Entering the war zone: “I saw nothing but rage”

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: May 3, 2001

It looked like a scene from “Under Fire”, an ’80s movie on the Nicaraguan revolution. The remains of burned-out cars on the usually bustling avenue spoke of the violence that had just transpired there. Policemen and soldiers were resting by the wayside, ready to face another onslaught from the Estrada loyalists who had engaged them in a running street battle since morning.

Signs, billboards and shop windows were broken. Security guards of commercial establishments stood behind closed doors, peering through shattered glass windows and iron grills. Stores were closed, personnel opening their doors cautiously, looking left and right, as if they were afraid something terrible might come at any moment.

Recto Avenue all the way to the Mendiola Bridge was also reminiscent of Los Angeles after the LA riots precipitated by the unpopular court decision on the Rodney King case.

About a dozen people were cannibalizing a delivery van with punctured tires and whose front hood had been forced open, exposing its insides for the looters to feast on. Each time one of the looters managed to get a piece of the van, he would run away — only to return a few seconds later. The scene was almost primal.

A few meters from the van was a fire truck trapped on Recto Avenue’s center island marked “San Lazaro,” its tires deflated, its windshield broken. There were also signs that it, too, had been looted.

4 p.m. on Recto Avenue

It was around 4 p.m. In the distance, a crowd of about a hundred pro-Estrada rallyists had gathered near Isetann, the department store on the corner of Recto and Quezon Boulevard. Every so often, they would back off from the center of their attention then they would immediately return to it.

Near them, in front of stores that sold fake CDs, VCDs and computer software, were about a dozen young men, many of them bare-chested, their hair dyed, acting menacingly. The noisy bunch gathered around someone distributing what looked like cooked rice in plastic bags.

A group of five, food in hand, walked 10 meters away and, using newspapers that had been kicked around by the wind, spread their food right in the middle of the road and started to eat. Every so often, one of them playfully smacked another in the face, and the latter, grinning, hollered, “Putang ina mo (You son of a bitch)!”

This happy group of teenagers were separated from the crowd near Isetann by remnants of what looked like a barricade on the corner of Morayta. Beyond this point was another group of people — not bare-chested, and not playful — who just stood there, watching the other side, as though looking into a glass cage. They had stern expressions on their faces, in contrast to the jolly disposition of the others who were about 50 meters away.

There seemed to be a psychological line that prevented them from stepping into the other side and take part in what looked like fun. Hands in their pockets or folded across their chests, they said nothing, not even to one another.

Security in an orange shirt

I was, of course, intent on finding out what was going on. I learned that there had been a commotion half an hour before I arrived; there were apparently some cops near Isetann. For some reason, I felt comfortable, safe even, in this potentially hostile environment. (After all, this had been the scene of deadly skirmishes between the marines and the Estrada loyalists just a few hours earlier and the people who were here were obviously part of the mob that the authorities had been trying to quell.) I realized later that it must have been my shirt, an orange shirt – orange being the campaign color of the deposed president Joseph Estrada, and the color of protest for his followers.

I looked around and realized that I and a foreigner covering Mendiola were the only journalists on the scene. Passers-by looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering what this orange-clad -person wearing a press ID was doing in this territory. We approached a man in his early 20s and asked him what he thought of the action that transpired here earlier.

Even before he could answer, about 10 men and boys began milling around us. My comfort level plunged. In between shooting my questions, I glanced at the crowd that surrounded us. Most of them looked calm but some were visibly angry.

‘Why only him?’

“We don’t like what they did to Estrada. The justice system in this country is not fair. We kept silent after his ouster but why do they have to arrest him and subject him to all that humiliation?” said the man we approached, in Tagalog. “And why only him?”

“Yeah,” interjected another. “Why only him when Ramos stole far too much money from the government?”

“All we want is for Erap to be treated with respect,” another chimed in.

Then one man in his 30s reeking with liquor, his eyes droopy, thrust himself into our little circle so that his face was only about two feet away from mine. “Why are you here? You want to ask question about my country so you can compare it with yours?” he snarled at the foreign journalist in broken English.

The foreigner looked at me, a tinge of worry in his eyes. My knees were shaking. Shit, I told myself, this is precisely why my editors advised me not to venture into hostile territory. During the six-day rally at the Edsa Shrine, journalists were often harassed by Estrada supporters. Earlier that day, on Mendiola and Recto, television reporters and cameramen were attacked by the angry mob. But I reasoned to myself that I was not representing the direct objects of the loyalists’ ire: the big media outfits like the Philippine Daily Inquirer, GMA-7 or ABS-CBN. I was with CyberDyaryo and the Washington Post! It was too late to realize that to these people, it didn’t matter where I worked. And I had on an orange shirt!

