One year after the world’s deadliest attack against journalists, the families of the 58 victims of the Ampatuan massacre continue to hope that their quest for justice will not be in vain.
Time, though, does not appear to be on their side. A year later, the numbers are dire: both the prosecution and defense have told the court that they will present the testimonies of at least 500 witnesses. After a year of trial, only 13 witnesses have thus been presented, many of whom may still recalled for cross-examination since almost all of those who have testified did so only in opposition to the Petition for Bail filed by a principal suspect in the case, Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr.
Worse, of the 196 accused of perpetrating the massacre, one has since been absolved, and only 79 have been apprehended by the authorities. An overwhelming number of those indicted for the massacre continue to be at large, including no less than 21 members of the Ampatuan clan. Of
those already in custody, only 51 have been arraigned. The patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr. and former Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, have both not been arraigned because they still have pending petitions in the Court of Appeals questioning the existence of probable cause against them. Meanwhile, at least three witnesses, including self-confessed gunman, Suwaid Upham, have been killed and silenced. Many other witnesses, including their immediate families, are on the run fearing that their testimonies may endanger their own lives and limbs, including those of their loved ones.
There are some good news. To begin with, at least five members of the Ampatuan family, including the patriarch and his two sons, are in jail while the trial drags on. “ There is at least consolation in the fact that although they have not been found guilty, the Ampatuans are already paying for their sins in jail”, said Myrna Reblando, whose husband, Alejandro or “Bong”, was the only full-time employee of a national daily newspaper, the Manila Bulletin, killed in the massacre. There too is the fact that according to witness Rainier Ebus, it was Andal “Unsay” Jr., his cousin Datu Kanor, who is still at large, and several other gunmen, majority of whom are members of the Ampatuan’s private army, who shot and killed all 58 victims at close range using high powered firearms. Ebus’ testimony corroborated to the letter the narration of Upham, the witness who was killed. “Somehow, this truth on who actually killed my son aggravates the pain”, said Cristine Nuñez, mother of Victor Nuñez, a cameraman of UNTV who was killed in the massacre.
There have also been at least two witnesses who positively identified the patriarch, the former ARRM governor and other members of the Ampatuan family as taking part in the planning of the massacre. Witness Lakmudin Saliao, a former household helper of the Ampatuans, testified that he was present in at least two meetings where the clan agreed that their own relative, Esmael “Toto” Mangundadatu should not be allowed to challenge their rein in Maguindanao. According to the witness, the decision was unanimous: kill “Toto” and whoever would be with him when he files his certificate of candidacy. At one point, the patriarch was quoted by this witness as having ordered his son “Unsay” to spare the journalists and women who were part of the convoy. But the same witness related how the old man relented after being told by his son that the survivors may give evidence to the crime if their lives would be spared.
More importantly, the witnesses presented thus far have testified on attempts to cover up this massacre beyond the earlier attempt to bury all of its victims and the vehicles that they were on. The former house help testified how immediately after the carnage, the patriarch authorized the release of P400 million (roughly $10 million) to pay off prosecutors, investigators, and witnesses whom they wanted to retract their earlier testimonies. Worse, the witness also testified how no less than a Cabinet member of the former Arroyo regime, Jesus Dureza, who ironically was a former journalist himself, was ordered to be given at least P20 million pesos ($500, 000) albeit for still unclear reasons. What is clear though that it was to the same Jesus Dureza to whom the Ampatuan clan surrendered the custody of “Unsay” Ampatuan, after allegedly agreeing that no less then former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will ultimately exercise custody over the patriarch’s apparently favorite son and heir- apparent. This bolstered the fears of many of the victims that justice against the killers would have been impossible under the past regime given the Ampatuans’ close personal and political ties with the former president.
Meanwhile, the relatives of the victims continue to grapple with both the emotional pain and financial pressures brought about by the loss of their loved ones, many of whom were the sole breadwinners of their families. While the Philippine government has given each of the victims at least $6,000 by way of financial assistance, this could hardly compensate them for both the economic loss and the emotional pain created by the massacre. “I have to be strong for the sake of my child. I have to invest the little financial assistance I have received to raise my son’, declared Arlene Umpad, live-in partner of McGilbert Arriola, a camera man for UNTV who was among those killed. Arlene has invested part of the money she has received to raise cows in the province of Quezon where she and her child relocated for security reasons. Arlene, apart from tending to her cows, now also has to raise her child alone. Her son was merely three months old when the massacre happened. Her deceased partner was the youngest victim of the massacre.
Many families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre have opted not to attend the commemoration of the tragedy at the scene of the massacre. “I will be busy tending to the grave of my husband”, said Zenaida Duhay. Another widow, Noemi Parcon, expressed apprehension about the very safety of the commemoration itself since days before, a bomb exploded in the national highway leading to the massacre site. Noemi added: “what is more important is for government to hasten the prosecution so we can obtain justice soon”.
As the Philippines and the world commemorate the worst attack on journalists in modern history, the families of the victims will light candles in the tombs of their loved ones. A candle, in the Philippines, is a symbol of remembrance. To some it also is a means of sending a message that they are not departed.