It used to be lonely dirt road, narrow and winding, stretching several kilometers to the place of the carnage, the last leg of the Ampatuan 58’s ascent to hell.
Days before the massacre, a digging equipment that has now become a symbol of the killing was seen making its way through the trail that had once served as solitary road for carabaos and other four-legged creatures.
And days before the bloodbath, two-legged beasts, monsters thirsty for blood, could have surveyed the place, choosing it for its near-seclusion.
They could have lain in wait for days, weeks and only this trail, once wet by blood, now sanctified by tears and prayers, had seen them.
But weeks before the commemoration, it was paved, widened to almost thrice its size to give way to the lumbering Humvees and Fortuners of the new rulers of Maguindanao and their friends who were to climb the hill where Reginald Dalmacio’s sister, Leah, and 57 others were killed.
“I could not forget the stench when I got there,” he said in a matter of fact way, recalling the first time he went to the massacre site November 24 last year to identify Leah.
“I had a few bottles that night and while I was heading home, I passed by the neighbourhood toughies at the basketball court and they were looking at me in a strange way, they looked sad,” he said.
“When I got home, my mother was hunched over, she was crying; patay na si Ate mo (your sister is dead),” he recalled but the thought “did not sink in at first.”
It used to be a lonely dirt road, leading to the hilltop where a tree used to grow, a mute witness to the unspeakable horror that took place.
But even that tree is gone now. It was cut when the trail was widened so the lumbering Humvees, Fortuners and motorbikes could park on the gravesites where the victims were dug up.
“Ay indi gid ko ya gusto nga patyon sila, bisan ma death penalty pa sila, indi gid ko ‘ya, gusto ko mabatyagan man nila ang ginhimo nila sa utod ko, (I don’t want them to die, even if there is a death penalty I don’t want them to be killed, I want them to feel the same thing that they did to my sister),” a sister of Cecille Lechoncito said as we neared Crossing Masalay in the village of Salman, at the place where the trail of terror starts.
She didn’t want to be named.
We rode together on a white Hi-Ace van, the same model and color of the vehicle that some of the victims were on.
Cecille was not part of the convoy of journalists and the Mangudadatus. She and her husband, Eduardo, were riding on their red Toyota Vios driven by Wilhelm Palabrica. There were two others – Mercy Palabrica and Daryll Delos Reyes.
She was supposed to have a medical check-up. The next day, the day her body was found, it was her birthday.
We – journalists and families of the victims – hit the road to the massacre site around 8 a.m. from the Oval Plaza in General Santos City. As we neared the national highway, we saw a truck with a backhoe on its back.
“Ay may backhoe,” Reginald said as the caravan led by the vehicle of MindaNews overtook it.
Last year, the convoy was led by the vehicle of UNTV. Now it was another press vehicle leading it.
We had to slow down. The car of the Joint Task Force General Santos City that deployed a squad of soldiers to escort the caravan could not keep up with our speed.
We passed by government offices shaped like palaces. When we entered Maguindanao province, most of the houses on the roadside were nipa huts.
Around 10:30 a.m., at the crossing, our 15-vehicle convoy was stopped.
Two Humvees – one silver, the other blue – came rushing followed by a slew of vehicles. A Special Action Force squad rode on a Humvee trailing the expensive cars.
“Kay Toto na (It belongs to Toto),” one of the family members said.
Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, the new governor of Maguindanao, was vice mayor of Buluan town when his wife, Genalyn and her sisters, went on their last journey, supposedly to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy in Shariff Aguak town.
Mangudadatu was about to challenge the Ampatuans, lords of this fiefdom in Mindanao that has been wracked by conflicts since the Spanish and American conquests.
It is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines.
A machinegun was perched on top the Humvee with a policeman ready to fire it. It was the same weapon of death used to mow down the victims at about the same time last year.
The place was crawling with soldiers and policemen in full battle gear. Some carried sniper rifles, most automatic ones. It was perhaps the same sight that greeted the Ampatuan 58 when they entered Sangke town, the first municipality of Maguindanao from South Cotabato, after we crossed the Ala River.
“Could they have lived if these same soldiers protected them?” another relative asked.
“This is where they were first held,” Mindanao journalist Ryan Rosauro said as we made our way across Kauran Bridge, a good three kilometres from Crossing Masalay, “and it is from here where they were at the mercy of their killers.”
I was told that over at the other vehicle, Sorsogon reporter Bobby Labalan was telling his companions “let’s hurry to the top, we might still find them alive.”
But it was not to be. We were there to only remember.
The lonely trail was filled with vehicles now.
At the foot, a black streamer was unfurled: “Justice for Ampatuan Massacre victims,” it said.
A group of activists made their way to the top on foot.
The heat was unbearable.
The vehicles kicked up dust as they raced to the top where a program was already being held with secretaries Ging Deles and Leila De Lima.
Toto Mangudadatu was already giving his speech when we arrived. He called for justice for his slain wife and for the dead journalists. He even cited the report of the International Federation of Journalists that cited the Ampatuan Massacre as the worst single incident of killings of mediamen.