“What do you want to know?” the drunken man asked. The foreigner replied, haltingly, that he was there to write about the political situation and that he was interviewing the Estrada loyalists precisely to know their sentiments. That seemed to have a calming effect because the drunk stepped back. But he regarded us with his face full of disdain, if not rage. I half-expected him to smack the foreigner in the face.

Where were the cops when we needed them?

I realized that the small crowd had closed in on us and if they decided to beat us up, we’d have no chance for escape. The video image of the Manila policeman being stoned and then beaten up by the mob in the early hours of the siege Monday morning was replayed in my head. My knees were still shaking. The cops! Where are the cops! They were in Mendiola, some 300 or so meters away, resting, recovering their strength.

I felt my wallet in my back pocket — and immediately caught myself. Geez, I thought, my instincts were betraying the condescension I may have had toward these guys. I was behaving no differently than those text messagers who insulted and poked fun at Estrada’s loyalists and the thought tormented me.

Thankfully, the man who smelled of liquor left the crowd, but not before shouting, to no one in particular, in Tagalog, “You sons of bitches! Stop doing this to Erap!” The others joined in: “Tell your friends in the media to be fair!”

As we walked away from the crowd, I found myself pacing briskly, walking ahead of the foreign journalist. The remnants of the barricade at the Morayta intersection suddenly looked like a friendly no-fire zone to me. If we could just get beyond that point, I thought, we’d be safe.

Wrong again

Beyond that were people who looked less hostile, passive in fact. I scanned the crowd and zeroed in on a subject for an interview. I chose Teresa Bagorio, 25, and her husband Rolando, 37, who own a boarding house. They were sitting on the curb and were simply dressed and I thought they probably were just folk who lived near the area, kibitzers. I was wrong.

Teresa and Rolando were Estrada loyalists, and they were not kibitzers — they had joined the march from the Edsa Shrine early Tuesday morning. They had spent the last five nights at the Shrine, cheering for Estrada and shouting themselves hoarse cursing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

“We were at Edsa during People Power II,” Teresa said, taking me and the foreigner by surprise. “We were paid to go there. We had some budget for our community organization,” her husband butted in.

But they were not paid to go to the Shrine for People Power III, Rolando added, as though he anticipated our next question. “We realized that People Power II was a sham and that Estrada still remains the legitimate president,” he said.

The couple took turns claiming that Estrada is pro-poor, that the elite is out to get him, that former President Fidel Ramos is in cahoots with President Arroyo, etc. They also repeated questions that the pro-Estrada rallyists have been asking: “Why single out Erap? Why not Ramos?”

“As long as Estrada is in jail and Arroyo stays in the palace, we will stay here. We will not stop,” Rolando added.

Discomforting thoughts

The short exchange made me go back and reassess this crisis from Day One, on April 26, when Estrada was arrested in his house in West Greenhills. The crowd of supporters that had kept vigil outside the exclusive subdivision where he lived were mostly from the poor communities. They subsequently flocked to the Edsa Shrine where they and the thousands of others who joined them were fed with lines that this was a class war, that Erap was being persecuted, that Arroyo is anti-poor, etc. And they were agitated to march to Malacanang.

But after spending a few moments with these people who had stuck their necks out for Estrada — in exchange for a few hundred pesos or a stash of shabu — I began to wonder whether my perception of these people is valid, whether I and the rest of us in the so-called petty bourgeois and those in the middle and upper classes were being fair in our judgment of those from the underbelly of our hopelessly benighted society.

To be sure, the pro-Estrada crowd was manipulated. But were they so ignorant and stupid to march to Malacanang, break through the barricades, and allow themselves to be beaten up, even shot at?

That question nagged me as we walked back to Mendiola, passing by the remnants of the violence that had erupted here just hours before. The sight of hundreds of cops and soldiers securing the area was reassuring but, they hardly provided comfort.

I looked back and saw — in the twisted metal, the broken windows, the burned-out car, the worried face of a storekeeper, the exhausted face of a cop, the blank face of a man behind the cop — nothing but rage. When I stepped into the air-conditioned cab that would take me to Glorietta, I felt a stirring deep inside me.

— CyberDyaryo

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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