THE SKY WAS OVERCAST as we left Manila— my two companions and I— on the morning of December 19th 1999 for what used to be the Bataan Refugee Camp— otherwise called PRPC or Philippines Refugee Processing Center (an odd name that always made me think of a food-canning factory; no wonder many refugees felt they were merely commodities or statistics on paper, without real identities!) They had offered to drive me out, and I had gratefully accepted. Being a Sunday, the traffic wasn’t so heavy, and it didn’t take us as long to escape from the vortex of the city as it would have done on other days; Manila is so congested that it is choking on its own emissions. It took us 3½ hours to get there, as parts of the road was still in bad shape from the damage caused by the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.

When we arrived at the check-point, we were held up for some minutes while the guards checked with their superiors at the Administration Building. Satisfied we had a legitimate reason for visiting the Camp, we were finally allowed in "to visit the temples only"; we got the impression that there must be some secret activities going on there, though what they might have been, we didn’t discover and could only guess at.

Proceeding from the check-point, it was as if I had never been there before, as there were no refugee billets in sight, like there used to be, but only thick overgrowth, and many trees where I remembered none. I was somewhat confused, and gave the driver halting directions. We turned into a familiar road that led to the temple in Neighborhood Seven, but it was only with some difficulty that we were able to discern the temple-gateway through the tangled vegetation; in just a few short years, the jungle had taken over again completely.

Forcing a passage through the gateway, we could then see the Kwan Yin (Quan Am) image behind a clump of bamboo I had planted during my last visit in ’87; it had not been vandalized, but remained as it was when the Camp closed in ’94, its hand raised in perpetually blessing. A marble plaque stood beside it, engraved with the words: DON’T WORRY; IT WILL PASS— EVERYTHING DOES. My last gift to the Camp, I’d had this made and placed there to remind people to hold on and not give way to despair; my hope was that they might think of these words as Kwan Yin’s and draw consolation and courage therefrom.

Wary of snakes, we pushed through the weeds and brambles to the image, standing beside the dried-up pond wherein water-lilies used to bloom, and took some photos. Alas, I mused, the artist who had so skillfully crafted this image— his name was Do Ky, a humble and softly-spoken man— had died of a heart-attack in California some years after resettling there. When he was creating this image, I asked him not to put his name on it, and he agreed; I said it wasn’t necessary for people to know who made it, but just for it to be there, symbolizing hope; there were no names in the temple, except one on a stele that had been erected later in memory of a man who had died when he fell from the roof while working there.

On one side was the grove of mango-trees under which many a refugee had sought shelter from the hot sun, and on the other were the ruins of the temple we had established in ‘80-’81, and which was later named Chua Van Hanh; the roof had gone without a trace, probably to serve other purposes in the nearby town of Morong. All that remained were a few termite-riddled pillars that crumbled to the touch, and the Buddha-image— also created by Do Ky — gazing impassively on the desolation.

It would have taken too much of an effort to force our way through the weeds and thorns to where we might look out over the stream and forest behind the temple, so we didn’t even try. We did, however, uncover two cement seats I had set up, with the inscriptions on their tops still legible; one of them read: "The Law of Life is Change ….. " One seat had cracked in the middle, and a seed had germinated therein, giving rise to a flourishing tree. I had a vision of someone stumbling upon this place centuries in the future, long after it had been forgotten, and thinking they had discovered the remains of an ancient civilization.

We proceeded up through the Camp, passing the place where the Catholic Church had stood; this, too, had gone, but the image of Mary, atop a globe of the Earth, remained. The Camp hospital was there, closed but not overgrown. Next was the Administration Building, with some activity inside; what it is now used for, I was unable to ascertain. Then there was the ICMC building, where the basic-English education of the refugees had its nerve-center. Nearby, too, was the Camp Post Office, which I had nick-named the ‘Lost Office’ because of the large amounts of mail that used to go ‘missing’ there; there are always people to take advantage of any situation to enrich themselves, seemingly unable to put themselves into the positions of those they exploit; what they would not like others to do to them, they are quite willing to do to others.

