AMPATUAN, Maguindanao – I get the same feeling of indignation and pain every time I set foot on the exact site where the 58 victims, including 32 journalists, were mercilessly mowed down at the Ampatuan massacre.
It has become a recurring trauma.
Many of the journalist victims were my close friends, having worked together for many years.
I called him “Pareng Bong”, since we were both baptismal sponsors of the youngest daughter of another close media colleague.
I still vividly recall how supportive and concerned Pareng Bong was after I received my first death threat in August 2004.
After I failed to answer his phone calls, Bong called up the highest police official in the region in the middle of the night requesting to send policemen to check on me.
Chief Superintendent Antonio Billones, then the police regional director in Central, called me up saying, “I sent a team of policemen to conduct patrol in your area after Bong Reblando woke me up. He was in panic because you were not answering his calls.”
Subang, who had a reputation as a jester among local media colleagues, worked with me when I was still an editor of the first cooperative-run newspaper in General Santos City.
A police official, who is one of the suspects in the Ampatuan massacre case, would tell a media colleague that Reblando died trying to save the lives of his colleagues.
“The vehicle where he was riding on was allowed to proceed but he went back upon seeing that the convoy was diverted towards another direction,” the suspect was quoted as saying.
No one can ever fill the void in my heart left behind by their untimely death.
No big deal
Recently, I heard incumbent Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu say that he did not invite journalists to cover the filing of Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) in 2009.
But to me, it’s no longer mind-boggling why Mangudadatu was in a denial mode five years after the carnage. Maybe, he was also trying to absolve himself of responsibility for the deaths of media victims.
It’s so sad Henry Araneta is no longer around to tell the whole story.
Araneta, a correspondent of a Manila-based broadcast station, claimed he was designated as media coordinator by Mangudadatu and tasked to invite the media. I was one among those invited.
The exact words of Araneta were, “Modagan si Toto Mangudadatu kontra kang Andal Ampatuan, Sr. Mihangyo si Toto nga kung pwede i-cover sa media. (Toto Mangudadatu is running for governor in Maguindanao against Andal Ampatuan, Sr. Toto is requesting for media coverage).”
I could sense that a big news story was about to unfold. And so, even without an invitation, I would have decided to cover the activity.
Whether journalists were invited or not, to me, is no big deal.
Fourteen journalists invited by Araneta were put up at the BF Lodge in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat.
From there, we were told by Araneta to leave early the following day for Buluan town in Maguindanao to discuss “some security concerns.”
Reblando, the late Bandera photographer Paul Bernaldez and I joined Malaya correspondent Joseph Jubelag in his car.
We went to the house of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Assemblyman Khadafee Thuy Mangudadatu, younger brother of then vice mayor Esmael of Buluan town, Maguindanao, where we discussed security measures for the convoy.
Thuy, who claimed that his elder brother was still on his way home from Davao City, revealed to us that the police and military turned down their requests for security escort.
The younger Mangudadatu asked if we could pull some strings to ensure the safety and security of the convoy that will hand-carry Toto Mangudadatu’s candidacy certificate.
Reblando requested Mangudadatu to provide a separate vehicle for journalists covering the event for security reasons.
“Dili ta mosakay sa sakyanan kauban ang pamilya ug supporters sa Mangudadatu aron dili magduda ang mga Ampatuans nga duna tay ginadapigan. (We will not ride on the same vehicles with the family and supporters of Mangudadatu to avoid giving the Ampatuans an impression that we are biased),” Reblando said.
Mangudadatu explained that without the security escort they had two options in mind – either not to proceed with the filing of COC or to send an all-women and unarmed contingent with full media coverage.
He emphasized the need to secure a security clearance from the highest military officer in the region before sending the convoy off to Shariff Aguak.
Reblando requested me, saying “Pare, you are close to Gen. Cayton. Can you please call him up and ask if the route leading to Shariff Aguak is safe?” Maj Gen Alfredo Cayton was then the division commander of the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division based in Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao.
I tried contacting Cayton thrice through his mobile phone but there was no answer.
After a few minutes, my cellular phone rang. Cayton was on the line, saying he was busy in a send-off ceremony for the 46th Infantry Battalion troop, which will be transferred to Samar.
Cayton then asked me in Visayan dialect why I called him?
I replied, “Many journalists will be joining in the convoy of Toto Mangudadatu to file his Certificate of Candidacy before the Comelec provincial office in Shariff Aguak. May we know the security situation along the route? Is it safe?”
Cayton said that for almost a month he had not received any intelligence report regarding the presence of threat groups in the area.
And so I asked again, “So, it is safe to travel along the route?” He said, “Yes.”
No one would ever think that the police backed up by friendly forces like the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu) and the Civilian Volunteers Organization (CVO) would do the unthinkable.
Who would consider force multipliers like Cafgu and CVO as threat groups?
I asked him further why the military refused to provide security escort to Mangudadatu and he claimed, “There is an existing memorandum of agreement between the AFP, Comelec, PNP and DILG regarding requests for security escort by politicians. The requesting party should address it to the PNP and Comelec. Then, the Comelec will be the one to request us.”
The convoy proceeded with the belief that the Ampatuans would not harm Muslim women and journalists.
Unfortunately, we had miscalculated the audacity and ruthlessness of the Ampatuans.
Before the convoy kicked off, those who joined in the convoy were asked to bow their heads in prayer.
I was riding together with Bernaldez on a UNTV van which was designated as lead vehicle.
While on the way to Petron Gasoline station, I felt uneasy with anxiety as in anticipation of what could go wrong. I felt uneasy.
