Manila Eyes Eviction of Poor from Cemetery In Manila, where housing and hope are in short supply, some people have come up with a novel alternative to their housing woes — living among the dead in a large cemetery. But the city's mayor says it may be time for them to leave.
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Manila Eyes Eviction of Poor from Cemetery

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Manila Eyes Eviction of Poor from Cemetery

Manila Eyes Eviction of Poor from Cemetery

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The news from Iraq can overshadow quieter stories of struggle elsewhere in the world. We're going next to the Philippines where there's a desperate shortage of housing.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has this tale of one novel solution.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Metro Manila is overcrowded, chaotic and a city of stark contrasts, where the rich live very well, many in a gleaming high-rises with stunning views of Manila Bay.

But the vast majority of the 11 million people living here are poor, so poor that as many as a third live below the poverty line, often squatting in shantytowns, unable to afford anything better.

Manila's North Cemetery offers a respite for some, a place to rest not just for the dead but for some 10,000 living, breathing souls who call this cemetery home. One hundred-plus acres with a main street lined with shade trees and bright pink bougainvillea, a street kept tidy by city workers who come often to sweep and cart away the trash.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SULLIVAN: It's vastly different from some of the dirty, crime-infested slums nearby, though electricity and clean water are a problem here, too, as is learning to live with the dead in close proximity, sometimes in the same crypt.

Clare Ventura(ph) is 28. A vendor and mother of three, she has lived in the cemetery all her life.

Ms. CLARE VENTURA (Resident, Manila North Cemetery, Philippines): (Through translator) I've had to teach myself to like living here, to be able to live here because we can't afford to rent a place outside. And also because this is where I have a chance to earn a little bit. You get used to it, and it's a lot safer here than most places outside.

SULLIVAN: Many families like Clare's came as caretakers, hired by prominent families to clean the mausoleums and protect them from vandals. But as Metro Manila's population grew, so did the cemeteries. There are now basketball hoops, fast-food stalls and mini-markets tucked in among the crypts and tombs. NGOs send volunteers to teach the children, and there are less welcome visitors, too.

Mr. BOYET ZAPATA(ph) (Resident, Manila North Cemetery, Philippines): (Filipino spoken)

SULLIVAN: Forty-two-year-old Boyet Zapata grew up here and helps maintain tombs for several families. He says spirits from the other side sometimes inhabit his coworkers' bodies, the newly dead pleading for God's forgiveness. Sixty-year-old Roque Rapon(ph) has lived here since 1960, tending the tomb of former president Manuel Roxas.

Mr. ROQUE RAPON (Resident, Manila North Cemetery): (Through translator) I used to be afraid at the beginning, especially at night. But I learned to live with it. Now, I'm more afraid of the living than the dead, because some of the new people are drug addicts and criminals who try to break into the tombs and steal gold or jewelry from the dead.

SULLIVAN: This used to be a nice place to live, he says, a sentiment echoed by 31-year-old Christopher Fernandez, who seems embarrassed by several men gambling on the top of a tomb just down the lane.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER FERNANDEZ (Resident, Manila North Cemetery, Philippines): (Filipino spoken)

SULLIVAN: I wish these newcomers would go away, he says. They're giving us a bad name. They play cards or sleep on the tombs. They walk around without their shirts on. They have no respect for the dead, he says. They have no sense of shame.

And the actions of these few may have ruined it for the majority. Manila's Mayor Alfredo Lim says there have been numerous complaints recently about criminals intimidating visitors. Mayor Lim is sympathetic to the squatters' predicament, but says he has no choice but to ask them to leave.

Mayor ALFREDO LIM (Manila, Philippines): We have to respect the dead. How could they rest in peace when people are scaring people, those who would like to visit their dead? It's not a nice environment, so we have to restore order. Being poor or being in poverty is no justification to violate the law.

SULLIVAN: Back at the cemetery, Christopher Fernandez mixes the cement he'll use to seal the tomb of Danilo Abad(ph), laid to rest just a few minutes earlier. The dead man's brother Jun(ph) says he has no problem with the laborer and his neighbors living here. If they help keep an eye on his brother, he says, why not? Christopher Fernandez, meanwhile, says he'd love not to live here.

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Filipino spoken)

SULLIVAN: Of course, I'd like to leave, he says. I'm 31 years old. I've already grown old here. But that doesn't mean I want the same thing to happen to my children, he says. The problem is we have nowhere else to go.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Manila.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And I'm looking at a man who's sleeping on the top of tomb, made his bed there.

INSKEEP: Sleeping the sleep of the dead.

MONTAGNE: Right. And you can see it at NPR's Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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