It was supposed to be the third largest mosque in the country – but from the main thoroughfare that is Roxas Boulevard, only the weather-beaten and rusty dome of the Rajah Sulayman Grand Mosque was visible. It reflected the beautiful bronze sunsets Manila Bay is famous for, but it was an incongruous sight against the bustling city that threatened to engulf it.
The mosque sat on a piece of reclaimed land like an ill-placed crown on a weary king’s head. And there didn’t seem to be a way in. The paved roads wound around it in circles, but none led towards its entrance.
“ You have to go by the rivulet, ” a helpful security guard said. “ It’s the only way in now – a narrow footpath by the break in the barbed wire…” Barbed wire? A closer look showed it was indeed there – a barbed wire fence hidden amidst the thick over-grown reeds.
“ By the rivulet –,” the guard pointed again. “ Follow the trail through the reeds and you’ll get there … eventually.” It was like a scene straight out of an ancient religious book.
A few minutes walk through the untamed terrain, the reeds parted. The sight that bid you welcome – an unexpected one. Around the unfinished mosque sat a small clump of dilapidated shelters that passed for homes … like moss growing wildly around a rock. Scraps of wood and plastic tied together under a canopy of canvas and corrugated steel. It looked like an evacuation camp too long left unattended.
Thin, unkempt children played in the mud and in the stagnant water that had pooled on the ground after days of endless tropical rain. They waved in greeting and laughed as if without fear of catching disease, or falling ill.
This was all they knew of life in Manila. Their parents had come here in the early nineties to flee the separatist war in their native Mindanao, hoping to find some peace and a better life… but life in the capital city, for them, has proven anything but quiet.
To the government, they are illegal dwellers – squatters with no right to be here. But Abdelmanan Tanandatu, the village leader, insists the authorities gave them permission to build their homes here, their mosque, and start afresh. That dream, Tanandatu said, ended two years ago when plans were unveiled to develop the area – to put up luxury residences, shopping malls and casinos, which would bring in more revenue for the government.
A demolition team came and began tearing down the homes – the government saying the settlers were offered a chance to relocate peacefully but didn’t. Thousands were driven away – many opted to return to Mindanao, and others moved to shanty towns in neighbouring areas. But not the Sultana family – who sat under a thin bamboo roof eating a sparse meal of rice and fish.
“ Tell them – ,” Tanandatu prompted them to speak to us, “ tell them how we have to live…” They would rather remain here than have to move again, like a few hundred others who also decided to stay. “ We need to protect the mosque,” Tanandatu offered. “ It is a sin to desecrate a holy site – we will defend it with the last drop our blood…”
The demolition team has not returned since, and a battle is now being waged in court. But the villagers that stayed behind feel the authorities are now harassing them: “ They’ve cut us off from the main roads. They’ve cut our electricity and our water. They even put up barbed wire to fence us in – do you know how many children have gotten hurt by that fence?” Tanandatu said emotionally.
The authorities say the villagers are exaggerating, that measures are in place to ensure a responsible reclamation and development around Manila Bay, that the wave of progress that is washing over the over-crowded city would be good for everyone.
“ If the reclamation is undertaken properly, it should not damage anybody. What’s the use of going through a study and planning if it will damage a certain sector of society? So it has to be planned in such a way that majority will benefit out of it ,” Josefina Castro, an assistant manager at the Philippine Reclamation Authority told us in an interview.
But that’s not how these villagers saw it; they felt like victims being sacrificed to capitalism. Powerless, and worse, Tanandatu said, unwanted. Like second-class citizens in their own country. It’s a sentiment echoed in many of the Muslim territories in the Southern Philippines. It might even explain the long protracted conflict between the nation’s predominantly Christian leaders, and Muslim nationalists. Both sides often feeling they aren’t even speaking the same language.
A few hours on, and afternoon prayer begins. At the Rajah Sulayman Mosque, the faithful give thanks for another quiet day on borrowed land.
Outside, their children run around with toy swords and bamboo sticks play-fighting a phantom enemy. Around them – past the reeds and the barbed wire – Manila’s central business district prepares for another sleepless night of frenzied activity. Life goes on, the search for balance continues… as does the struggle to define light and shade in all the unveiled grey of progress.