(An excerpt from my still-to-be published book I WALKED WITH PRESIDENTS)
In 2009, after Congress created the Mindanao Development Authority (MINDA) (after being Press Secretary and my short stint as Chief Presidential Legal Counsel) I was appointed as chairman of MINDA during the presidency of President Gloria Arroyo. It was during that time that another tragedy took place. It was known as the infamous MAGUINDANAO MASSACRE.
AMPATUANS RULED — At that time, the Ampatuan family , headed by Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. ruled the Maguindanao province like a fiefdom, controlling the whole area adjacent to the Cotabato provinces. One day, the Mangudadatu family, formerly a political ally of the Ampatuans decided to field its own candidate for governor ,
TOTO MANGUDADATU against Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. Aware of the dangers of such move of challenging the Ampatuans, the Mangudadatus decided not to send “Toto” to personally file his certificate of candidacy but instead dispatched his young wife to the town COMELEC office in Shariff Aguak. It was while the convoy was traveling towards the town when the gruesome massacre happened. (This incident will appear in eight (8) episodes).
DAY ONE –(Nov 23, 2009). I was in Davao City that day and was finalizing arrangements for me and wife Beth to fly to Manila in the late afternoon flight for her usual medical check up for her recurring kidney problem. By noon, I was getting text messages from several sources about a missing convoy. I started inquiring. I immediately called the General Santos City correspondent of the
“Philippine Daily Inquirer” Aquiles Zonio. He told me over the phone that he was supposed to be with the convoy from Buluan town to Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao on board the Mitsubishi Lancer of ”Mindanao Bulletin” Editor Joseph Jubelag. But Joseph decided to peel off from the convoy and proceeded to the pension house in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat where they stayed the previous night to pick up some belongings. They did not try to catch up with the convoy anymore.
At 9:30 a.m., Joseph said he called by phone “Manila Daily Bulletin” Correspondent Bong Reblando who was ahead in a rented van with the convoy enroute to Shariff Aguak. He told Bong that they decided not to proceed anymore as they were delayed in Tacurong but would catch up with the group when they return to Buluan from Shariff Aguak for the scheduled press conference after the planned filing of the certificate of candidacy of Toto Mangudadatu. That was to be the last phone call with Bong.
Bong Reblando was a close friend and a “kumpadre”, being “ninong” to one of his sons. I found close kinship with Bong because both of us had similar beginnings. I was “Manila Daly Bulletin” correspondent too during my early days as a journalist. He was always supportive of my work in Mindanao, in the peace process, as press secretary, and in my other tasks while in government.
FORMER ALLIES —From all accounts, the Mangudadatus knew of the dangers they were facing in opposing the Ampatuans. They were political allies before. The filing of the certificates of candidacy was a “declaration of war”. The media delegation of the convoy was intended to be a security cordon. Most of them were from Gen. Santos City.
Newsman Joseph Jubelag later related to me that on November 22, he stayed overnight with some mediamen, together with Bong Reblando, Aquiles Zonio and others at a pension house in Tacurong in preparation for the activity organized by the Mangudadatus. The following day, at 6:30 a.m. Monday, he drove his vehicle to Buluan where the convoy was supposed to assemble before the jump off. Joseph recalled that there was some discussion, before the convoy left Buluan about the security concern as they learned that there was no security escort provided by the military authorities. Joseph said they contacted by phone Gen. Cayton, then 6th division commander based in Awang, Cotabato city who said that while there were no security escorts, there should be no concern. Joseph however got worried. That’s when he decided to just let the convoy go ahead and instead drove to the Tacurong pension house to ostensibly pick up his belongings. On board his vehicle were media friends Aquiles and Paul Bernardo. His close buddy, Bong Reblando rode in a van and went ahead with the group. There were six (6) vehicles in the caravan. Joseph’s “Lancer” would have been vehicle No. 7.
DANGER SIGNS — Newsman Aquiles remembered that while they were at the hotel lobby, and while Joseph went up to the room for his belongings, one of the waiters approached him. The waiter was nervous. He told Aquiles that when they left the hotel early that same morning, some unidentified and suspicious-looking men arrived and asked about the identities of those who joined the convoy. Aquiles suspected something was wrong and got nervous. He recalled that they were not able to catch up with the convoy as Joseph Jubelag stayed in the comfort room for a long time. “Thank god for his bad stomach, I survived,” Aquiles in hindsight told me later. Unknown to Aquiles, Joseph had already decided not to proceed to Shariff Aguak and his upset stomach was due to tension and fear. Being an old hand in the area, he trusted his instincts. He felt uncomfortable and strange so he decided not to go. He sensed something was wrong. That’s when they called at 9:30 am Bong who was with the Mangudadatu convoy and told him about the decision that they would not be able to catch up and join. The next call at 10:30 a.m. to Bong’s cellphone and all the frantic calls that ensued were no longer answered, except for one call to another mediaman’s phone and someone with a moro accent answered briefly then cut the line. That was an ominous sign that a tragic event just took place.
(Next: Episode 2, still DAY ONE)
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