Philippine widow fled country out of fear

Widow of journalist killed in political violence sought refuge as culture of intimidation continues.

    Philippine widow fled country out of fear
    Myrna Reblando lost her husband in 2009 along with at least 57 other victims [Marga Ortigas/Al Jazeera]

    The wistfulness was clear in Myrna Reblando voice as she spoke to Al Jazeera about Benigo "Noynoy" Aquino.

    "I campaigned for him," she began, before withdrawing to sift through her three-year old memories once again.  

    A crack of a smile followed, tainted with melancholy. Simply that; there was no bitterness, no anger, just a sadness she tried to mask with occasional levity as the conversation progressed. 

    "I did all I could at the time because I thought…it would lead to real change. I held on to that and I fought for him…but where is that "real" change now?" 

    Reblando is the widow of a journalist massacred in 2009, along with at least 57 others, in the worst political violence the country has seen in recent years.

    Aquino is now the president of the Philippines.

    Myrna's story

    She calls herself a simple woman: A simple wife whose simple life was turned upside down when her husband's body was found bullet-ridden on a quiet hilltop in the southern Philippines.  

    Alongside him, also dead, were more than 20 members of a prominent political family and over 30 other journalists. The alleged perpetrators were members of another political family who were also part of the ruling elite.  

    It was a political, family feud and allegedly executed with the help of unscrupulous soldiers and police. Reblando's husband had become collateral damage.  

    This was not uncommon in the part of the Philippines they lived in. A separatist war had been raging for over 40 years.  Lawlessness was rampant, and warlords jostled for power.

    But never had such a feud resulted in something so heinous and in such magnitude.

    The nation was stunned, but no one wanted to point a finger at any culprits. That is, until frightened witnesses began to step forward.  

    The first two that did came out publicly by speaking to Al Jazeera. They thought telling their story would help protect them. They were wrong.

    Several members of the then ruling Ampatuan clan are now in custody, facing multiple murder charges. They had long enjoyed the protection of being close allies of then president Gloria Arroyo, but nothing could cloak them after the massacre.  

    For many, they represented institutionalised corruption, perverse patronage, and a variety of other deep-rooted ills of Philippine society.

    With a group of other massacre widows, Reblando brought her case to the courts. Justice has been slow, and now, one by one, witnesses are getting killed.

    Aquino's story

    Shortly before the massacre, Aquino, then a lacklustre senator, lost his mother to cancer.  A widow by assassination herself, Cory Aquino was credited with toppling a dictatorship and became a global icon of democracy.  

    "Reblando said this bodyguard told her he could be a middleman to sort an 'arrangement' between her and the family she was suing: Her silence in exchange for $60,000. "

    Her death pushed a grieving nation to turn to her only son in the hopes he could accomplish what she had: get rid of another unpopular, allegedly corrupt, president and overhaul a broken nation. 

    In his recently delivered State of the Nation address, Aquino lauded his cabinet and enumerated his administration's accomplishments. Crime is down, the economy is good, poverty is actively being addressed, he said, adding that the justice system is being re-booted with the successful impeachment of a widely mistrusted chief justice. 

    There is no denying things are changing, but Reblando doesn't think things are as good as the still highly popular Aquino wants Filipinos to believe. 

    "They've all let me down," Reblando said in tears. "Shouldn't your countrymen be the ones to protect and support you??  But when I needed their help, even the government's, there was no one to turn to."

    Reblando has been in Hong Kong seeking asylum for nearly a year. She says she left home because she felt unsafe and there were threats on her life.

    "One of the bodyguards I was given - and I'm not even sure he was actually a government agent - told me he had worked for the Ampatuans," she said.

    Reblando said this bodyguard told her he could be a middleman to sort an "arrangement" between her and the family she was suing: Her silence in exchange for $60,000.  

    If she didn't take the money, it would be used as bounty on her head. She was being bullied for being too vocal, and her integrity was beginning to be questioned by many.  

    "We lived in constant fear. My two grown daughters wet their beds at night from the trauma. I haven't slept in years," she said.

    It was no way to live, Reblando said, and so she had to leave the country. But she hasn't lost her hopes for change.

    "I will be back someday, and I am not giving up the fight," she said.  

    The Asian Human Rights Commission says there are close to 100 other Filipinos also seeking asylum in Hong Kong - for a myriad of reasons. Millions more have left the country as economic exiles.

    Until the reasons many Filipinos feel forced to leave their country are resolved, and the choice to stay home becomes a better option, for exiles like Myrna, it doesn't really matter how rosy a picture any president paints.  

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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