Remembering a massacre

The images of the aftermath of the

It was the fist just barely peeking out of the freshly-dug soil.

That’s the image I can’t forget. 

And we saw it in-person, without the seeming “protection”, or distance, of a filtered reality depicted through a camera lens.

It was the day after it happened, and investigators were still looking for bodies. 

A digger was parked by the remains of several crushed vehicles. Bullet-ridden corpses were strewn on the ground like broken bottles after a street fight. The banana leaves on top of them the only available concession to propriety. 

The pockmarked Maguindanao mountain we were on looked as if a giant manic mole had burrowed furiously multiple times trying to find itself the right home. But it failed.

There was blood everywhere, and the smell – well, the smell of death, of so much death in one place, can never really be washed away. 

One year on and the Philippines is still reeling from the horrific audacity that was the Maguindanao massacre. Fifty-eight people killed as a result of a rivalry between two powerful families. The worst case of political violence in the country’s recent history.

There is a litany of facts and phrases that usually follows any mention of the massacre now, and most Filipinos can likely repeat it to you automatically:

– the most journalists killed in one instance – 32

– more than 20 members of the Mangudadatu clan dead, including two pregnant women

– a testament to the impunity that has been allowed to take over the nation

– the result of the abuses of power long-tolerated by society

– the shameless involvement of corrupted police and military officials

– a bastardisation of democracy

The women of the Mangudadatu family were on their way to file the candidacy of one of their kin, Esmael, who was going to challenge the decade-long reign of the feared Ampatuan clan.

Reputably ruthless, the Ampatuans were said to have threatened Esmael with death if he dared contest their rule in an election. They were used to running, and ruling, unopposed and they had the support of the then-president Gloria Arroyo. 
The Ampatuans are believed to have helped deliver to her the votes that swung her the presidency in 2004. The alliance between them strong ever since.

So Esmael’s supporters – shielded, or so they hoped, by the press and several of their lawyers – drove through Ampatuan territory to file his candidacy. There’s no way the Ampatuans would harm such a non-threatening group, the Mangudadatus thought.

They were wrong. 

The Ampatuans maintain their innocence despite overwhelming evidence now being presented in court against them.

One year on, and where do things stand? 

At least 10 primary members of the Ampatuan clan are in custody. But there are those that swear their influence goes beyond any prison bars. Most of their alleged cohorts, the other suspects, remain at large and are believed to now be working with criminal gangs, continuing a reign of terror that Maguindanao is finding hard to shake off. 

Esmael Mangudadatu is now governor – just as he wanted, but bereft of more than 20 members of his family. 

There is still a proliferation of illegal firearms in his province and he has been calling for the new president, just five months in to his term, to dismantle all remaining armed civilian auxiliary forces across the country. A task that the fledgling administration says may not be as easy to do as it sounds. 

Civilian “troops” have been utilised in trouble spots across the country for years as “force multipliers” in the fight against insurgents and separatists of all kinds. There are “security considerations”, the new government says.

But no one is questioning the sincerity of widely-popular President Benigno Aquino III in working to get justice for the victims. 

More money has been pumped in to the Witness Protection Programme, and Aquino himself has asked the supreme court to allow the trial now under way to be broadcast on television – for transparency’s sake. But that, of course, comes with its own set of complex problems. 

So the discussions carry on.  The Maguindanao massacre has been debated and dissected over and over across all media platforms. 

Commemorative T-shirts, and stickers have been made. Photos of the victims, in full colour, in the state they were found, have flown around the internet.

The intent, apparently, was to shock and horrify… so that people would be impassioned enough to do something about it. So they might force the government to bring about justice, and prevent such an atrocity from happening again. But things don’t always go as intended and sometimes passions calm before any real change is achieved. 

The accused Ampatuans are said to have tricks up their own sleeves. Rumours are rife that they have prison guards in their pockets, that they have been ordering the killing of witnesses from behind bars, and that it is due to their lawyers’ influence that no press are allowed to take photos or film the accused in the courtroom. 

It is not an image, or so it is said, that the defence wants the public to see. In fact, there have been very few new pictures of the Ampatuans lately – they over-played to the media previously, and it back-fired. But there are certain images no amount of orchestration can erase.

Political analysts have said there is only so much the government can really do, and that for such an incident to not happen again – there has to be an internal, possibly cultural, upheaval.  And for that, the victims’ relatives say, the images of the massacre must not be allowed to become just a part yesterday’s news.

That it should continue to shock, and horrify, and inflame.

One year on and a respected national survey said over 90 per cent of Filipinos are aware of the massacre, but less than 50 per cent are following the trial. 

President Aquino declared the anniversary a National Day of Commemoration, and wore a black armband in sympathy.

Across the country church bells tolled for the dead, and prayers were said for their repose.

The image of the digger has become a tragic icon.

A fist peeking out of the freshly-dug soil … that’s the one I can’t erase.