It’s been 10 years and justice has remained elusive for those who perished in the grisly massacre on November 23, 2019 in that secluded hill in Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao province.
I’ve been to a lot of crime scenes in my journalism career but nothing can compare with what I was about to see as I walked closer to the area. From a striking distance, I could already see the carved hill right smack in the middle of a grassy area. The overpowering stench of decomposing bodies wafting in the air – was coming from a place which is now referred to as the site of the infamous “Maguindanao Massacre” – where 58 people, including 34 journalists, were systematically massacred.
Together with a colleague, we were among the first few journalists to arrive at the area, and I was told later that some people were also taking videos and photos of journalists covering the incident. I also learned later in the evening that a military intelligence report also suggested that the killers would try to include journalists who covered the crime scene. We traveled to the next town and I booked at a nondescript hotel under a fictitious name. It was already dawn and I was still pounding my laptop keyboard to write and as I was looking at pictures that I took that day which were unbearable to see. It was one of my longest and darkest days in reportage.
It was surreal to having seen such atrocity and one would wonder what kind of criminal mind would be capable of doing that. Foreign observers would say, it is the single deadliest attack on journalists anywhere in the world and we were not even on a civil war. Surely, the architect of this dastardly act had no sense of humanity and place in our civilized modern world. They ought to rot in jail.
Then vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who lost his wife and some family members in the massacre, was poised to challenge then powerful Ampatuan clan in the race for governor of the province, but the Ampatuan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr. warned and threatened him not to do so.
Despite the warning and the threats, Mangudadatu thought that if he could send his wife and other female family members to register his candidacy for governorship on his behalf, and some members of the media to cover it, nothing untoward would happen. He was very wrong.
It was unprecedented and unheard of at that time that someone dared to challenge the clout of the Ampatuans. For members of the media, especially in this part of the country, it was a newsworthy event.
No one knew that a gruesome tragedy would soon take place.
Based on the records of the case, about 100 heavily-armed gang led by the namesake son of the Ampatuan patriarch were already waiting for the convoy of Mangudadatu, that included members of the media, along the highway in the village of Salman for the registration of his candidacy in Maguindanao town. The armed men, after intercepting the convoy, commandeered it to the secluded place and peppered the victims with bullets. No one among those who were in the convoy survived.
I had met and interviewed some of the bereaved families of the victims a few days after the incident and in the succeeding years that followed as the media community has been commemorating the tragedy every year.
Myrna Reblando, wife of the late Bong Reblando who was among the slain journalists, was a picture of agony and was beyond comfort when relatives and media groups came to visit the site on the first year of the tragedy.
“They all are animals;” she wailed as she shrieked in grief in that lonely hill that never became silent again.
“ I still believe in justice,” Mangudadatu, who succeeded in unseating the Ampatuans as governor of the province, told me at his residence, several years later.
The Ampatuan patriarch passed away while in jail and his two sons Zaldy and Datu Unsay stand as principal suspects in one of grisly and bloody political incidents in the country’s history.
We hope the wheels of Lady Justice grind exceedingly well and that justice is finally meted. Let us hope that the incident become an example in our national psyche that absolute power corrupts.