Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines

Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines 

Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines

In the photograph, a skeletal white dog stands on top of a tomb, his spiky vertebrae sharply visible through his ghostly fur. His jutting ribs and pelvic bones match the monotone of grey cemetery aisles and a prominent white cross in the background.

Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines

The wraith of a dog lives here, in a cemetery in Pasay, the Philippines, with the dead, but also with the living. He is one of at least 400 animals – and 300 families – who call the crypts and graffiti and mould encrusted gravestones home.

Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski could see the Pasay municipal public cemetery from the window of his three-bedroom apartment overlooking the city. But the internationally acclaimed environmental photojournalist had no view of the suffering inside the cemetery’s walls until he accepted an invitation to meet and document the people and pets living there.

“I’ve never seen this anywhere in the world, where people are living in a cemetery, living and sleeping on tombs,” he said.

Gekoski’s photographs of Pasay city municipal cemetery and Manila south cemetery, commissioned by Lady Freethinker and in collaboration with the NGO Pasay Pups, expose the crushing poverty faced by the people and animals living within the makeshift graveyard villages, while also highlighting their humanity and resilience.

Striking that balance of chiaroscuro was important, especially as Covid-19 lockdowns had brought added hardship for cemetery residents already struggling to survive, Gekoski said.

“As a photographer, I want to tell the story that I witness,” he said. “What I saw there was not despair, but a tight-knit community. These people face incredible hardships that most of us could never even begin to imagine, and there is hope.”

Immigrants have flocked to the Philippines for almost a century, seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families but finding instead extreme poverty, a lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities, and scant resources for mental health and drug addiction.

Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines

Pasay, with more than 416,000 people packed into its seven square miles, is touted by travel agencies as a tourist destination of “thrills, culture, shopping, relaxing and fun”. Meanwhile, three miles away in Pasay public cemetery, children and families resort to pag pag, or eating from the trash, to survive.

There is no running water in the cemetery. There is no sanitation service. There is scant electricity, pilfered from a public line. Mangy, emaciated animals cower in the shadows of the concrete aisles or curl up in the crypts, tails wrapped around skeletal frames.

Some families have lived in the cemetery for generations, eking out livings by caretaking the tombs of wealthy families, engraving headstones or selling flowers for gravesites. Others desperately want to leave but find themselves trapped by conditions at the cemetery – such as a lack of access to healthcare, education, or working toilets – that put them at a disadvantage when applying for jobs, according to the Pasay Pups founder, Ashley Fruno.

Dogs and humans live among the gravestones in Pasay cemetery, Philippines

“The cemetery is a very intense place,” she said. “There are a lot of smells, and people are everywhere. Some of our volunteers come once and they never come back. Even the best factsheet in the world can’t prepare you for this.”

For more than a decade, Fruno and her volunteers as well as trained clinic staff have visited Pasay cemetery on Saturdays – feeding, spaying and neutering, and vaccinating hundreds of animals, discussing proper animal care with cemetery residents, and donating hygiene supplies to the children.

But Covid-19 curtailed those weekly visits in March 2020, when Pasay instituted a general community quarantine – a strict lockdown – and people were not allowed to leave the cemetery, Fruno said.

Cemetery residents had little access, if any, to food, Fruno said. They also could not engage in kalakal, or scavenging materials from junkyards and the scraps of income from that practice. Pasay Pups shifted to humanitarian aid, bringing rice, soap, and reusable masks twice a month – despite volunteer numbers dropping to a handful.

“It was shocking to us how few resources were provided to help get them through the lockdown,” Fruno said.

The city of Pasay did not provide comment before publication of this story, despite multiple attempts.

Gekoski, Fruno, and Lady Freethinker hope these photos will raise awareness and resources for the people and pets of Pasay cemetery. Fruno plans to continue the fight for better animal welfare. “The Philippines is my home now,” she said. “I feel like I was meant to be here.”

the guardian

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