(On November 23, 2009, a convoy on its way to file the certificate of candidacy of a gubernatorial candidate of Maguindanao province in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was stopped on the highway in the town of Ampatuan by about a hundred gunmen. The convoy, which included 32 journalists and media workers, female relatives of the candidate, as well as six motorists who just happened to be tailing the convoy, were taken into the hills and murdered. Now called the Ampatuan massacre, for the town where it happened, it was the worst single incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the worst single attack on the press ever recorded.)
These will forever be seared in my memory.
A policeman stands guard over the site where 58 persons, including 32 media workers, were massacred on November 23, 2009. The Ampatuan massacre was the worst incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the worst single attack on the press ever recorded. (photo by Nonoy Espina)
A hilltop in the middle of breathtakingly beautiful landscape, desecrated by the red smear of blood and the stench of violent death; the wails of grieving wives, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters; the faces of battle-hardened soldiers quivering in disbelief at a brutality they had never encountered and never imagined even in the viciousness of combat; and the constant roar of a backhoe as its arm descends into the pit again and again, re-emerging to disgorge body after body, the pain and terror of the final moment on earth plainly visible in twisted limbs and faces, or what are left of them, despite the horrible mutilation and the ravages of decomposition.
Maguindanao, second poorest province in the Philippines, whose rulers ensconced themselves in palatial mansions next door to the ramshackle huts of their subjects, and moved around in kilometre-long convoys of gleaming SUVs and pickup trucks and armoured cars laden with armed retainers and bristling with heavy machineguns.
Maguindanao, where the law was not words etched in a worthless document called the Constitution but sprung immutable from the mouths of the rulers whose utterances could, and did, mean life or death, as it did for the unfortunate 58.
Madness, they said, when word of the carnage filtered out from the rolling hills and farmlands of Ampatuan.
They were wrong.
It was not madness at all.
It was the law meting out punishment on those who dared challenge it. As for those whose only fault was to be there when it happened, well, that was their fault. They shouldn’t have been there at all.
But the truth is, Maguindanao is not an island, not a republic unto itself. Maguindanao is in every corner of the Philippines where the expediency that passes for governance in my benighted country has allowed the growth of warlord clans who amass power – both armed and political – and wealth – mostly illegal – in exchange for pledging their loyalty and their capacity to woo, buy, rob and coerce votes for whoever is president at the moment.
Maguindanao is wherever the 141 Filipino journalists murdered since 1986 were robbed of their lives and their voices, and the people of their truth, because the rulers have declared that ignorance is bliss and no one who dares pierce the darkness with the torch of scrutiny shall live to tell the tale of the sordid secrets hidden there.
Maguindanao is everywhere people cower in fear and silence, trapped in powerlessness and poverty in the shadows of the lords’ mansions.
And the 58 of Sitio Masalay are not mere luckless souls, they are you, me, us until we all say, “Enough!”
NOTES (from the International Federation of Journalists):
• The Philippines is distinct from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region in that most killings of journalists are carried out by hired killers in targeted attacks.
• 141 journalists and media workers have been killed in the Philippines since 1986.
• At least 75 journalists and media workers were killed during the 9-year tenure of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (January 2001- June 2010), not including the victims of the Ampatuan massacre.
• 4 journalists have been murdered in 2010. Three of the four murders occurred in the period between presidential elections in May and the inauguration of President Benigno Aquino III on June 30.
• Only 4 convictions for the murders of journalists in the Philippines have been achieved for the 140 killings since 1986.
• A total of 196 suspects, mostly police officers and members of local militias, and including members of Maguindanao’s Ampatuan clan, for which the town where the massacre happened, are facing trial for the carnage.
• Andal Ampatuan Jr is the main defendant in the trials, accused of organising the massacre. He is the son of clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., former governor of Maguindanao and also one of the accused.
• The Ampatuan family was among the closest allies of Arroyo.
• The trials finally started in Manila in September 2010.
• Outside of Iraq, the Philippines has recorded the most killings of media personnel this century. Unlike Iraq, the Philippines is not at war. All the journalists killed are victims of targeted assassinations.
• The NUJP supports the education of more than 80 children of murdered journalists.
JOSE JAIME ‘Nonoy’ ESPINA
• Nonoy is a fellow at the Southeast Asian Centre for e-Media
• He is also vice chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and executive editor of the independent Philippine news site dateline.ph