoned for 5+ years.

Around five to seven lived in each two part cell that measured approximately 3×6 metres for the inner room and 2×3 for the outer room. Each inner cell had a washroom facility that has running water about six hours each day. Between 8 and 3 pm the cells are opened and they are allowed into the approx. 6 metre wide inside hall of the jail (they are the only ones in the multistoried jail that had access to this). They are not given any regular access outside so they would crowd around the one corner of the jail where light would come in on nice days. After 10p the inner cell door is also locked down for the night.

One of the kids showed me his cell which he shared with six others. It was set up bunk style, but instead of one raised bed over another, some slept on the floor under the bottom bed. He shared his bed with one other. The group of youth we visited have been housed in adult prison and denied schooling for the last five to six years.

Despite this, they says that the conditions are better now. They used to be housed in the second building in Camp Bagong Diwa with criminals convicted of hard crimes like rape and murder. There they slept thirty to a cell (so crowded that you have to sleep on your side, one told me with eyes glazed and mouth smiling). There water was rationed at four litres per person, per day—and that for all their needs from washing to drinking.

I was impressed by the strength of these young men. They greeted us with smiles and treated us with respect. It almost didn’t feel like I was meeting kids with their childhoods robbed from them—except for that glazed over look they all had when they weren’t talking to us directly.

This was especially pronounced with Taufic Munir, the former 12 year old accused of kidnapping. Ikram Amiruddin, who seemed to speak for the group, said as we were leaving “when you see us we are smiling and seem happy, but remember that there’s more. We’ve been taken from our families and imprisoned so far away from them that they can’t visit.”

That these young men have kept their sanity and decency after what’s happened to them humbles me. Sadness and anger are some other emotions I leave with, they may not have been militants when they were captured, but I have no doubt this is exactly what would spur others on to become one.

A month or so after this photo was made one of the youth was convicted for the Dos Palmas Resort kidnapping on Palawan in 2001 . The youth claims to have never been to Palawan and the only evidence they have on him is that he ‘confessed.’ The youth claims that this confession was only obtained after torture (including beatings by multiple men with and without weapons, choking with a plastic bag, and electricution).

In order for the torture to end he says he told the guard that he did ‘everything.’ This resulted in the then 17 year old being charged with: 259 counts of frustrated murder, 21 counts of murder, and the Dos Palmas kidnapping.

He has been sentenced to twenty (yes 20) life sentences in maximum security prison.

There were originally twelve Muslim youth in this jail. That number went down to eleven in 2005 when one was killed during a prison siege in 2005. Now that one has been convicted there are ten.

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This is Bimbas, he was born in 1987, fourteen years later he was “invited” by the police to the station and his parents never saw him again.  Since then he has been waiting for his day in court.  Like the majority of the Muslim prisoners here, he is charged with kidnapping.

Bimbas was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.  He was always smiling and was quick to laugh.  When I asked him what I could bring him on my next visit he asked for a book on Philippine history (I got him one from one of the best book publishers in the Phils: the Ibon Foundation).  One of his regrets is not being able to finish school and the jail did not provide even a basic library.

He did not strike me as a “terrorist.”

Now I again want to stress that I do understand that children can be criminals, and that I understand that the worst people can seem very nice.  In the case of these child inmates, their guilt or innocence has no bearing on how they were treated pre and post arrest.

None were charged upon arrest (all were “invited” to help the police).  All claim to have been tortured (and torture is an established practice in the Philippines).  All were jailed thousands of kilometres from their point of arrest and from their families (technically illegal in the Phils).  All were arrested as children and jailed with adults (again technically illegal).  And all are held with only their ‘confessions’ as evidence.

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This boy’s father is also imprisoned in Camp Bagong Diwa.  His family decided to leave Mindanao for Manila so as to be able to keep the family close.  They were lucky as the wife’s sister lived in the capital so the transition was made easier.

This photo was taken during a CRC event, that’s their banner that you’ve seen before to the left of the photo.

As I’ve written before, the CRC works with children that are victims of state violence.  The Philippines has experienced civil unrest for it’s entire history since colonialisation.  Today there are two main insurgencies: the New People’s Army (based around the country) and the various Muslim fronts (from the more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front–the largest of the active Muslim fronts, to the tiny band of extremists in the Abu Sayaff group).