“Until and unless justice has truly been done in this case, none of us can duly claim that the Filipino people have managed to reclaim their humanity,” De Lima said as she assured the families that the government is one with them in seeking justice for the victims.
The program was held at the hilltop. A little down below, the vehicles were parked near or on the gravesites where the dead were found.
We were not able to park near the top. The place was already filled with the lumbering Humvees, Fortuners and motorbikes.
By the roadside, I saw Ma. Reynafe Momay-Castillo, the daughter of Bert Momay whose body has yet to be found. She was wearing a T-shirt with his father’s picture on it.
Unlike the others, she cannot yet file a case.
She has to wait for several more years before the law’s presumption of death takes effect.
But she is strong. She has been urging the families not to give up.
Journalists and families of the slain ones marched some distance to the gravesites. They were holding a tarpaulin streamer where the pictures of the dead were printed on.
The lonely hill was filled with people. As the speakers blared with the speeches of the politicians, a little down below, on the first grave where scores were dug up, or scooped up like dead vermin by a backhoe, the families remembered the dead.
Norma Merisco was crying. She had a hard time searching her bag for candles she had brought for her son, Koronadal-based journalist Rey Merisco.
She was oblivious to the noise. Pain was written all over her face as she looked at the gravesite where her child was buried.
She was the first one to light a candle. And then she cried some more. She said a few words, inaudible amid the noise. I could only make out one word that she said in the vernacular: “son.”
There was no one who read the names of the slain journalists. It was not included in the program.
It was a time for them to grieve.
One by one they offered the flowers and lit the candles.
“I understand why the trial has been slow, the accused also have rights under our laws; but we only hope that the president can find ways to speed it up,” Rey Cachuela, who chairs one of the organizations of the families of the victims said.
And this was perhaps the same appeal, perhaps the same prayer of the husbands, wives, children and co-workers of those who were killed as they remembered their dead.
I stood on one of the mass graves. On one side was a mountain range, on the other were the plains of Maguindanao. It was a serene sight, surreal even.
Some of the children of Bart Maravilla, a Bacolod native who rose from the ranks to become chief of correspondents of Bombo Radyo in Koronadal, South Cotabato, have not realized yet that their father would no longer return for Christmas.
“He will come back this December; he will be bringing a lot of gifts,” Bart’s six-year-old daughter said, not knowing that his father’s body riddled with bullets was found on that lonely hill on a Tuesday last year.
Ivy Maravilla was in Kuwait when her husband was killed. She remembered receiving a phone call from Bart a day before it happened.
“He told me that he will sending pictures of my children; I did not know that he would be leaving for Maguindanao, I would have told him not to go,” she said.
Bart’s five children have been separated from each other since the incident. Two of them are living with an aunt, Teresita, in Bacolod City, two with a grandmother, the eldest daughter is with Ivy.
“He was the best father,” Bart’s eldest daughter, now 12, told me.
Their last conversation was a day before the incident. “He told me to watch over my siblings and to always lock the door of our house,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
“I did not hug nor kiss him before he left, I was busy watching television and I really regretted that.”
While the families were lighting the candles, the two secretaries and Toto Mangudadatu were preparing for the blessing of the marker for the victims. It was shaped like a white giant tombstone. The letters were in gold.
But many of the names were not spelled correctly.
“Akala ko wala ng wrong spelling (I thought the names would be spelled right),” Reginald said, half-amused at the fact.
It was like the same thing last year when he went looking for his sister’s body.
He had to go to three funeral parlors in Mindanao to find Leah Dalmacio who had 38 bullet wounds.
It was as if even in death no one cared for the victims.
Reginald recounted how the dig for the bodies of the victims appeared careless.
The clay-loam soil where the victims were buried was hard for the shovels so the backhoe was used.
“Once a foot came sticking out, the diggers would pull at it then it would come off,” he said.
The program was over after more than two hours.
White doves and white balloons were released after the blessing of the marker.
Food was being brought in as the program was going on.
The scent of large fried fishes and other kinds of food wafted through the air that was filled with stench exactly a year ago.
Packed lunches loaded on trucks were brought in by Governor Mangudadatu for thousands of his supporters who braved the noontime sun.
Like an afterthought, the families were acknowledged, one by one, while everyone was eating.
Secretary De Lima and some of the lawyers had a talk with them.
The heat was scorching as we made our way down what was once a lonely, long and winding trail.
And I hoped, and perhaps the family do, too, that the path to justice can be crossed not only by those with lumbering Humvees, Fortuners and big bikes.
And I can only hope, too, that perhaps the wheels of justice would start grinding a little more swiftly once those with the lumbering Humvees, Fortuners and big bikes start to remember that it is more than eliminating the wang-wangs from the street that would bring light to these blighted lands.
Once they remember that 58 was more than just a number and that the victims were a sister, a brother, a mother, a friend. That the victims once had lives of their own, and were more than just misspelled names in the marker.
Then perhaps the lonely dirt road will not be that lonely after all.