MANILA — It was a bitter sight for family members of those killed in the 2009 massacre at Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
Overgrown weeds—left alone for over 2 years—had turned the memorial to their loved ones built on the massacre site into a forgotten glade.
But Grace Morales felt relief finally fulfilling a long-held vow.
She discovered in the area 13 years ago the bodies of 2 family members: her husband Rossel and sister Marites Cablitas, both then working at a small newspaper in General Santos City.
“Nagpapasalamat ako na nakabalik kami. Iba kasi kapag nakapunta kami dito. Iba ang dating sa amin, kasi hindi lang ito para mag-alay kundi parang panawagan ito na ipaalam sa buong mundo na ang pamilya hindi sumusuko,” Morales said.
(I am thankful we were able to come back. It’s different effect for us going here. We’re not only here to pay tribute to them but to also put out a call to the world that we families will not give up.)
After the weeds had been trimmed, she and other victims’ relatives who went to the site on Sunday lighted candles, offered flowers, and sprinkled holy water on the markers.
They had to do it again, they said, to show they did not forget.
Travel restrictions brought by the pandemic prevented them from taking the hours-long trip to Maguindanao.
Yet their return also comes with another bitter pill: they still could not claim full justice for the 58 lives ended on November 23, 2009.
Many of them remain in financial need, with some also targeted by tips of alleged suspects in the massacre as dozens are still at large.
“Parang nasa alanganin lahat. Nag-aantay, hindi namin sure kung sa dulo ba makukuha namin ‘yong totoong hustisya, ‘yong full justice na hinahangad namin,” Morales said.
(Everything seems uncertain. We’re waiting, not sure if we will receive true justice at the end—the full justice we want.)
The Maguindanao massacre is regarded as the Philippines’ worst incident of election-related violence and, with 32 media people killed, also the single deadliest event for journalists worldwide.
STILL IN APPEAL
Since the verdicts in the case were handed down in 2019, none of the victims have been paid court-imposed damages.
Members of the Ampatuan clan, including Andal Jr., also known as Unsay, and his brother Zaldy, were among those sentenced to 40 years without parole.
A total of 44 were convicted, among them 15 police officers as accomplices.
They had petitioned the Court of Appeals (CA) to review the ruling.
Fifty-six suspects, among them were acquitted by the RTC.
The CA in 2021 convicted another policeman, Badawi Bakal, after overturning his acquittal by the regional trial court.
Lawyer Nena Santos, who represents 38 of the victims’ relatives, acknowledges the appeal as the right of the convicted.
But along with it, she said, the case could drag on for much longer.
“Based on our data, kung isa lang ang akusado inaabot din ng 5 years, sometimes 10 years, ito pa kaya na ‘yong mga na-convict ay 30. Tapos ang nag-appeal marami. Ang ire-review na records ay volumes. So definitely sabihin natin na matagal talaga ang pagre-review ng case.,” Santos told ABS-CBN News.
(Based on our data, if one accused’s case takes up to 5 or 10 years, what more for 30 convicted? Add to that the many who appealed. Volumes of records would be reviewed. Definitely we could say that the review would take long.)
The victims’ families had also filed an appeal to the CA to raise the cost of damages to be awarded each family from P350,000 to P500,000.
Santos said if approved, this would add to the weight of the penalty on the convicted parties.
Meanwhile, the kin of photographer Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, represented by a different lawyer, are still petitioning the court to recognize him as the 58th victim.
The trial court issued a sentence for 57 counts of murder discounting Momay, saying only his dentures were found at the site.
Still, Santos believes the CA can speed up its review.
“Because this is the case that has thrown us into [a] worldwide spectacular event—one-time big-time killing, 58 people in an election-related case—so I hope the Court of Appeals will also take that into consideration to hasten the resolution of the case,” she said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Wednesday said 83 of the accused in the massacre remain at large, according to the Office of the Press Secretary.
Knowing that still haunts the victims’ families, more so the orphaned.
Ian Perante, son of Mindanao Gold Star Daily correspondent Ronie Perante Sr., said he received chat messages this November naming a man allegedly involved in the massacre and sending a picture of the supposed policeman.
Perante, whose youngest brother was still in the womb when the massacre happened, admitted he did not know what to do with the message, which only he and another victim’s relative received.
“May halong takot saka kalituhan din. Kasi sa tagal na ng kaso bakit ngayon pa siya nag-ano. Hindi ko alam kung may alitan ba sya ng taong pinupuntirya niya o ano ba,” he said.
(I feel a mix of fear and confusion too. The case has already lasted long, but why did they come out with this just now? I don’t know if they have a dispute with the man being named or what?)
He added that other friends of his online also got messages from the account.
“Kung totoo nga ang sinasabi niya, salamat din sa information, pero sana tinago na lang sana niya,” Perante said.
(If what he claims is true, then thank you for the information. But I hope he just kept it private.)
Atty. Santos said she asked the kin to log the messages in a police blotter.
At worst, the tipster could just be disrupting the case, she said.
But on the other hand, she added, it could still hold some truth which was why it must be investigated.
“Matagal din naman kung minsan maka-realize ang mga witnesses na bothered by their conscience na hindi magsabi ng totoo,” Santos said.
(Sometimes it takes time for witnesses to come around after being bothered by their conscience for not telling the truth.)
At a short program at the massacre site on Sunday led by Justice Now, the organization of victims’ families, the NUJP committed to monitoring the cases until they are fully resolved.
NUJP chairperson Jonathan de Santos lamented that conditions have not improved for journalists since 2009.
Following the Maguindanao massacre, the NUJP lists 57 more media workers killed.
NUJP counts a total of 197 media deaths since 1986, many of them unsolved.
While the recent killing of broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa has resulted in a speedy probe by authorities, de Santos cautions the actual court proceedings could still take longer like in the Maguindanao massacre.
The NUJP chair is hopeful at the support given by the Office of the Press Secretary under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. toward ensuring media safety.
“Masasabi natin, ano, medyo mukhang mas open to the media ang administration na ‘to. Mayroon silang mga promises. Sinabi nila, specifically for this case, hindi nila nakakalimutan itong kasong ito. They haven’t forgotten this case and nasusundan naman nila,” de Santos said.
“Ang risk lang for the journalism community is dahil mabait ‘yong administration, let’s say comparatively, baka ma-lull tayo into a false sense of ‘Okay na lahat.’ We have to maintain our independence pa rin, we have to be critical when necessary.”
(We can say that it seems this administration is more open to the media. They have laid out promises. Specifically for this case, they said they will not forget it. They have not forgotten this case and they are monitoring it.
The only risk for the journalism community is because the administration seems nice, let’s say comparatively, we may be lulled into a false sense of everything being okay. We still have to maintain our independence, we have to be critical when necessary.)
But the work remains cut out for journalists to include the public in preventing media violence, such as explaining how the media work, de Santos said.
Media also need to remain in solidarity with each other, he added.
Morales said their advocacy is no longer confined to attaining justice for their slain loved ones, but also for other victims.
“Hangga’t mayroong namamatay sa grupo ng mga media na naging kasama naman nila, parang hindi rin, wala ring hustisya,” she said.
“‘Yong sa’min naman kasi hindi lang para sa pamilya namin. ‘Yong parang panawagan namin na ’Tama na ‘to, itigil na.’ Kasi hindi naman dapat na mangyari ito.”
(As long as there will be those in the media like them who get killed, there will still be no justice.
Our call that these killings should stop is not just for our families, because these should never happen.)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: