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Bacolod City, Philippines Saturday, November 23, 2019

AMPATUAN MASSACRE: A DECADE LATER
Children Cry for Justice
BY JAIME ESPINA

The writer is the president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

***

SITIO MASALAY, Ampatuan, Maguindanao – Princess Arianna Caniban was eight months old when the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre happened, claiming the lives of 58 persons, 32 of them media workers.

On Sunday, Nov. 17, Princess Arianna, whose father John was a reporter for the community paper, ‘Peryodiko Ini’ , in Koronadal, South Cotabato, joined other children of the murdered journalists on the very hilltop in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao where their parents died.

Most of the victims, including the journalists, were in a convoy on its way to file the candidacy of the town Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who intended to run for governor against Andal Ampatuan Jr., a scion of the powerful clan that ruled Maguindanao and mayor of the town of Datu Unsay, which bears his nickname.

The convoy was stopped at a highway checkpoint by scores of gunmen, allegedly led by Unsay himself, and forced, along with the five passengers of two other vehicles that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, to the hilltop in Sitio Masalay where they were gunned down.

The killers then tried to conceal the evidence by burying the bodies and vehicles in huge pits dug ahead of the slaughter but were foiled when soldiers looking for the missing convoy arrived.

Among the other victims were Mangudadatu’s wife, aunt, sisters, lawyers and supporters.

The massacre, named after both the town and the clan accused of planning the carnage, has been acknowledged as the worst incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the single deadliest attack on the press ever recorded.

Each year since, the families of the massacre victims have made the pilgrimage to the site of the slaughter to pray for them and cry for justice. And yet, for a crime whose ferocity and scale shocked the world, justice has been frustratingly slow in coming.

When the trial of the close to 200 suspects finally ended a few months ago, the Justice department promised a verdict before the massacre’s 10th anniversary. It normally takes 90 days after a case is submitted for decision for the verdict to be handed down. In this case, that should have been on Nov. 20.

However, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, who presided over the trial, suddenly sought a 30-day extension from the Supreme Court, citing “the voluminous records of these cases which have now reached 238 volumes.”

The request has been granted with an non-extendable deadline set for Dec. 20.

Thus, a decade later, Princess Arianna, now 10, was with the other slain journalists’ children putting on a skit in which they spoke of the hardships they have gone through over the past years.

“Who is going to take care of me? Who will buy my medicines?” Princess Arianna, who has been diagnosed with rheumatic heart fever, asked as tears flowed down her face.

Not only did the journalists’ families lose husbands, fathers, wives, sons or daughters, most of them also lost their breadwinners, adding almost certain penury to their grief.

And the children have suffered the most.

Jean Malabanan, daughter of Gina dela Cruz, was forced to look after her four siblings since her mother died in the massacre.

She spoke of having to suffer through long periods when their power and water were cut off because they could not meet their payments.

Although those accused of the massacre were agents of the state – the principal members of the clan who were charged included, aside from Unsay the mayor, the patriarch Andal Sr., the long-time governor of the province, his sons Zaldy, then governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Sajid Islam, the vice governor of Maguindanao; the then provincial director of police and other officers were also accused of conniving to carry out the massacre – the families of the slain journalists have received little to no support from government.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and other groups helped send the massacre victims' children to school, with a number of them finishing college and helping support their families.

However, last year, the scholarship program had to be suspended after donors sent notice they could no longer fund it.

At the mass he said at the massacre site to honor the victims, Catholic priest Rey Ondap also lashed out at politicians he accused of trying to “to use the massacre for their own ends,” singling out former President Benigno Aquino III, “who promised justice during his campaign” for the 2010 election.

“Nothing happened,” said Ondap, who entered the priesthood the year the massacre took place.

He mused about the contrast: “While I am happy to celebrate a decade of priesthood, I am unhappy this case has yet to be resolved.”*

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