There was a soft breeze blowing that calm, subdued afternoon. The sky was pale blue, and the lush green of the mountains that surrounded us shone brighter than the sun hiding behind a thin veil of clouds.
Nature’s splendour did not betray the terrifyingly ugly scene that was just a few more metres ahead.
It happened so close to the civilised areas, and in broad daylight, that it seemed as if the perpetrators were not afraid of being caught.
A group of weary soldiers sat around in silence knowing exactly why we had come.
“Go on…”, one of the soldiers said. “Just follow the path… and the smell will lead you.”
A few more metres ahead and then, indeed, the smell.
There is no describing the rancid, powerful odour that the traitorous gentle breeze wove into the back of our throats.
It made your eyes water. And you had to physically stop to catch your breath.
It was the potent, pungent, smell of rotting flesh and stagnant pools of blood.
In a dark green vehicle parked along the winding trail, there were 3 bodies wrapped in white plastic and covered by a swarm of swirling, obese, flies.
The remains were waiting to be brought to the nearest available morgue.
And there weren’t many available morgues left. At this point in time 52 victims had been found in these newly discovered “killing fields”, and authorities were still searching for two more.
Most had been buried in graves up to 30 feet deep, the rest were left haphazardly strewn in the unkempt grass.
Bodies so ridden with bullets that even their faces were mutilated by the force of being shot at close range with M16s. You had to walk away to recover from the sensory assault of the massacre’s aftermath.
But there was nowhere “clean” to turn.
Everywhere you looked, there was evidence of what’s now being seen in the Philippines as an unprecedented national nightmare.
Evidence of a long-talked about culture of impunity and warlord patronage. Where fear and violence are the orders of the day, and power is born through a gun barrel.
Stalled vehicles with shattered windows and blood splattered all over them, shoes lying mangled on the earth, broken spectacles, piles of paper, personal photographs, blood-soaked veils and clumps of long black hair that looked like they had been pulled off scalps with the force of Olympians.
Many of the victims were women of the prominent, political, Mangudadatu family. Some of them were pregnant.
The rest were supporters and members of the media – all of them travelling in a convoy to file candidacy papers for Esmael Mangudadatu.
More than 20 journalists died on the job here – the largest number in a single incident.
Now a vice-mayor, Esmael planned to run for the province’s gubernatorial position against Andal Ampatuan Junior, he of the powerful, rival family with close ties to the current administration.
Climate of fear
People speak in whispers around here – but if you listen closely, you can hear talk about how the two clans were allies once.
They have inter-married, and are even members of the same political party, but it is said that greed got in the way.
Greed, and the all-consuming hunger for power.
There is a proliferation of illegal weapons in Mindanao – and most of those firearms end up in the hands of private militias allegedly employed by warlord politicians. That is how they can stay in control.
Alleged witnesses say Ampatuan Junior orchestrated the massacre of the Mangudadatus, as a way to discourage them. It has done the opposite.
Esmael is determined to run in next year’s polls and Ampatuan Jr is now in custody facing charges of multiple murder.
He insists that he is innocent and many Filipinos fear even if evidence is found to convict him, the government will only do so with a velvet touch.
Money – and guns – speak, residents here say over and over again. And the Ampatuans have loads of both.
A few hours later, the last of the convoy’s three buried vehicles is loaded onto a truck to be taken away as evidence.
The perpetrators even managed to bury entire vehicles in pre-dug holes.
The excavator that is believed to have been used to do so was transferred earlier, and Esmael says it bore the mark of the provincial government; Ampatuan Jr’s father is the incumbent Governor.
But the mountains had not yet finished giving up their secrets.
Underneath the last vehicle, five more bodies were recovered.
Three more victims than had been part of the convoy. Investigators believe they were possible witnesses who had become collateral damage.
“Who could do such a thing? No, what kind of person would do such a thing?”
It is no longer just being whispered as the murmurs have turned into a tide of outrage.
The nation is still reeling in shock. Political murders are not uncommon in the Philippines, but an incident as large and as bold as this one has everyone taking notice.
“Animals…!”, they cry out. “Inhuman…!” is also heard. “Barbaric…”
Words fail to contain what the senses will take too long to forget: the sight, the smell, the eerie silence of fractured remnants of shattered lives just cast aside like paper dolls on a beautiful Mindanao mountainside.
What other secrets do the now pock-marked mountains hide?