This weekend is the time to look to the saints for inspiration and help and to pray for the living and the dead. But we don’t need to go to Church to find the saints. There are many among us bravely fighting for justice and the rights of the abused and oppressed children, the suffering and the neglected. The cemetery is not the only place to meet the dead and the dying. They are among us too, some dead in spirit and others almost dead in body. To them we are called to heal, save and help like the Good Samaritan did to the total stranger wounded and dying but ignored and left to die by the authorities.
Francisco is just a child of about 11 or 12 years old. It’s hard to know his age because he was so emaciated. He lay naked on the cold, hard dirty floor of the children’s detention center in the heart of Manila just a short walk from the City Hall and near a lavish food-laden supermarket mall.
His skinny, frail body was shrunken, skeletal as the severe malnutrition had taken its cruel toll and had dragged him to the gates of a painful and agonizing death by slow starvation. He was naked too, his face pressed to the pavement close to a wall. His bones, like twigs, were protruding from beneath his food-deprived paper-thin skin. He looked as if a living dead.
His legs were drawn up to cover his naked privates, a last weak effort to cover the shame and humiliation heaped on his miserable life. His short, abandoned, loveless life moved to its end. But there was no privacy here, an innocent at the gates of hell, as Francisco lay in the public view of the many children and apathetic employees in this jail-like city institution. Another seemingly lifeless body lay nearby also. The stark outline of his bones was as sharp as the hunger and pain that gnawed at his innards.
It was his protruding rib cage that shocked most of all. Each rib could be clearly counted. There was no discernable breathing but one could not know from looking at his starved naked body. He was close to the last stage of a painful death, it seemed. Government employees of this place known as Reception Action Center (RAC) seem indifferent to the suffering child of Lazarus that lay sprawled at the foot of an institutional wall.
For who could look on that emaciated, severely malnourished body of a child for a moment without feeling a pang of compassion and be shocked at his horrid state? Here was a human person with the dignity, value and importance of a Filipino child of God, endowed with rights and needs, left to die as if he were nothing more than a bag of bones.
I have been to RAC, that house of horrors where dozens of small semi-abandoned children are locked up in empty rooms without proper sanitary toilets, showers, beds and proper eating facilities. The stench of the excrement-filled and stuffed toilets filled the air when I was there and made me nauseous and want to puke. A steel drum filled with urine and excrement is carried down the stairs daily by the bigger boys. The steel drum serves as a toilet for dozens of children.
Outside, half a dozen children as young as five and six years old with advanced mental problems, run around naked. The mentally disturbed defecate on the open ground, endangering the others with bacteria and cholera.
The children clustered around the wooden bars of the empty lock-up room on the second floor cried to be let out and begged me to help them go home to their parents. There was no therapeutic, educational or entertainment program for the children. No toys, comics, games or staff to conduct activities with them. The food is very basic and monotonous. There is no playground equipment to be seen or sports and games facilities. These children will become all the more retarded, stunted and mentally handicapped. They are doomed to a life of ignorance without meaning and purpose.
Another child, call him Rico, is an intelligent bright child in the RAC for weeks but with horrific neck burns that burnt the skin off and he was left without medical treatment. The shrunken flesh pulled his chin and head into a twisted grotesque position. He needed urgent medical procedures and anti-burn treatment.
Just about 20 meters from the front of the RAC building housing these small children is another big building called the Manila Youth Rehabilitation Center (MYRC). There are as many as 140 or more teenagers jailed behind bars without beds, exercise, education or any relief from the utter inhuman conditions. A hole in the floor and a faucet is the only sanitation for dozens of these teenagers in several crowded cells. The main meal is a few spoons of rice and a spoon of soupy vegetable. Medical aid is a minimum and left to volunteer missions. These conditions would be considered criminal neglect anywhere in the world. But at the Gates of Hell, they are normal.
A concerned visitor observed all these conditions and wrote an important letter of complaint to President Aquino in Malacañang. He received a reply from an official, copied to the city government declaring that, yes, the conditions described were a violation of the child protection law. And that was the end of it. Today it is still the same and perhaps worse.
Francisco and Rico were rescued a week or so ago by social workers of a private charity and are receiving treatment at an undisclosed child care clinic. A legal medical examination was done and it can be used in criminal proceeding against those responsible for the horrific neglect of these children and youth.
May we soon hear voices raised for these voiceless, neglected children and see action to close down that awful place of the living dead.
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