Stories Need To Be Told...

...lest they dissolve into oblivion.
There are moments that need to be captured and made eternal simply because there is a wealth of emotions and spirituality in them. Painting a picture with words is one of the ways to immortalize these for people who were not there and for the future generation.
This is my contribution....

Friday, December 16, 2011


The character of Brooks in the movie Shawshank Redemption, hanged himself shortly after being released from prison. He was there for fifty years. Imprisonment was all he knew. He got out, an old, frail little man, unable to adjust to the world outside, where liberty existed.

For most of us who are free, liberty is just a word we use liberally. The true meaning of it is not wholly appreciated or even throroughly understood.

We breathe, we eat, we shower, we work, we sing, we read, we go to Starbucks for coffee. These are ordinary things we do and take for granted.

In Palawan, recently, I visited the Iwahig Penal Colony. Although there have been many stories written about it, mostly comparing it to other penal centers of the country, there is more to it than meets the eye.

For most of us, Iwahig, being geographically located at the last frontier of the country, it almost seems like paradise. It is indeed, for some. Paradise. But does the word take on a different meaning when liberty is taken away?

Romy, an inmate, jailed for drug possession, was interred at the age of 21. He is now 49. Studying him, frail, dark skinned and meek, I can't imagine now, how he was at 21. Probably just like any young man, who thought they were invincible, thinking they can get away with anything, no matter what the motivation was. He has served his minimum sentence and has been eligible for parole for three years now. He said he still holds on to hope, even if now, it was just a single strand. He has three children, whom he last saw in 1987 - five presidents ago. He is one of the longest term servers in Iwahig.

Rene was imprisoned for murder. He killed a neighbor who kept killing his pigeons. Yes, pigeons. He has been in Iwahig for 18 years now. He was a big bulk of a man, chinky eyed, strong personality, determined and a hard worker. He was a good salesman too. He cajoled me into buying an alligator artwork of his, made from melted cups of Jollibee. He is scheduled to be released this month and he said he needed a big bag to put his meager belongings in. For good behavior, he was "living out" and even served as some sort of martial at the Iwahig Recreational Center/Novelty Store. I asked him what his plans were. He said he can't tell yet, that he didn't really know what was out there.

While taking pictures of the colony, a man motioned me into a shack. He was selling halo-halo. His hands were trembling and he had a pronounced limp. He couldn't, or wouldn't look me in the eye. It was as if he was ashamed and believed he has lost that privilege or right to be level with another human. I requested him to take my picture on the face-in-hole structure. Afterwards, I gave him the burger I had stashed in my bag. His surprise was touching. He wasn't expecting anything from me at all.

Up the stairs, into the dilapidated Recreation Building/Novelty Store, men were selling merienda and pomelo, grown within the colony. One man who was selling siopao was mumbling for me to buy his merchandise. What surprised me was his selling line. He said, "Ma'am, you can give it to the prisoners inside - they will dance for you."

Sure enough, nine men dressed in prison orange, were dancing at the far end of the huge hall. It was Iwahig's version of the Cebu Inmates who garnered world-wide popularity. There was a donation box, if a visitor felt satisfied or just felt like giving. They would dance every time a tourist would wander in. They would dance even more enthusiastically, complete with smiles and showmanship, if a visitor stopped and watched.

Near the entrance, at a corner, a man was seated, oblivious to the world and quite focused on what he was doing. He was etching wood with a make shift burning tool. His hands were so steady, that as the image is revealed, I was awed. He was an artist. He didn't speak a word. Some words of inquiry from me were answered by another guy who was serving as his assistant. He didn't even want to tell me his name. I guess he found his liberty in his art. Lucky him.

Allowing the cat-side (curious) in me, we ventured to the Maximum Security Area of Iwahig. That was where the word "paradise" got lost for me.

Corralled into an area, were prisoners, whose excitement at the sight of us was palpable. Not many visit there - strangers or relatives. These men are almost forgotten - by everyone, by the world. They are the "lost" ones.

At the request of a friend who was with us, five men were let out into the visitor's area. Their behavior was that of sheep being herded into an enclosed fence. They sat against the wall, gently jostling at each other for space. They were far more curious about us, than we were about them, it seemed. They were smelly and dirty and hungry and gaunt. We brought some snacks, asked the warden if it was allowed, and after getting his green light, the prisoners started to gobble it up. One mumbled that it has been years since he last tasted soda and he had forgotten that it would sting a bit as it touched his tongue. The others giggled.

As things settled, I realized what the excitement was about - they wanted to tell their story. The story they probably have told each other thousands of times. A new pair of ears must be a relief.

One by one they would answer questions; sometimes with embarassment, sometimes with surprising soberness.

One thing was apparent. Notwithstanding what they did, years ago, all of them were hungry and thirsty for liberty again. I will not venture into whether they deserve liberty or not, or whether they have paid their dues. I was merely looking at them as another human. Albeit reduced to this livestock-like behavior.

Liberty is something a human will always, always need.

Remembering another scene from the movie, where Red (played by Morgan Freeman) was also set free and was working as a bagboy at a grocery store, he would holler at this manager for permission to go to the toilet. Exasperated the manager said "You don't have to ask permission every time you take a piss."

It dawned on me that when liberty is taken away, it becomes a way of life, that not even the person himself could tell he doesn't have it. Handed liberty, he still adheres to the old ways as if he still didn't have it. Lack of liberty has become a comfort blanket instead of a choke-tool.

The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, off the harbor of New York City, welcomed many immigrants who came from countries ravaged by war from 1886-1933. To them it symbolized a new life, a new beginning... true LIBERTY. Lady Liberty was a beacon for travelers to find home.

I imagine myself now, imprisoned in some way or another - for there are many forms of prison. It could be a job, a sickness, a dysfunctional marriage or family, poverty, beliefs, trauma, a past, a present, an unrealized dream, an unrequited love...

A prison is anything that prevents us from reaching our potential - our destiny that we could have grown into. Humans are designed to reach what used to be unreachable. We are designed to be free. We have free will. Admittedly, this free-will, sometimes takes us to the wrong decisions. The good thing is that, as long as we are alive, we are given the chance to rectify.

The trick is, recognizing that chance and taking it - before it's too late, when Liberty takes on a different meaning, where we are set free, from living and death has finally claimed us.