For the Muslims this fight results from:
– Pride: they, along with many of the indigenous groups, were never defeated and colonised so they don’t feel any allegiance to what they see as a neo-colonial government in Manila.
– Unequal Distribution of Wealth:  Mindanao is probably the most mineral and natural resource rich island in the Philippines and so they feel that the amount of money they get from the central government to be inequitable relative to how much the island makes for the nation.
– Lack of Political Power:  They feel that they have no say as regards their economic and political future.
– Militarisation:  All of the above come together and result in increased militarisation and all the human rights disasters that come with it.  For example the central gov will let a foreign owned giant into a community without the community’s consent.  The company’s plans (for example a mining company) displace people, destroy the local environment, result in health problems, and ruin livelihoods.  This results in resistance.  You can see where that goes.

Eventually this spills into other communities not directly affected by the company’s actions.  And this results in the military causing problems all over Mindanao (and across the country).

The country has a huge problem with internally displaced peoples.  Almost every week in the country there is a community that is forced to leave their homes so as to avoid military harrassment or attacks.

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According to Amnesty International:

Over recent years the number of killings of political and community activists in the Philippines has continued to increase. The methodology of the attacks has led Amnesty International to conclude that the attacks constitute a politically-motivated pattern of killings. The organization remains gravely concerned that members of the security forces may have been directly involved or been complicit in the killings. In this report Amnesty International highlights a number of recommendations, addressed to the government, international organisations, civil society organisations and the armed groups, and calls for concerted action.

Download their report here:  http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA35/006/2006

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This photo was taken during a CRC art therapy event.  This boy was one of the most vocal and spirited of the bunch.  But every once in awhile I would see a more thoughtful side, and when he snuck off to be alone I followed.

It must be hard on him to put on that tough-guy facade, knowing his family will never be together again…

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The former child prisoners are not the only connection the Children’s Rehab Center has with the jail.

As I mentioned in a past post, the entire floor where the kids are kept is devoted to Filipino muslims that are accused (but again most have not been convicted) of ‘terrorism.’  The CRC also has clients that are the children of these accused Abu Sayaff members.

Many can barely remember their fathers who have been imprisoned for 5-6 years without a completed trial.

In one family’s case the children will never know their father.  Their father, an sickly, elderly man was found lying in his bed shot by stray government bullets during a prison siege in 2005.  He was never convicted of any crime.

And while I don’t doubt that some of those imprisoned may actually be members of these groups, there is a great doubt over a number of the cases.  Many rest again on simple ‘confessions,’ and many were picked up simply because they had the same name as a known Abu Sayaff member.  Now muslims don’t have that many names combinations in the Philippines so the chance of finding say a Ikram Mohammed in village X where something bad happened is 100% if that’s your only criterion.

As a ‘funny’ aside, there are different spellings of these names though.  So while the governenment was say looking for an Ikram Mohammed, they will arrest an Ikram Muhammed and make do.  Human rights groups have pointed to this over and over again as a major violation of justice.

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Liza Calubad hasn’t seen her brother or father since they went missing in mid-2006, the day they were taken by the military.  Her father was a farmer and worked as an organiser for agrarian issues.  They are two of the 78 enforced disappearances in that year.

Since that day Liza and her family have been on the run, afraid to return to their provincial village.  When I first met them Lisa’s mother Beth had just quit a job as a laundry woman as the constant scrubbing had eaten away the nails resulting in an infection on her right hand.  She couldn’t rest however as she was worried about running out of money, “my main problems revolve around our livelihood, I don’t have work, so I’m trying to volunteer with [different organizations].  I’m not asking for a salary, just an allowance.”

Liza, thankfully, has her highschool education covered by the CRC and has since been given a college scholarship by a tv show that came to interview her and some other CRC clients (kindof an “Oprah” show sort of thing).  She is an amazing young woman who surprised me with her inner strength, compassion for people, her articulate confident ability to speak, and her leadership ability.

I always found it interesting that so few people with in the Philippines seem to know the extent of what is happening with the current administrative.  I think that with all the personal problems everyone has, it’s easier to just wear the blinders and focus on oneself and one’s family.

I asked Liza what her classmates thought of her situation: “very few [of the people at school] know about what’s happening in our country… and they don’t really care about it if they see me on tv.”

Liza is truly a unique young woman, and at 16 years old a very impressive speaker.  I’m sure she would make her brother and father proud–I hope they will be able to tell her that themselves one day.

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This is Rabi Mae, better known as “Sugar.”

She’s Liza Calubad’s neice (you met Liza in the previous image).  If you can imagine how difficult Liza’s loss was, imagine Sugar’s.

When the military took Rogerio and his son Gabriel, Liza lost an older brother and a father, she was 15.  Sugar lost a father and grandfather, and she was 3.

