October 24, 2007

My Bilibid Days

This is the story of Bunso…

“I passed by an old man looking pensively at an old photo of a girl he loved all his life. Beside him, was a man looking so detached from this world. Nothing binds the three of us and the thousand more confined in this little space for an indefinite period of time, except for one thing we might have forever lost - freedom. How heartbreaking that my life will miserably end here. In the dead silence of the night, loneliness visits me. He has been my constant visitor for now. I suffer not so much because I’m caged within the four walls of this tiny grimy cell but because I’m separated from my loved ones. I’m a fallen bird who broke his wings in his most atrocious flight. All the cheerfulness flocked from my heart the moment I realized I could never fly that sky so blue and high. And all I could do now is gaze at it from the lowest point of my life. Living behind these bars is harsh and scary. My fellow inmates have troubles of their own enough to drive them mad. We are all brutalized by life filled with congestion, filth and vice. Life here is in the borders of a scorching hell and cold purgatory. So gloomy and dark has my world become that the slightest stirring of love, the faintest ray of light, awakens the hope I’m afraid is slowly dying within me. I wish I could still turn back the time. I’ve lost everything I loved and cared for. My only possessions left are two orange shirts, the lone letter my mother wrote to me before she died, and happy memories of innocence I safely locked in my mind. They have all forgotten me now. I am no better than a dust… forgotten and forever gone with the wind.”

I worked for some time with the Jesuit Prison Service in Bilibid - the most notorious of the seven national prisons in the country confining more than 17,000 convicts who committed grave offenses such as murder, homicide and rape. Working inside the prison may be unsafe yet fulfilling. Though fully aware that there are still inmates with antisocial behavior, there are those who have repented and changed for the better. I can’t help but feel concerned when I hear some of them dejectedly complain they haven’t had a visit for quite a while. I admire their honesty and courage for recounting to me the gruesome crimes they have committed. Somehow, I commiserated with them for the different problems they have to face everyday – lack of water, inadequate food supply, overcrowding, bribery, physical and emotional abuse, gang wars, discrimination, depression, degradation, longing, hunger for human touch, and the most dreaded moment that maybe someday they might be reintegrated into the free society. Their stories have imparted in me something – that they too are also victims… victims of poverty, illiteracy, broken home and chance. Though I condemn their sins, I couldn’t help but broaden my understanding why they have committed such crimes. When I was at the Death Row, I appreciated death convicts approaching me, shaking my hand and telling me “thank you for being here.” Though I have not uncovered all the secrets and mysteries behind bars, my volunteer service transported me to a world I had only glimpsed in Robin Padilla movies (it was claimed he was the most celebrated of all the housemates Bilibid has ever had, the crown now being passed on to Jalosjos). A world resembling a miniature of city of Manila – complete with dilapidated old buildings, churches, mosque, plaza, wet market, restaurants, sari-sari stores, hospital, rehabilitation center, furniture and industrial factories, school, museum, post office, plaza, tennis court, basketball court, beautiful garden and bartolina with swarming tambays in every corner of the place.

I have met a new family through the PJPS staff, especially Father Will. They served as my bridge to reach out to lost souls trapped in the living underworld. Funny, I could still remember the first time I entered the gates of prison… I was sweating profusely… a little terrified that I might get stabbed or lynched. Nothing of that sort happened of course. What an extra-challenge achievement for a na├»ve boy who doesn’t even want to hang out with friends in bars and instead spent his weekends drinking with rapists and murderers (that was drinking orange juice, by the way… trust me you’ll need extra vitamin C in dealing with them). And before I forget, Bunso is one of my three buddies in Camp Sampaguita (Bilibid is divided by security level into three camps – Maximum, Minimum/Camp Sampaguita, and Minimum/Camp Bukang-Liwayway). He was my tour guide (teaching me some useful Bilibid slang like puga, buryong and tarima) all the time I was bonding with ka-kosas. I don’t know if he would agree with Gandhi who said “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” He won’t I bet. We are just of the same age.
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