Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prelude to the Great Raid

 Entrance to Plaza Cuartel

 Marker in 2009

 Memorial to the 143 POW's

Park inside Plaza Cuartel

The movie, Great Raid,(2005) is a little known story of the rescue of 500 American prisoners of war in Cabanatuan in Northern Philippines.  The movie not to be confused with another war movie, Great Escape (1963) is based on the Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides.

Ghost Soldiers is the account of the rescue of p.o.w.'s over 5 nights in January 1945 by US forces and Filipino guerillas toward the end of the war.  The book calls it the greatest rescue mission of World War II.

The Great Raid took place in Cabanatuan in Central Luzon.  The place where the story started is Plaza Cuartel in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

Palawan is generally known for its fantastic seascapes, unspoiled scenery and destinations such as El Nido, Underground River, and Coron Island.  However, in the sleepy capital city of Puerto Princesa is a little park with its own little story, known as Plaza Cuartel.

Plaza Cuartel housed the Spanish barracks during colonial times in the Philippines. In World War II, the Japanese turned it into the concentration camp for American prisoners of war.  Approximately 150 p.o.w.'s were held at that time of which 143 perished one day in December 1944.

A few managed to scramble down the cliff side on to the beach and survived to tell the advancing US forces in Luzon of the enemy's intentions.  As US aircraft were raining bombs on Puerto Princesa, the Japanese herded the p.o.w's into an air raid shelter, drenched them with gasoline and lit a fire.

The rest is the story of how the Great Raid came about in haste to prevent 500 Americans in captivity from suffering the same fate as those in Plaza Cuartel.

The imposing Spanish entrance to Plaza Cuartel remains.  The barracks are gone replaced by huge shady trees.  The park was opened in 2009 to commemorate the event of December 14, 1944.  A small memorial sits in the center of the park to remember the 143 who perished.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Club Med of Prisons

 Iwahig Penal Colony Marker

 Idyllic Surroundings

 Administration Building

 Recreation & Social Hall

Made in Prison Products

The province of Palawan in southern Philippines is generally famous for its fantastic seascapes and the Underground River.  The capital city, Puerto Princesa, is a couple of hundred kilometres from its more famous destinations like El Nido and Coron.  While the beach destinations in the city are so-so by Palawan standards, it has Iwahig.

Iwahig is probably unique in the world.  It is an open correctional (and agricultural) facility,  in a lush and picturesque setting worthy of a grand vacation. If one is a hardened criminal in the Philippines, with long term sentence, then Iwahig would be the place to be.

That is what I learned from my guide "inside" the facility, a long termer himself - 17 years!  He got himself moved from a correctional facility in Manila, after 7 years of good behaviour. 

The penal colony is approximately 10 km from city centre, roughly 30-40 minutes by tricycle on a picturesque stretch of highway.   While the penal colony may not be up to the standards of a proper Club Med, it is a working agricultural colony for men only, it has similar elements.

The facility may not have walls to keep people inside, but it has enough things going to keep them inside. As far as I could learn, jail breaks are far and few in between, the last one in the 1920's. 

Inmates are housed in a village of grass huts, fed and clothed, taught how to sing and dance to entertain visitors.  They earn by farming, aqua fish farming, producing handy crafts, gathering honey from wild bees in the mountains but they don't actually keep money in their pockets.

The more "affluent" inmates can entertain visits from their families and children, providing they have the wherewithal to pay their way and stay in lodgings outside the farm colony.

On a visit to Iwahig in early November of 2013, I was struck by the incongruity of the place.  We went through a front gate and security check.  When I turned around, rice fields flanked the 2 km road to the "village centre". Beyond was the national highway.  The front gate basically stood on its own without the accompaniment of a retaining wall or barbed fence.

Children of all ages and ladies were freely and happily hanging around by the stairs and the front entrance.  My trike driver told me they were most likely relatives of the inmates on a day visit.   It was just so "normal".

The inmate who guided me around, turned out to be a hardened criminal.  It was hard to tell.  He was articulate, very informative and a convincing salesman who got me to buy a couple of t-shirts. 

As we drove out, we stopped and talked to a couple of elderly inmates on the road doing their farm chores.  One inmate said it had been so long since he had seen his family.  He hadn't heard from them for over 20 years. He assumed in a matter of fact manner they probably wouldn't know him at all now.

For hardened criminals in the Philippines, there's still a flickering light at the end of the tunnel.  Long term sentence, good behaviour, 7 years are what will get you to the prison without walls.

More about Iwahig: Iwahig - Prison Without Walls, Getty Images


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Independence Square

Memorial at Maidan

Maidan Square


Maidan Nezalezhnosti is Kiev's main square.  The main feature of the Maidan (square in Ukrainian) is the monument to the founders of Ukraine topped by the Archangel Michael. Recent events in the last few months, has put Independence Square as known in English in the spotlight.  

From the comfort of the living room watching the news, one could watch an uprising unfold.  The ouster of Prime Minister Yanukovich resulted in at least 29 dead. Maidan as it looks now on the news has been turned into one giant floral wreath honouring a new set of heroes.

It has been 5 years since I was in Kiev.  I was only a hundred metres from the Maidan while staying at an old soviet style hotel on Kreschatyk.  The monument was most memorable to me since it was very imposing and very visible from afar.  Behind the monument was the entrance to Hlobus, the underground mall.

A promenade area with the dome of the underground mall in the middle was flanked by hotels and restaurants (including the ubiquitous McDonald's), and tourist shops.  It was a very frisky March and spring hadn't fully sprung.  But on a sunny day, the square would be filled with people especially on weekends.  

That was a happier time at Independence Square.  Hopefully, it will come back for the better soon for Kiev.