“When will we – will we ever – gather not in mourning and rage, but in celebration?”
This was the thought that crossed my mind as I watched vans unloading more than 200 people - officers and members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, other colleagues, and the families of many of the 58 victims, 32 of them media workers, of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre at the very place where it happened nine years ago.
Every year since the slaughter, the NUJP had accompanied them as they made the annual pilgrimage to this hilltop in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao to remember and mourn the fallen, and to demand justice and rage against a system that appeared to have stacked the odds against their ever receiving it swiftly, as they should.
As the victims’ families once again prepared for the mass and program, I realized with horror how tired I had grown of this annual rite of sorrow and anger and remembrance and not much else.
After all, hadn’t the legal experts we consulted soon after the massacre predicted that, with the government of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo choosing to file a “case designed to fail” - charging more than 190 persons instead of concentrating first on the principal suspects, key members of the her closest allies, the Ampatuan clan - the earliest conviction could be expected in 10 years?
This year was one shy of that forecast and there had, as yet, been no indication that the prediction might come true.
But the years of heartache and frustration, of letdowns and broken promises had clearly not broken the spirits of the families of the 32 media victims. This year, they had come armed with banners declaring, “Justice Now” - which also happens to be the name of the organization they had formed a year after the massacre - and “Convict Ampatuan.”
And this year, in an augury that things could be looking up, they were joined by several families of the non-media victims, including those of members of the Mangudadatu clan who had organized and led the convoy that was supposed to file the candidacy for governor of Maguindanao of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. It was this act, seen as a brazen challenge by the clan that had wielded almost absolute power they wielded over the province for a decade, which led them to plot and commit mass murder.
Ayesha Dilangalen, daughter of Bai Eden Mangudadatu, one of six women of the clan who perished on that day, noted, it was the first time in many years that they - the families of the media and non-media victims - had held the remembrance and, more significantly, called for justice together. She suggested that this was how it should be from now on.
As I watched them and listened to their speeches and the songs of the orphans, I told myself, “Yes, I am tired but I have no right to be tired. Not when THEY HAVE NOT TIRED of seeking justice for their loved ones.” And definitely not when we have yet to claim justice not only for the Ampatuan 32 or, rather 58, but for the more than 100 other journalists murdered in this country since 1986.
Two days after the observance of the massacre’s ninth anniversary, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told media that the court trying the multiple murder case against the suspects in the massacre might reach a verdict soon, probably early next year, on principal accused Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., the man accused of personally leading the gunmen who carried out the mass murder.
Hopefully, we may yet meet in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan next year, this time to celebrate justice delayed but not denied.
Not that that would mean rest for the NUJP. The struggle for genuine justice and press freedom is far from over.