Up then, past Freedom Plaza and the refugee-boats that had been brought from the coast nearby rotting away, those who had escaped from Vietnam in them long settled in other lands; one was little bigger than a rowing-boat, without cover; how brave or foolhardy were the people who had risked everything to cross the sea in that! Many thousands— how many, will never be known— perished in their quest. Life must have been so hard in their homeland for them to embark upon such a hazardous venture!

Following the road onwards, it was hard to imagine that 18,000 people at a time had lived here; their billets had gone without trace, bulldozed, I was told, some years back. The Camp had been divided into ten neighborhoods, each neighborhood having thirty buildings, with ten billets each, and each billet accommodated six people or more; there they cooked, ate, slept, studied, worried, argued, fought, played, sang, loved, planned, prayed, dreamed, and made do with what they had. During the time I spent there, over 100,000 people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos passed through, most spending about six months there, but some getting stuck and having to wait much longer; there were others, too, who never left the Camp, but were resettled, sooner than they expected or wanted, in what came to be known as Neighborhood 11: the cemetery.

The temple at the top end of the Camp, near Neighborhood Two, was in better shape than the other one; at least, the roof was still on, but the fibro-cement walls, on which the Cambodians had painted scenes from the life of the Buddha, had been smashed; some fragments remained, hanging on the framework. This temple, more than the lower one, bore the marks of my hands, as I had done a lot of work on it myself, and constructed it more sturdily; the octagonal window-frames, that I had decorated with bodhi-leaves, were still there. The main painting of the Buddha behind the altar had been partly-destroyed and wore campaign-posters of some politician; one of the Buddha-images had been decapitated.

I searched in vain for the hut I had built and lived in, but was unable to find even the cement floor. I looked, too, for two coconut trees that had grown from nuts left over from some festival we had in 1980, expecting them to be quite tall now, but they had also gone. The Bodhi-tree, however, which I had brought as a tiny sapling plucked from a wall in a temple on the island of Cebu in 1979, and planted in the Camp in 1980, was now big and tall; this tree had been inexplicably cut down by a crazy monk shortly after I had left the Camp, and resulted in the Cambodians taking over the temple from the Vietnamese, but had regrown and was in the process of wrapping itself around and absorbing a small shrine the Cambodians had erected against it.

A Buddha-image— the one made by the Vietnamese when they established the first temple there in 1980, shortly after the Camp opened— sat in a shed at one side of the temple, together with a larger-than-life image made by the Cambodians later.

Around the trees in what had been the temple-compound were the stones we had positioned there to serve as seats that termites couldn’t eat; it was hard to imagine that this area had once been clean and neat.

I walked up to the crest of the hill behind the temple, hoping to look down on where the Camp had been, but this was not possible owing to the trees and shrubbery that enshrouded everything. It did not, however, prevent memories from flooding back into my mind. I ‘saw’ many old faces there, and thought of their stories, each of them unique; I wonder where they all are now.

Four years of my life I spent in this Camp, watching people come and go, some with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Some few I have seen again in places like the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Australia; they have changed the world wherever they went, and in turn have been changed.

Life goes on, flows on, like a river, often with no sense of direction, not knowing where it came from, where it is, nor where it is going. We think we are in control of our lives, but are not, and even small things, unexpected and sudden, can change us considerably. If we learned to look at life as an adventure, instead of clinging to it with fearful self-concern, we could enjoy it much more than we do. If, too, we would give up the idea or desire that everything should be nice, and tried to see the good in it instead, we would learn more than we do. There is white in the black, always. I met people in that Camp (and in other Camps), who were quite happy there; not all of them were sad. I also met people later on, in the lands where they had resettled, who told me that they would like to be back in the Refugee Camps, where life was simple and uncomplicated.

My thanks to the kind people who drove me out on my trip of reminiscence to Bataan, and my Best Wishes to all the refugees who passed through that Camp on their way to other lands; they became part of my life just as I became part of theirs.

"That’s what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way".
Doris Lessing



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