The four of us who rode on the same vehicle all the way from General Santos to Buluan took separate vehicles. Reblando rode on a van provided by the Mangudadatu, while I joined Bernaldez in the UNTV van and Jubelag decided to bring his own vehicle.
UNTV reporter Victor Nuñez, one of those killed in the carnage, told me, “Sir, I’ve learned that Joseph Jubelag would drive alone going to Shariff Aguak.”
I recalled that in 2007, Jubelag was the target of an assassination attempt when he wrote a story about corruption in Maguindanao under the Ampatuan patriarch. Jubelag went into hiding for about a year just to ensure his safety.
Hearing this, I asked Bernaldez to accompany Jubelag in his car. I told Nuñez, “Vic, we have to transfer and accompany Joseph Jubelag in his car. We could not allow him to travel alone to Shariff Aguak.”
That was the turning point that somehow spared our lives.
The convoy went ahead and we were left behind as we were still fuelling up.
When we proceeded, I received a text message from Reblando that the convoy was already at the rotunda in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat.
Upon reaching Tacurong City, Jubelag said “I’d like to drop by the hotel (BF Lodge) for a short while to use the comfort room.”
I was angry at this, as we were in a hurry to catch up with the convoy. But since it was a personal necessity, I just told him to make it quick.
I requested Bernaldez to stay in the car and be vigilant. Because of death threats, Jubelag and I have been observing security precautions.
While we were about to leave, a hotel employee informed us that barely three minutes before we arrived, two unidentified men wearing jackets and riding on single motorcycle came looking for us.
The duo wanted to get the names of all journalists who slept in the hotel the night before. But the hotel turned down the request.
Suddenly, our instincts were confirmed: it is no longer safe to travel to Shariff Aguak.
We decided to go back to Buluan and just wait for the press conference after the COC filing.
On the way back to Buluan, at around 9:55 a.m., I tried to contact Bong Reblando and some other colleagues in the convoy but their mobile phones could no longer be reached.
I thought of the worst possibilities, and decided that I didn’t want to leave our safety to chance. We had to defend ourselves.
I left my licensed handgun at home as I didn’t want to provoke anybody in Shariff Aguak. So, I asked Jubelag if he brought his gun with him.
He said “yes” and pointed to me right where it was. There were two .45 calibre handguns, not just one. I felt relieved.
Three harrowing days
Just a few minutes upon arriving in Buluan, we were told to meet Toto Mangudadatu at DXBL radio station where he was being interviewed.
There, Toto Mangudadatu informed us after his interview that his wife Bai Genalyn called up telling him that the convoy was rounded up by “more than one hundred armed men led by Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr.”
Again, I tried calling up Reblando. His mobile phone was turned off. I tried Bart Maravilla of Bombo Radyo-Koronadal, and a stranger answered his phone.
For the first time in my life, I was at a loss on what to do. My mind drifted and thought about my mom, who is a hypertensive, and my 10-year old son.
I thought about my dear media colleagues who, just a few hours back, were exchanging jokes with us. I had no idea where they were, and what had happened to them.
We were supposed to be with the convoy. We could have been there, we could have also been killed.
My bureau editor informed me of a directive from Manila to leave Buluan right away for my safety. I defied the order.
My safety was the least of my concern. That day, 32 journalists lost their lives. Why should I be scared? They can come and get me, I thought.
Then my phone rang. It was Janjan Macailing of Bombo Radyo-Gensan, who wanted to interview me regarding what happened.
Thinking about my hypertensive mom, I decided to grant the interview hoping that she was monitoring the radio and will know that I was safe. She was and she told me later that she and my son cried upon hearing my interview over the radio.
Before midnight on that fateful day, a military official involved in the retrieval operations at the massacre site called up asking if Bong Reblando was wearing a blue polo shirt with floral design.
I said yes and he told me, “Half of his head was blown away. Probably, a 12-gauge shotgun was used to kill him.”
I couldn’t hold back my the tears. How could they do this to a nice guy like Bong?
In the previous year before he died, Bong kept sending me religious quotes and passages. He never tired of inviting me to join their religious group.
For two nights and three days after that, I was in shock. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep as every time I closed my eyes, the contorted faces and mangled bodies of murdered colleagues kept flashing back.
I was only able to eat after learning on 25 November, the arrest and subsequent inquest of Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Jr.
Painful quest for justice
There are hypocrites who would accuse some of the media victims, of being illegitimate and fly-by-night journalists.
Still, they didn’t deserve such horrible deaths and great injustice.
Their fate highlights the miserable working conditions of most, if not all, provincial journalists – underpaid, no social security benefits, and no job security. Many of them are virtual one-man army doing multiple jobs as publisher, editor, news writer, circulation in-charge and marketing officer of their own publication.
They were earning hardly enough to make ends meet.
In the Philippines, justice grinds to a snail’s pace. My own experience of a libel case, filed for the purpose of harassment, dragged on for about 14 years before it was finally resolved.
President Benigno Aquino III made a promise during the 2010 election campaign that once elected, he would try to resolve the massacre case before his term ended in 2016.
Today, President Aquino reminds me of a quote from Russian political leader Nikita Khrushchev, who said, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.”
Aquino even failed on his other promise to expedite the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in Congress.
Maura Montano, 65, mother of media victim Marife “Neneng” Montano, said she’s getting tired and impatient waiting for justice.
Maura has taken care of her two grandchildren since her daughter died in the massacre.
“I am already old and I have no source of income. We survive out of the support coming from relatives and my son. But we can’t rely forever on the support of others. They killed our bread winner instantly; and then, me and my two grandchildren, they are killing gradually through deprivation,” stated Maura between sobs.
It is now nearly 2015, but the case has a long way to go. I, too, have lost hope.