The hill crawls with people—police investigators in gloves and berets, City Hall clerks clutching handkerchiefs to mouths, blank-eyed soldiers with belts of ammunition slung over their chests. The photojournalists stand in the distance, higher up in the hillside, sunglasses and long lenses shooting sparks under the high sun. Everywhere there are clumps of reporters, the local press, most of whom are crouched over bodies. This one, says a sunburned boy with a press ID. He lifts a banana leaf. This is Henry.
Working the hill, explains the site commander, is like slicing a birthday cake. First there is the layer of soil, then the body, then another layer of soil, then another body, then a vehicle with maybe a body inside, then another body after a layer of soil.
The backhoe stutters and stops. Another body is laid out past the tattered police line, as the kill site spreads over the hillside far beyond the cordoned area where the first 27 bodies were found. The faces of the dead are covered with newspapers, then banana leaves after the newspapers ran out. The leaves are fresh, but it takes piles to cover each swollen body. The flies are too drunk to flit away. The bodies are marked and numbered. The count goes up to 52.
Her name is Reynafe Momay-Castillo. Her friends call her Nenen. She is a small woman, 5’2, maybe 5’3, long hair pulled into a ponytail, a white baseball cap shading her eyes. One hand carries a Styrofoam box of Jollibee ChickenJoy courtesy of the local government. The other hand sweeps at banana leaves. She says she is looking for her father.
Bebot Momay was already 48 years old when he first saw his byline printed in a local daily. His introduction to journalism came late, a result of a side job selling newspaper subscriptions for journalist friends. On Nov. 23, 2009, the day he took his nephew’s motorcycle to Buluan town to cover the press conference of then Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, Momay was 61 years old, a photographer for the small Tacurong-based Midland Review where he had been working for more than six years. There were rumors that Mangudadatu intended to challenge the reigning Ampatuans for the Maguindanao governorship, and Momay intended to cover the story.
Nenen remembers the day she found out her father was lost. It was late in the afternoon of Nov. 23. Her son had just come home from school. He said there was a kidnapping, that the Mangudadatu convoy had been met by armed men at Ampatuan town, that the news was the talk of the school. Nenen shrugged her shoulders, said they were all politicians, what else can you expect?
It was later in the afternoon when she answered a call from her uncle, a retired policeman. He said her father was in the Mangudadatu convoy heading to the capital. He said he saw her father off himself. He said nobody had survived.
She doesn’t remember what she said, only that she wanted her husband and had only her son with her, the son who shouted at her when she told him his grandfather was dead, who screamed she was lying, lying, who said his grandfather was alive. Take it back, Ma. Take it back take it back take it back.
She is told there is still hope. No body was found. Her husband calls, tells her to stay put, to wait for him. Her friends call, they tell her not to climb the hill. Everyone says wait, it is dangerous up, there are men and guns, everyone is angry. She listens, and goes to wait at a hospital where she heard the bodies would be taken. When the bodies do not arrive, she goes to St. Peter’s Memorial, where she was told the bodies would be readied for autopsy. When the dump truck filled with cadavers does not stop at St Peter’s, she follows it to Koronadal City, to a funeral parlor called The Southern.
She smells the bodies from the highway, and pushes into a crowded room with her youngest son behind her. She does not think of trauma or of nightmares or of the fact that the boy clinging to her hand does not understand that looking for his grandfather would mean fumbling over rotting bodies. She does not find her father.
When Nenen Momay took a rented van up a dirt road and saw the massacre site in Sitio Masalay, she knew her father was dead. The site is a field, flat and grassy. There is nowhere in the hill that a man can run, she says. There is nowhere a man can survive.
Nenen Momay never found her father’s body. She demanded DNA tests, fought over cadavers with other families, even once refused to allow the burial of Cadaver No. 37 because she was certain he had the same profile as her father. She made angry statements against the media that occasionally referred to the victims as 57 instead of 58.
Unlike many of the mothers and brothers and sisters of the missing, many of whom insist that Jonas is alive or that Sherlyn is being held against her will in some faraway military camp, Nenen Momay is adamant that her father is dead.
She will tell you about the phone calls her father made before he left home. She will tell you about the motorcycle that was left parked outside the Mangudadatu home. She will show you the list of names of the journalists who went to follow the convoy led by Genalyn Mangudadatu. She will tell you about her father’s jacket, a gift from a nephew, found on the site by another grieving family who used it to cover their own father’s broken face. She will tell you about the teeth his own dentist identified as Bebot Momay’s, the partial upper left denture that a Peruvian forensic anthropologist found on the massacre site. She will tell you what he said, that only blunt force could have released the metal clasp holding the dentures together.
She will tell you this: Bebot Momay is dead, and whether or not there is a grave marked with his name and the same date marked on 57 other graves, he is still a victim whose case deserves to be tried with the 57. In the many months since the filing of murder charges against the Ampatuans of Maguindanao, the number of cases filed in the court of Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes numbered 57, not 58. Nenen and her family were told they cannot claim a murder without a certificate of death, and there can be no certificate without a body. Every year since, Nenen and her family have climbed the Ampatuan hillside to lay flowers for Bebot Momay. Her father may not have a grave, Nenen says. Until he does, the hill will serve as his monument.
On Sept. 24, one week ago, and nearly three years after the murders in Ampatuan, the Department of Justice filed a new set of charges against defendants Unsay, Zaldy and Andal Ampatuan, accusing them of killing a 58th victim.
Nenen calls it a victory. Now she waits for justice. So does her father.
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Portions of this column were first printed in November 2011 in an essay published as “The 58th Man” in Esquire Philippines.