By Hazel Galang, Philippines campaigner, Amnesty International
Today many people in the Philippines are pausing to remember the Maguindanao massacre that thrust the nation into the international spotlight on 23 November last year: At least 57 people, including 32 media workers, travelling in a convoy to file a candidacy for a local politician were ambushed, brutally murdered and hastily buried on a hillside in Ampatuan, southern Philippines.
It was, and still is, the world’s largest ever single attack on journalists. Even for the Philippines, which has suffered from intermittent armed conflict, unexplained disappearances, and political killings, the scale of this tragedy is astounding.
The families of the slain are still scared, one year on. I arranged to meet with widows and mothers of those murdered at a secret safe house a few days ago. I had a password to get in, and walked into a dark compound at night – all the lights were turned off so that potential attackers would not be led to the site of the interview. At the first sign of trouble, our contact would speed-dial a number and the rest of the families gathered there would flee.
One by one, these ordinary women emerged from the dark to talk to me, seeking justice from one of the most powerful families in the Philippines, whom they suspect murdered their children and husbands. Their loved ones were all journalists killed as they travelled with a convoy of supporters of a politician who was running against a member of the Ampatuan clan.
The families of the dead are not covered by the government witness protection programme, which is why they must go to such lengths to protect themselves. I could be a researcher from Amnesty International, or I could be a hit-man. Although members of the Ampatuan family are in detention, the clan still has private armies at its disposal.
The longer the trial of the suspects drags on, the longer they will be at risk. One potential court witness was killed before the hearing even started. The families of the dead are careful not to make any statements that may anger the perpetrators. The most vocal woman is the one who receives the most threatening phone calls and messages, although she is not the only one.
But more than thinking of their own safety, they worry for their children. A widow said one of her daughters “was working for a shop in a city a few hours away from Maguindanao, when a policeman from Maguindanao came up to her and said, ‘I recognize you. I saw you on the television. Wasn’t your father one of those who was massacred?’” She told her daughter to quit her job immediately and come home. “We did not know if the policeman was working under the Ampatuans,” she said. Her children do not give interviews, conscious of the danger, but her daughter may have been seen on television when the victims were buried.
One widow tells of a threat her daughter received on her dead father’s mobile phone. Both she and her daughter sent text messages to her husband trying to locate him on 23 November last year. His mobile phone was not recovered with his body, so they called it, and someone answered but hung up on them immediately. Her daughter tried the number again, and someone answered, saying “You keep on calling me. I can kill you.”
Aside from the physical threat, there are emotional wounds that have not healed.
Another widow tells me the harrowing story of how her adult son who carried his father’s corpse after it was unearthed still suffers from trauma. He lost more than 20kg after the murder, and instead of sleeping at night, talks to his father’s portrait. Her son told her, “Ma, I carried Daddy’s body, but it’s no longer Daddy…One of his eyes was missing from its socket, his leg had been broken, his brain matter was dripping from his head. It’s no longer the father I know.”
The families of the victims need to receive counselling, but this has not been a priority as it is too expensive. For the most part, the murders have deprived them of their family breadwinner, and flying to Manila to attend the trial hearings has drained their finances. One widow said, “My son went to Saudi Arabia [to work] because he is determined that we will have money to keep me going to the court hearings long enough to see this case through. My children could not accept the loss of their father in such a brutal killing – his face was smashed and only his chin was left intact. We identified him through the mole on his chin.”
That they have lent their voices to the case at all is a tremendous act of courage and resilience. One of the women says even her neighbours criticize her for participating in the case, telling her “You are small fry. You will only last one year and then what? You cannot take them on.” She tells me she just ignores them and draws strength from her children and the other families who, like her, fight for justice.
Another of the widows describes how she and her family coped with her husband’s death: “When I first confirmed that he was one of those murdered, my blood pressure shot up to 190/180. I told myself to calm down… I have high blood pressure and I am diabetic… What will happen if I die, too? Who will take care of my children? So I took a cold shower and it was there where I cried. I told my children to be strong and not let their anger overcome them. To help them heal, I collected photos of their father taken from the happiest moments of his life. I put it in an album so our children can look at them when they miss their father. I set up a small table near our altar and placed their father’s photo there with flowers and a vigil candle which is lit the whole day. The light in that candle will continue to burn until we find justice for my husband.”
Watch the video interview with a survivor of the Maguindanao massacre