Remembering the Maguindanao Massacre
On the day of judgment in the Maguindanao massacre trial, a flood of memories rushed through my mind as I waited to hear the decision in what has been dubbed as “the single deadliest attack on journalists in the world and the worst election-related violence in Philippine history.”
When the massacre happened 10 years ago, we were a hodgepodge of young and nearing-middle-age lawyers earning our keep as a small full service law firm. We were also doing pro bono work at the Center for International Law (Centerlaw) representing journalists who were harassed with libel cases, defending arrested activists and serving as counsel in the impeachment moves against then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Because of our advocacies, we were dubbed by an American lawyer as “the most troublesome small law firm in the Philippines.”
When news broke that majority (32 out of 58) of the victims in the massacre were provincial journalists, we felt we needed to extend help. The massacre happened during the Arroyo administration, which was perceived to be very close to the Ampatuans. The massacre also happened because of a feud between two political families, the Ampatuans and Mangudadatus, and we were worried that the interest of the slain journalists’ families would be sidelined.
There were 58 families claiming to have lost loved ones in the massacre, but only 57 dead bodies were recovered. At one time, four families had conflicting claims on one cadaver because some of the bodies were very badly mangled. We concluded that there was one dead body that was unrecovered.
We enlisted the help of a well-known Peruvian forensic expert, Dr. Jose Pablo Baraybar, to give professional advice. Dr. Baraybar went to the massacre site, together with then Commission on Human Rights chair Leila de Lima and then Centerlaw chair Harry Roque, to supervise additional diggings in search of the missing body. No additional body was recovered, but a piece of dentures were found at the crime scene.
The dentures were later identified as belonging to Reynaldo Momay, whose body has not been found to this day. Together with other evidence, the dentures were presented as proof that Momay was the 58th victim. Unfortunately, the court found the evidence insufficient and it acquitted all the accused on Momay’s murder. It was heart-wrenching listening to the interviews of Momay’s daughter, Ma. Reynafe Momay Castillo, as she sobbed and wept over the crime and then the injustice suffered by her father.
There are two things that are seared in my memory when I joined a trip to the crime scene a week after the incident. First, during the two-hour road trip from Cotabato City to the crime scene, I distinctly observed that virtually all the houses I saw were made of light materials, mostly nipa huts. When I asked a local guide about it, he told me that aside from the fact that there’s widespread poverty in Maguindanao, residents do not invest in permanent houses in order to be able to just pack up and move to a different place when violence erupts in their areas. When we reached the capital town of Shariff Aguak, however, I saw the huge Ampatuan mansion just beside the provincial capitol.
Second, all vehicles traveling in the opposite direction would hastily get off the road and park on the shoulder upon seeing our convoy. This was strangely happening even though our convoy was only using the right lane. When I asked, the same local guide told me that convoys are associated with local politicians who would fire at any vehicle that does not leave both sides of the road to give them unhampered use of the two-lane highway. Less than an hour after we arrived at the crime scene in Ampatuan town, we heard bursts of gunfire from a distance. The ensuing dead silence of our group betrayed serious worry. Then came the sound of a helicopter headed in our direction, exponentially multiplying our fear and anxiety.
I heaved a huge sigh of relief when our military escorts informed us that the helicopter was sent to provide us a perimeter security while we were in the area.
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