The ghosts we hear

The Ampatuan Massacre Site

Word from the locals is that late in the afternoon, around sunset, you could still hear wailing from that hill in Sitio Masalay. Some go as far as say that you could hear the wailing all along the road that leads you to the hill. I never expected that the location would be this far from the highway. But it took us, perhaps, just shy of ten minutes just to get there.

By all means, it should be called a beautiful place. From the hill, you can see nothing but a vast area mountains and valleys and farmlands. Picturesque. Green. Untouched. Was untouched. Until 58 people were brutally murdered and buried here four years ago.

Perhaps it was because I knew what had happened there (and who doesn’t), but being at the site of the Ampatuan Massacre (also known as the Maguindanao Massacre) felt as if a heavy weight was pressed against my heart. Ate Jojow asked me if I wanted my picture taken at the site. I said no. It just felt uncomfortable.

I didn’t know any of the victims personally. But even so, the harrowing descriptions of how a caravan of vehicles were stopped at the highway, how armed men got in each vehicle and started shooting people on their way to the hill in Masalay where everyone else was finished off,  how a grave had been prepared for them days before… Any human being must be able to at least vaguely imagine the kind of terror and despair that happened there.

I felt that the very same terror and despair were weighing down on me that day. I was there with some members of the Good Wednesday Group for Peace1 on November 23, 2013. We were there for the 4th year commemoration of the massacre.

The convoy from Tacurong was late. Word afterwards was that someone was trying to sabotage the commemoration. But I know too little about that to confirm it. I didn’t probe all that much. I just listened.

Prayers were said and songs were sung. But the entire event was a string of speeches, mostly from friends and relatives of the victims. Numerous references were made to children who had had to grow up without their mother or father. Tearful statements were made about how four years had not extinguished the pain of losing a loved one so abruptly. Despite everything, there was also a lot of thankfulness, albeit not the celebratory sort.

“As time goes by, (we are) losing confidence and hope. But I’m still thankful that we’re still here, together.  (That) we’re still here for justice,” said Florita Ridao, sister of victim Anthony Ridao, in her speech. “Despite the many problems of the Philippines, I’m glad the leadership still gives importance to the massacre victims.”

It is an event that will be remembered, to be sure.  According to Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, there were some who even said that they should just  leave it be and make justice run its course. He said that he had then countered that he lost his wife and sisters in the massacre – how could he just forget?

He’s not the only one who will forget, either. Friends and family of 58 victims are not likely to forget. The media, who lost 32 journalists among their ranks, is not likely to forget. I’m not likely to forget either. Fifty-eight white markers stuck to virtually dry earth in the small space where the bodies were found has been etched into my memory. Nobody deserves to die like that.

Just a week after the massacre, news started to leak out that prime suspect Andal Ampatuan, Jr. had begun sleeping on a bench because he was “afraid of ghosts.” I just wonder if those are the very same ghosts they still hear at Masalay. I wonder if they haven’t forgotten either.

1 – I had written about the Good Wednesday Group before. Incidentally, the group “started” because of the massacre. It was initially a meeting of soldiers, civil society organizations, media, academe, and some members of the aggrieved and accused families. You may be surprised that “some members of the accused families” attended. That is simply because, contrary to what people who rage online like to say, not all Ampatuans are murderers and not all of them are involved in the incident. Naturally, it didn’t go very well at first: initial suspicion and a blame game took reign. Eventually, they began to trust each other and found common ground. Together, they were able to begin initiatives to prevent electoral violence in Maguindanao and to promote peace through dialogue and advocacy.

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