Philippine ‘jeepney’ artists stalked by extinction

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Jeepney artist Vic Capuno, based in San Pablo town south of Manila, now paint just three of four of the public transport vehicles a month after demand has fallen. (AFP)
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Jeepney artist Vic Capuno, based in San Pablo town south of Manila, now paint just three of four of the public transport vehicles a month after demand has fallen. (AFP)
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Jeepneys, hand-painted with custom images of everything from Batman to babies, as well as disco lights and chrome wheels, have for decades provided cheap transport for millions. (AFP)
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Jeepneys, hand-painted with custom images of everything from Batman to babies, as well as disco lights and chrome wheels, have for decades provided cheap transport for millions. (AFP)
Updated 28 January 2019
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Philippine ‘jeepney’ artists stalked by extinction

  • ‘This is an act of treachery against fellow Filipinos’
  • Jeepneys are highly polluting, and the Philippines is desperate to improve air quality in its traffic-clogged cities

MANILA: Bernardo de la Cruz casts his eyes around the nearly silent workshop where he used to toil overtime hand-painting custom decor on jeepneys, the singularly Philippine minibuses facing the scrapheap.
These rolling art galleries adorned with images of everything from Batman to babies, as well as disco lights and chrome wheels, have for decades provided cheap transport for millions.
But pollution and safety concerns have led to a modernization program, with jeepneys 15 years or older to be taken off the streets by 2020.
“This is an act of treachery against fellow Filipinos,” said de la Cruz. “This is a uniquely Filipino product. We were born with it.”
When he began 45 years ago, there were hundreds of artists giving the vehicles their famously boisterous paint jobs. Now there are estimated to be fewer than a dozen left.
He has seen orders decline from a high of up to 80 a month in the 1980s to just one or two now.
His canvas is being replaced by eco-jeepneys, powered by electricity or lower-polluting diesel motors.
Riders of old jeepneys currently have to climb in through a hatch in the rear, cramming into the benches inside with no respite from the heat and roadside pollution.
The jeepney’s successor is being billed as a big improvement.
It has doors, individual seats, air-conditioning, and enough height to stand up.
But it will be mass-produced and look just like a public bus.
Skipping over the jeepney’s bespoke production process in small workshops means a loss of the individual style and flair that made them global symbols of the Philippines.
“It’s one of the most genuine forms of modern folk art that we have,” Bernie Sim, a Manila-based graphic designer and co-author of a 2014 book on jeepney art, said.
French fashion designer Christian Louboutin launched a jeepney-themed handbag collection last year, while Swedish furniture giant Ikea painted a jeepney in its signature blue and yellow to announce plans to open a Philippine store.
But the vehicles, which were first made from leftover US jeeps after World War II, have been on borrowed time for years.
Jeepneys are highly polluting, and the Philippines is desperate to improve air quality in its traffic-clogged cities.
Their drivers are also notorious for ignoring traffic rules, and the vehicles have few safety features.
On top of that, Manila ushered in Internet-based ride-sharing services in 2014, and three years later President Rodrigo Duterte said the jeepney must evolve or disappear.
“They have all but stopped making jeepneys,” said 52-year-old jeepney artist Vic Capuno, based in San Pablo town south of Manila.
As a result, he and a colleague at Armak Motors now paint just three of four jeepneys a month.
De la Cruz worked on nine in the last year. He’s the only painter left at Manila’s Sarao Motors, once the country’s biggest producer.
Two of his siblings were also jeepney artists, but they died from diseases he believes were caused by years inhaling fumes from the paint.
Yet he is still passionate about the vehicle’s importance in Philippine history.
“When the jeepney disappears a piece of Filipino culture will also die,” de la Cruz warned.
A self-taught painter, he was inspired by the work of renowned local artists such Carlos Francisco and Fernando Amorsolo.
His jeepney designs, still seen on the streets for now, chronicle the rapidly changing landscape of his home — Las Pinas — from a farming and salt-making backwater into a highly urbanized area.
“It’s a pleasing sight. It brings us back to a time and place that is no more,” said de la Cruz.
After raising four children on the pay earned painting, he now also creates canvases and makes storefront signs as a sideline.
He conceded he could have a decent life without the jeepneys, but was heartbroken by the government’s decision.
“I would like to appeal to the authorities not to outlaw it,” de la Cruz said. “At times I cry quietly when I think about what is happening.”


