MASSACRE SITE, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 26 Nov) – At the mouth of the road leading to the killing fields, the tarpaulin bearing the photographs of the 58 victims stands tattered, like the shattered dreams of those residents who fled but are now rebuilding their lives around the graveyard surrounded by rolling hills.
On Friday, the brutal carnage turned three, and hanging high up in the air was a large brand new tarpaulin that says, “Remembering Maguindanao Massacre on its 3rd Year.”
Down it, nobody bothered to replace the tarpaulin of the victims, shattered despite the protection of a tin-roofed shade, which had served as a grim welcome – it was there for at least two and a half years already – to the killing fields up three kilometers away.
Around the massacre site, signs of a bright new dawn are now emerging. Unlike the slow pace of the court trial, residents here have moved on with their painstaking lives.
“We returned here three months ago, back to our farms. This is where our lives are, and we are rebuilding it,” said Kashim Angeles on Sunday, two days after the third anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre.
Nowadays, smoke billows from huts and farms as far as the eyes can see; along the road, sacks of corn are ready for transport to the market; children playing; a wife cooking in an unfinished nipa hut; parked motorcycles waiting for their owners working in the farms; and newly planted and about to be harvested cornfields rolling in the hills.
The surroundings were too much different compared to last year’s when the area remains largely deserted, a ghost town.
Angeles told MindaNews that around 50 families have already returned around Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, site of the country’s worst politically-related violence and also the largest single deadly attack on media workers anywhere else in the world.
Of the 58 victims, many mangled beyond recognition by various powerful firearms, 32 were media workers.
Following the grisly massacre, residents around the site, because of fear, evacuated to the national highway beside the barangay hall, where the government built around 100 core shelter units.
Angeles lived at the evacuation site until the family decided to return three months ago to their house brought to a sorry state by their long absence.
“It’s rotten when we came back, because nobody is keeping it in shape, cleaning it. We’re still fixing it. A plastic sheet is protecting us from the elements,” he said in Filipino.
Angeles said he has been maintaining five hectares of cornfield upon returning to his farm, which is a kilometer away from the massacre site.
In one of the huts along the road near the massacre site on Tuesday, Bailem Pasandalan was cooking lunch using firewood gathered around the rolling terrain.
“It’s difficult to live in the evacuation site, and the farm is not tended well if you live there, so we decided to return here,” she told MindaNews.
Pasandalan, a former domestic foreign worker in Bahrain, said there are three families sharing their hut.
“During the day, the men are usually out working in the farms,” she explained why only children were with her.
Pasandalan brushed aside the reported ghosts moaning from the massacre site, saying, “We can sleep well at night. The breeze is cool.”
Changes have swept the Ampatuan Massacre site since last year’s commemoration.
For one, the pit on the left, where many of the bodies were dug, has been fenced. This is located opposite the graveyard where the tombstones were erected, just down the shaded building and beside the Maguindanao Massacre marker.
Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu earlier said he wants to develop the massacre site as a “tourism spot” that they built a shaded facility on it.
But some portion of its roof was missing, reportedly pilfered.
Of the three-kilometer distance from the highway to the massacre site, a kilometer of the road has been concreted so far.
There was a new comfort room from the shaded facility but it has no doors. One of the toilet bowls already had a crack.
The Ampatuan Massacre was the worst political-related violence in the country that hogged headlines across the world.
The victims were to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy (COC) for governor; he was then vice mayor of Buluan municipality. He eventually won the contest in the May 2010 polls.
He lost his wife Genalyn and several female family members to the brutal carnage. But the move to send his wife and other female family members to file his COC spared Mangudadatu his life. The slain media workers were part of the convoy to cover the COC filing.
As of the third anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre, of the 98 detained suspects, 81 have been arraigned, including the policeman who reportedly jumped to his death from the detention cell, said a fact sheet obtained by MindaNews from Emily Lopez, president of the Justice Now Movement, the association of families of the slain media workers.
There were 196 accused charged with 58 counts of murder.
Of the less than 100 at large, two have reportedly died, one them from gunshots.
Of those detained, 57 have filed separate petitions for bail.
Of the members of the Ampatuan clan accused of involvement, only Ampatuan Sr. and Ampatuan Jr. have been arraigned. Both pleaded not guilty.
Since the hearing began on January 5, 2010, 307 motions have been filed by the defense and prosecution panels, of which 204 have been resolved; 103 are pending resolution. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)