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Five years ago, in November 2018, Phylipa and I took a boat trip from Coron across to Culion Island in the Philippines.

Both islands are located just north of the much larger Palawan Island.

Our purpose was to visit the former Leper colony.

In the early 1800’s Culion became a Spanish settlement and quickly developed into a leper colony, many ‘patients’ being sent there without even undergoing any bacterial examinations. Culion became the largest sanctuary of leprosy patients in the world and was known as “The Island of No Return.”

Phylipa and I were shown around the island by Pastor Hermie who grew up on the island. Both of his grandmothers were lepers .

We spent time at the hospital and the extremely well kept museum before meeting with several former lepers, some still bearing their scars. Once cleared of their condition, they chose to remain and form a community on the island which today flourishes.

Honoured to be invited into their homes we played a few games of dominoes…..and lost! 

Our visit was well worth the effort and we stayed overnight at the Hotel Maya. The hotel was once used to house orphans and abandoned children born from lepers.

Despite the admission of lepers from Japan to the island, the Pacific War marked the most devastating and challenging period for Culion. The Japanese harboured a deep fear of leprosy patients due to the stringent enforcement of the Leprosy Prevention Law in Japan. 

According to this law, patients were strictly prohibited from leaving the sanitarium and interacting with the “normal” population.

The Japanese naval blockade of the Mindoro Strait further exacerbated the situation, halting boats from Manila that carried essential supplies, including food and medicines to Culion. 

Between 1941 and 1945, the region experienced a severe shortage of necessities, compelling the administration to reluctantly permit patients to venture outside the hospital in search of sustenance.

Some patients, who possessed the strength to paddle an outrigger canoe, travelled to different islands to barter food with whatever possessions they had, while others turned to farming. 

Despite previous orders for strict confinement, instances were reported where Japanese soldiers shot leprosy patients seeking food on neighbouring islands.

Tragically, many patients in Culion succumbed not to bullets but to starvation during the war. The dire conditions led to mass burials near the hospital, as the daily death toll made individual burials impractical. 

In 1935, just before the war, the colony housed 6,928 patients. By the war’s end in 1945, only 1,791 patients remained in the colony, highlighting the profound impact of the Pacific War on Culion’s leprosy-afflicted population.

In the echoes of Culion’s poignant history, the legacy of compassion and resilience endures, reminding us that even in the face of adversity, humanity’s enduring spirit can transform isolation into a testament of hope and healing.

Graeme Dinnen

Hotel Maya – where we stayed overnight.  The hotel stands next to the town church and fortress. Set on a cliff and facing east, it allows an unobstructed view of one of the most spectacular breaks of dawn I had seen. From the hotel, all the other major points of interest in town are very accessible.

WIth the children and grandchildren of former lepers

La Immaculada Concepcion Church is a lovely Spanish-era heritage building.  The church stands on the same site as Fort Culion, built in 1683.  It was constructed with a Baroque façade displaying arched openings, from doorways with columns to windows, and has Spain’s royal seal of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand above the main entrance. In 1978, a leper patient, Ben Amores, painted the church’s beautiful ceiling.

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