A decade of barricading: Sitio San Roque emerges as hope for urban activism

Text by: Dominique Flores

In the midst of the bustling Quezon City, stray dogs wander around to seek refuge on streets along high-rise buildings and shanties wedged in alleyways. Under rusted sheets of corrugated metal and recycled cardboard, they try to survive. Rarely are they loathed by the people who walk past them. Sometimes, they are even brought to a home and cared for as their lives are valued the same way people would value their own. 

Muslim leader Botuan “Ka Bobby” Dicatanongan never thought that he would end up wishing to be favored as those dogs who are given a roof, food and water. 

In Sitio San Roque, a community located in Barangay Bagong Pag-asa in Quezon City, 60-year-old Ka Bobby and his neighbors were forced out of their own homes for the interests of business conglomerates and the National Housing Authority (NHA).

“Ginagawa nila kaming hayop, mas masahol pa kami sa hayop. Dahil ang hayop pag nahuli, ilalagay sa tamang tirahan, may sapat na inumin, pagkain, tirahan. Pero kami diyan lang sa gilig-gilid ilalagay,” Ka Bobby lamented.

Recounting the dispersal

It was a Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010, when stones and glass bottles first clashed against the unarmed people of Sitio San Roque, a community that used to shelter 20,000 people before the demolitions. 

Remembering the violent incursions, Ka Bobby recalled how policemen and the demolition team gave no prior notice that the residents’ houses will be dismantled. Left without a choice, the residents formed a human barricade with locked arms to hinder the state’s forces from taking away their homes.

A total of 1,000 personnel from the demolition team and the Philippine National Police arrived, including three firetrucks ready to bring to ruin their already runned-down homes. 

“Talagang namamalo ‘yung mga pulis noon. Tsaka, kahit mga pulis sila, [sila] rin ang nanggigiba ng bahay,” Estrelieta “Ka Inday” Bagasbas, chairperson of Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) San Roque, recalled. 

Overwhelmed with the great number of forces, the leaders of Sitio San Roque strengthened the mental fortitude of the community, reminding residents that their rights are being trampled on and that this brutal attack must not be ignored for as long as they live.  

“Iyon ang isinumpa ko na hanggang buhay [ako] ay hindi na nila magagawang… gibain ang bahay namin dahil nawawalan po kami ng karapatang pantao,” Ka Bobby said.

Forces whose motto is to “serve and protect” the people are also the same forces that shackle anyone who hinders the desires of the ruling class for profit. During the demolition, they unremittingly tore down the community’s homes, bulldozing their way in even after demolition hours.

The NHA, Ayala Land Inc. and the Quezon City local government were the main perpetrators of the displacement of over 3,000 families back in 2010. 

Their P22-billion joint project to develop both commercial and residential properties in the Quezon City Central Business District could have been an inclusive venture for the urban poor dwellers in Sitio San Roque, to provide them with job opportunities, livelihood and better housing means. This has been a pressing concern for a full decade now.

After six long hours of fending for their community, the unarmed residents who were bruised and aggravated in the confrontation triumphed as they clinched a temporary restraining order from the QC Regional Trial Court against demolition activities on that same day. 

Ten years have already passed, and the demand of 6,000 families for an inclusive city development still stands firm.

Rebuilding the walls

The success of Sitio San Roque in batting out giant land grabbers during the first dispersal was only a ripple of the tidal wave awaiting them.

As each year passed, eviction threats only increased and settlement offers became more enticing to waver the residents’ determination to clamor for in-city community development. 

“Tinatakot din nila kasi na kapag hindi [kami] kumuha ng relokasyon, wala na silang makukuha pang tirahan kapag… na-wash out ‘yung aming lugar,” Ka Inday said.

NHA and Ayala offered the residents a one-time cash assistance amounting to P6,000 to P24,000 to vacate their homes and return to their provinces, she added.

Facing violent dispersals year after year, tempting negotiations, more demolitions and alleged arsons have brought tremendous trauma and fear in the lives of residents. 

Ka Inday also narrated how community leaders would hold meetings to consolidate their members. She believes that tirelessly explaining the bigger picture of their fight helps the residents understand the worth of enduring the arduous journey in fighting for their right to the city.

Citing the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, Ka Bobby asserted that it is the urban poor’s right to be provided with affordable housing where they have access to basic social services, hospitalization, education and a decent livelihood. 

“Paano uunlad ang ating bansa kung hindi kayo tumulong sa kapwa naming mahirap,” he asserted.

Clarifying that Sitio San Roque does not oppose the projects of NHA, the community leaders emphasized how their demand is merely for their rights to be recognized as indicated in the law. 

In response, the residents of Sitio San Roque crafted their own Community Development Plan (CDP) with the guidance of volunteers through workshops initiated by the Save San Roque Alliance. This was proposed to Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte last December 2019.

“Kailangan na tutukan… at magkaroon na ng linaw [‘yung CDP namin] para naman mayroon na kaming aasahan, para hindi na rin kami magre-repair nang sobra-sobra,” Ka Inday said.

It has been almost a year since Belmonte received their CDP, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project has yet to come to fruition.

Along with the Save San Roque Alliance and Kadamay San Roque, the residents held a dialogue with the local government Oct. 2 to discuss the status of their CDP, the P8,000 cash assistance from the Social Amelioration Program and the worsening condition of the urban poor amid the pandemic.

Ang nakakalungkot doon ay ‘yung tagumpay na hindi pa naaayos, nasa alanganin pa. Pero ang masaya doon ay ‘yung programang nabuo, parang onti-onti namin nararamdaman kung ano ang epekto ng mga pagpupulong,” Ka Bobby added.

An emerging hope for urban activism

On Sept. 23, the 10th anniversary of their continued struggle, residents woke up hopeful towards the societal change they bring in the city.

After a decade of barricading, fighting and recovering, the community celebrated their victories by holding a program and a protest as a symbol of what has kept them strong through the years — their solidarity. 

Nakakapagod, pero kapag nakita mo kasi ‘yung tagumpay, parang ang saya mo. Hindi siya napuputol. Kailangan ituloy-tuloy lang ang pagpapaliwanag,” Ka Inday said.

Being engaged in the struggle for accessible and affordable housing, they are well aware of the walls being razed down in other urban poor communities and they hold out the battlefield with them. 

“Tuloy lang po ang laban, imulat ang kapitbahay at mga kasama sa komunidad. Pagtibayin lang po ang hanay, huwag magpabaya at magkaisa talaga sa layuning manatili sa lugar [kung] hindi pa bibigyan ng gobyerno ng pabahay,” Ka Inday said.

Though other urban poor communities do not receive the same support as Sitio San Roque, the growing collective effort offered by various organizations and individuals to Sitio San Roque’s cause is a beacon of hope for urban activism.

The strings pulled by capitalist perpetrators may appear to be for society’s advancement, but the truth behind their desire for change is a divisive system widening the gap between social classes — disregarding the calls of the urban poor for inclusive community development. 

As attacks intensify against the urban poor, marginalized sectors only grow firmer in the fight for their rights, holding up their walls for genuine urban development that accommodates the masses’ needs.

History presents the long-fought battle of the urban poor and reveals the need for it to come to an end. 

Sampung taon na, kailangan na namin maningil,” Ka Inday said.

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