Tribal truckers, praying paramedics: mixed bag on last Daesh front

Updated 15 February 2019
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Tribal truckers, praying paramedics: mixed bag on last Daesh front

NEAR BAGHOUZ: As destitute civilians stumble out of the Daesh group’s last enclave in east Syria, a mixed bag of unlikely characters are pitching in to help get them to safety.
They include a team of medics led by an American veteran and his children as well as a group of truckers from a remote Syrian town.
Close to 40,000 have fled Daesh’s last Euphrates Valley bastions into territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, in pitiful conditions after weeks of bombardment and food shortages.
Citing security concerns, global aid agencies have kept their distance from the town of Baghouz where the jihadists are making a last stand and the SDF’s limited humanitarian capacities cannot cope with the influx.
Enter the Free Burma Rangers (FBR).
Led by a US veteran and passionate Christian, David Eubank, the team of around 25 volunteers — including his wife and three children — is camped out on a plateau overlooking Baghouz that serves as the first stop for fleeing civilians.
“We’re not qualified to be here. I asked God, what would I do here?” Eubank told AFP, dressed in military fatigues and a fishing hat, a pistol holstered on his hip.
“I felt God say: ‘Give up your own way. Just come help,’” he said.
In the distance, about two dozen civilians could be seen shuffling toward the plateau from Baghouz.
Eubank and another volunteer were the first to descend the sandy bank to meet them, hoisting displaced women’s overstuffed bags over their shoulders and helping children scramble up.


One bearded volunteer tended to a thin boy’s chest wound, shouting for antibiotics in English as the child stared at him in confusion.
Eubank established the FBR in Burma in 1997, with a slogan drawn from a Bible verse calling on people to “preach good news to the poor” and “release the oppressed.”
After Daesh swept across the region in 2014, the FBR expanded to Iraq, where Eubank, his wife and their three children became local celebrities for rescuing a young Iraqi girl after her mother was killed in fighting in Mosul.
What brought them to Syria? Another message from God, said Eubank’s eldest daughter, Sahale.
“We feel like God sent us here, otherwise we wouldn’t have wanted to come,” said the 18-year-old blonde, who usually drives wounded people to the main civilian point further on but was using a quiet afternoon to study Thai in the shade of an armored personnel carrier.
When they’re not treating civilians, the rest of the team spends their spare time jogging through the Syrian plain, praying, and doing “camp stuff,” said 24-year-old volunteer Tyler Sheen.
Sheen, from Colorado, said he felt he was in the right place to witness the end of IS.
“It’s the scourge, the most talked about evil in the world so I think it’s a great place to be right now,” he told AFP.
The volunteers inevitably strike an odd figure in the Syrian plain, surrounded by gruff Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters with whom they can only communicate through translators.
When the SDF’s spokesman visited their outpost recently, Eubank grabbed his hands to lead him in prayer as a translator stood between them, as if presiding over a marriage ceremony.


But if the Eubanks are inspired by goodwill, the truckers who form another key link in the evacuation of civilians from Baghouz are motivated by financial rewards.
Once displaced families are taken to a larger collection point further away, they are screened and guided onto the backs of cargo trucks to be driven about six hours north to the Al-Hol displacement camp.
Their 11 drivers are tribesmen from the town of Al-Shuhayl, hired by the SDF at a rate of 75,000 Syrian pounds ($150) for each round-trip, which usually takes two days.
“Wherever there’s a trip we can earn from, we do it,” said one driver in his forties, Farhan Al-Ali.
Some truckers said they rely on pills to stay awake through the 600-kilometer (380-mile) round trip.
“Sometimes we get to Al-Hol at two or three in the morning, then we drive all the way back to Shuhayl,” said Abu Hamud, a 54-year-old driver with a red-and-white scarf draped over his head.
They are used to shuttling cattle or farming equipment, so the dozens of veiled women and children are an unusual — and fragile — load.
The International Rescue Committee, which works in world crisis zones, said Wednesday that 51 people, mostly newborn children, had died after arriving at Al-Hol or during the “precarious journey.”
The United Nations has called on authorities to provide more suitable transportation like buses.
“My heart aches for the kids. They’re tiny and hungry,” said Abu Hamud. “I had a 20-day-old baby die in my truck.”