Rogerio is a community organiser (for agrarian rights) and so is a target, but his son Gabriel is just an electrician who was taken simply because he happened to be with his father at the time.  The family doesn’t know where the two are, and the military denies thier still being in custody.

Liza’s mother Beth had this to say:

“The kids are recovering, but I have yet to. I still think about how they were taken, and where they are now—and then there’s also our home, our food, our daily needs… How we can live is what makes it so hard.”

“The kids are still shaky. She (Sugar) doesn’t call me “Lola” [Grandma], she calls me “Mama.” [Every so often she says to me] ‘Mama, lets go look for Nanay [mother] and Papa.’ I tell her he’s in jail, and she says ‘well, let’s go get him,’ and I say we can’t because we don’t have the key, and she says ‘well then let’s go to the police and ask for the keys!’”

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The experiences of the Calubad family, which lost Gabriel and Rogerio leaving Liza and Sugar fatherless, are not unique in the Philippines.  The Children’s Rehabilitation Center (which operates in the Philippines three main regions) has a large number of current and potential clients from within the group called the Desaparecidos (“the Disappeared”).

On the table are personal items from some of the desaparecidos: favourite bags, t-shirts, a set of keys, a pair of prescription glasses, asthma medication, Rogerio’s portable radio, Gabriel’s camera, and others.  Many of these items are the last things the family has to remember them by as they have since had to flee their homes and leave behind thier belongings.

“The Desaparecidos” is also the name for the organisation formed by the families of the lost.  This photo was taken at one of their events.  It’s actually where the CRC first introduced me to Liza and Sugar.

Since the beginning of the GMA administration in 2001 there have been 185 individuals (including 62 from organized opposition groups and 31 women) that were abducted, apparently by authority figures, and have never been seen again. No official records for them exist.  This is separate still from the 235 political prisoners (204 arrested by GMA) that ‘officially’ sit in Philippine jails.

The government refuses to admit responsibility, but in the many cases where these abductions have happened in daylight and in public (eg. look up the story of Jonas Burgos, son of a famous journalist, and from a well to do family) witnesses have taken down license plates that have been traced back to the military.  Also there have been a handful that have reappeared and report that they saw, or shared cells with other missing people.

The Philippine republic is undergoing yet another rough period and the pressure is building.  Though the country does not get much international press coverage… don’t be surprised when things finally explode…

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The Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC) is a non- stock, non-profit, non-government institution serving children and families who are victims of state violence in the Philippines. It focuses its services on children in the rural and urban areas who suffer physical health problems, emotional disorders, and social maladjustments due to such traumatic events as arrest, torture, forced displacement, strafing, bombing, massacre, disappearance, and other forms of human rights violations. CRC also provides immediate psycho-social aid to children and families who are affected by natural disasters and accepts referrals for children-victims of other social disasters on a case-to-case basis. [from their website.]

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This image is taken at a CRC workshop in Manila.  This particular WS was attended by teenage girls who were accused of being gang members and beaten by the army, the Calubad girls, and the children of muslim men in Camp Bagong Diwa prison.

The CRC had a Dutch social worker volunteering with them and she conducted this mask making workshop.  The kids loved it, but at the same time it exposed alot of vulnerability.  They had to sit calmly while others applied the mask and in this quiet time you could see alot in their eyes.

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I wanted to end this series with a positive, happy image.  This was taken during the annual CRC Peacecamp in Manila where a couple hundren children come together to play games and attend art workshops with their peers that can understand their past.  It’s amazing to watch them together.

As depressing as the stories behind the CRC’s clients are, what I most took away from it all was how resilient the children were.  They have seen their communities destroyed by conflict, and/or have lost family members, but if you didn’t know their past, most of the time the children acted as they should: smiling, playing and laughing.

This is one of the traits of the Filipino people I admire most: the ability to laugh despite the difficulty of their circumstances.  Of course this is also a survival tactic, to dwell on what’s happened to them would leave them unable to act, and sometimes this trait also leads to defeatism.  Though with organisations like the CRC, contextualising their stories with the overall situation in the Phils is a core element in their programming and many former CRC children grow up to become part of organisations that are fighting for change in the country.

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Karapatan 2008 mid-year Human Rights Report: http://www.karapatan.org/files/KarapatanMonitor_2Q_edited%20FINAL.pdf

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UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston report on the human rights condition of the Phils is a good introduction to the situation: http://stopthekillings.org/stknpv2/?q=resources/60/alston%E2%80%99s-final-report-rp-extrajudicial-killings

CRC webpage: http://members.tripod.com/~childrehab/home.html