1st of two parts
TACURONG CITY (MindaNews/19 August) — Guests to the birthday celebration of Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu at the family-owned Genalin Forest Garden Resort here were told to come in Hawaiian attire for the poolside luau feast from 6 p m. Monday to 4 a.m. Tuesday, between the fasting time in the season of Ramadan.
There was to be no celebration.
At 3:15 p.m, en route to the family resort, a bomb placed inside a parked white KIA Avella car exploded just as Mangudadatu’s convoy passed Alunan highway (Tacurong-Koronadal highway), initially killing a passerby and injuring seven others, one of whom died in the hospital at midnight.
Mangudadatu, who turned 43 that day, claims the bomb, which exploded “5 to 7 seconds after we passed,” was intended for him.
In the bloody history of Maguindanao’s politics, it wasn’t the first time a roadside bomb exploded as the governor’s convoy passed and it wasn’t the first time a governor claimed he was the target of assassination.
Mangudadatu’s predecessors had made similar claims, claims met by cynicism in a province grown either used to or weary – and wary — of alleged attempts on the lives of their governors.
The governor denies it was an “ambush me” incident.
Mangudadatu told MindaNews he was in the lead car and was about 15 meters away when the bomb, reportedly fashioned from a 105 mm howitzer, exploded.
The governor’s lead car is a bulletproof Chevrolet Suburban, Level 5. The fourth car (not third as earlier reported), a black Toyota Fortuner owned by Provincial Board member Russman “Russ” Quesada Sinsuat, is not. It suffered the brunt of the blast, the lone vehicle in a convoy of seven.
Russman, 50, expired at the Sultan Kudarat Doctors Hospital in Tacurong City at 12:17 a.m. Tuesday. His son, Russman, Jr., 26, who was with him in the car, lost his right leg and was airlifted to Davao City on Tuesday while his secretary, Bebot Balabaran, lost his right eye.
“Malakas, sobrang lakas” (Too loud), Mangudadatu remembers of the explosion that shook his vehicle whose other passengers were a television network’s crew and the governor’s media liaison.
Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo’s car had just left the Notre Dame of Tacurong premises to return to Cotabato City when they heard a “malakas talaga” (really loud) explosion.
Quevedo recalled how people along the Isulan-Tacurong highway either rushed or looked toward the roundball (rotunda), about three blocks from where he was. The explosion happened along the Tacurong-Koronadal highway, some 200 meters from the rotunda.
The bishop later learned about Mangudadatu’s convoy while listening to the radio en route to Cotabato City.
Journalists Ferdinand Cabrera and Noel Punzalan who were traveling from Koronadal City to Cotabato City stopped by for snacks here, in a restaurant near the rotunda when they heard a blast and saw thick smoke from the direction of the explosion.
The explosion was so loud they could hear it from four kilometers away, at the camp of the Army’s 601st Brigade. Brig. Gen. Leo Ferrer, brigade chief, told MindaNews the lights went off as the car bomb may have hit an electric post nearby.
Politics of Ambush
Mangudadatu says it wasn’t the first attempt on his life. “Hindi ko alam kung bakit ganito ang buhay ko” (I do not know why my life is like this), he told MindaNews in a telephone interview Tuesday.
On April 29, 2010, while campaigning for the May 10 elections, a roadside bomb exploded in Kauran, Ampatuan town in Maguindanao just as his convoy passed.
The police chief of Maguindanao then, Senior Supt. Alex Lineses, was reported as saying there was an explosion about 15 to 20 meters from the main road in Ampatuan town.
Mangudadatu claimed he was the target of that roadside bomb.
Mangudadatu’s rise to the governorship of Maguindanao has left a bloody trail. On November 23, 2009, the then vice mayor of Buluan town was not able to file his certificate of candidacy for governor at the provincial office of the Commission on Elections in the compound of the provincial capitol in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao because of threats from the camp of their former allies, the Ampatuans, the ruling clan then.
In his stead, a convoy of 53 persons – among them his first wife Genalin, two sisters, two women lawyers and 32 media workers – was sent but they, along with five persons in two vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time, were stopped by about a hundred armed men along the highway in Ampatuan, 6.2 kilometers from the Comelec office, herded to the foothills of Daguma Range and there massacred, most of them buried in three mass gravesites using a backhoe.
The Ampatuan Massacre was reported led by Datu Unsay Ampatuan, Jr., who was the father’s anointed to run for governor. Ampatuan, Jr. and Mangudadatu did not only share the desire to be Maguindanao’s governor, they also shared the same birthday: August 15. “I’m older by one year, pero the same month kami , the same date,” Mangudadatu told MindaNews in a post-proclamation interview last year.
Mangudadatu has not been spared from suspicions Monday’s car bomb blast which spared him was a case of “ambush me,” a term connoting an incident perpetrated by the supposed victim.
“Ha ha ha. Grabe naman. Di ako Ampatuan na sinsubasta buhay na tao. Napakalapit ng sasakyan ni Rusman sa akin at di ko yun kayang gawin. Mahalaga ang buhay sa akin” (I am no Ampatuan who would use people as pawns. My vehicle was very near Rusman’s. I could not possibly do that. Life is precious to me),” he told MindaNews Wednesday night, adding, “one with polluted mind will find ways to discredit the truth. I can’t do this… malinis kunsensya ko (my conscience is clear).” Tomorrow: Of convoys and VIPs. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)