AMPATUAN, MAGUINDANAO–The morning heat stung on the faces of the throng trekking the leveled dirt road across this remote hill.
Many came by the truckloads from other towns and were likely dropped off at the dirt road’s entrance, a left turn from the national highway. There police officers filtered the vehicles that came in.
For every truck that passed through, dozens scrambled to hitchhike and save the long, hot, and arduous walk hundreds of others made.
The sight was unlikely in this area before. Few dared come here by themselves, a thing explained by the heavy security presence.
Yet we still asked as our van rolled up and down and further inward, why would many, especially locals, brave the weather and the hanging danger?
The sheer number of people and the prominence of the event somehow assured us that nothing grave would catch us.
As the shed built over the site drew near, we saw a few thatched huts scattered along rather-tended greenery. Whether anyone lived in them, we weren’t sure.
If there were, could they have witnessed the gruesome end of 58 people diverted here exactly a year before? And if they had, were they silenced forcefully, or worse, permanently?
We came here a year ago, when the nation’s memory centered for one day on a southern sitio named Masalay and on the worst political crime of recent history done here.
This year, journalists, locals, and families of the slain again converged on this area to remember. The place has undergone a makeover, and the country has seen game-changing events of its own.
Yet like the circumstances of the first year, those commemorating two years since the Ampatuan massacre have only seen the slow pace of justice.
I cannot remember what should have been TV Patrol’s headline on November 23, 2009. Probably a dull Monday’s top police or price-hike story.
Yet the primetime news began flashing a map of Maguindanao, file video of some town center, and the stirrings of something big and brooding.
All we got then were mere descriptions from phone calls. It took the next day and shots of the carnage to materialize our dread.
Brought to light was a massacre true in word and in scale.
The litter of lifeless bodies and the buried mound of crushed vehicles found in this obscure site tugged at our consciousness, and tagged the entire province plus a few names with it.
That first anniversary morning, our team had raced to Ampatuan from Buluan where we first aired a live interview with Gov. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu on Umagang Kay Ganda.
His wife Genalyn and other relatives lost their lives trying to file his certificate of candidacy for the governorship.
Mangudadatu did not join the convoy, knowing threats against going to the capitol in Shariff Aguak, bailiwick of their rivals, the Ampatuan clan. Mangudadatu then thought that if the women would go, they would not be harmed.
Local and Manila-based media were invited to ride with the group as witnesses and likely, as added protection.
It turned out that all those precautions were for naught.
A year after, the governor had become the de facto spokesperson of the families that were scarred, and an image of the change and promise the killings have unwittingly affected.
We arrived at the site minutes before 9 a.m., when the memorial ceremony was supposed to start. Policemen were barring vehicles from parking near the packed shed.
Our team hastened to secure a space for our set up beside those of TV5 and UNTV. The GMA 7 crew was stationed in an air-conditioned truck paces away.
The equipment had to be hauled down from our open truck. The ELF also had to be parked farther. Without a tent and a nearby tree, we had to make do with plastic tarp and bamboo poles as the day grew hotter.
While we from the Big 3 networks had set up here for obvious reasons, this assignment hit closer to the UNTV team. They lost a crew of theirs in the massacre–the only TV broadcaster in the list of 32 media people killed.
Only one among the invited ABS-CBN reporters joined the fated convoy. But the team drove back to the hotel along with another team to get a forgotten belonging. They missed the trip’s dire end.
“Ingat. Be observant,” texted our boss in Manila. And send in those live shots soon.
From our set up, the panoramic view was breathtaking. Other than a lone mosque and a rice field, it was just miles and miles of greenery. Smoke rose in far-off spots, likely from kaingins burning forests for fields.
It wasn’t far-fetched to think of the solitude surrounding the victims as the armed men that hijacked their convoy began killing them off.
The mass of people at the site had reached a hundred as the program began. Parked vehicles and walking people had lined up the road leading back to the highway.
Only on this November 23 and those succeeding would this ground see this many souls.
Many visitors filled the shed, the only area that offered shade. But the crowding gave our cameras little wiggle room to catch the speeches that began the commemoration.
Justice Secretary Leila De Lima sat beside Governor Mangudadatu. After standing to read the statement of President Aquino, she read her own.
De Lima headed the human rights watchdog when the massacre happened and saw the carnage first-hand.
“The very stench of it… will forever be imprinted in my memory as the smell of senseless violence,” she said.
“I never imagined at that point that I would one day become secretary of justice and hence have the task of prosecuting this case.”
De Lima said that they were ensuring the case was being handled properly, knowing its significance not just to the families of the victims.
“Until and unless justice has truly been done in this case, none of us can truly claim that the Filipino people have managed to reclaim their humanity,” she said.
“We have (the victims’) blood in our collective hands. If we can’t bring them to justice, then we are a failure as a government and as a nation.” Loud clapping followed.
The families then laid flowers and lighted candles under a poster bannering pictures of the slain. Some foreigners paid respects in prayer. Governor Mangudadatu approached the poster, pointed to his relatives, and to his late wife.
He said his wife Genalyn got to contact him then as their convoy was being attacked.
She told him their captors were men of Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr. led by his junior, a.k.a. Unsay. Investigation showed that Genalyn could have suffered the most painful death among the victims.
The Ampatuans have since been removed from power, with Mangudadatu in their place.
Andals Senior and Junior are already facing trial along with other suspects. They still do not admit to the crime.
But Zaldy, another Ampatuan son, has tried to have his name delisted among the accused after revealing that his brother planned the killings and that his father knew it all along.
Zaldy’s confessions have also connected the dots to alleged fraud in previous elections. It has in turn led to a Senator’s resignation and a court case against Gloria Arroyo, the President under whose watch it all happened.
More than 100 out of the 196 suspects in the massacre are still on the loose. Prosecutors fear that a conviction could take years.
Families of the victims and especially journalists have continued calling attention over the slow pace of the trial.
They say perpetrators are not quickly made to account for political killings–already a notoriety for the Philippines–it would continue to embolden future perpetrators of getting away should they silence dissent.
November 23 has been declared by media and expression advocacy groups abroad as the International Day to End Impunity.
Last year, Governor Mangudadatu planted a tree at the site. He wore a black T-shirt printed with two hands cupped together–the Muslim gesture for prayer.
His brother Jong, Mayor of Buluan, had on the orange shirt he wore when he scoured these hills in 2009 looking for his relatives. After the other families spoke, he told them they were invited any time to his home. He said maybe they could meet together from time to time.
As our team packed up, candle fire had already burnt the flowers and part of the grass that had grown over the former mass graves.
Today, the simple shed of 2010 has already been surrounded by a concrete fence.
The shrine listing the names of the victims in gold letters has been improved by a more elaborate one. Streetlights have now been put up where we dared not be left to spend the night. And the ground has been tacked with lengthwise tombstones representing each victim.
The people who gather at the site are fewer than that first anniversary. Yet they might have to wait and pray a little longer for justice to be served.
Still, every countdown to November 23 is marked by the on-air rundown of the names chiseled on the memorial slabs.
Lest we forget the crimes against those 58 lives that remain unpunished.
Read “Return”, another log from the 2010 anniversary.
Also, see more shots of the massacre anniversary.