At the Ampatuan Massacre site: gravesites fenced off

MASSACRE SITE, Ampatuan, Maguindanao (MindaNews/07 Nov) – Families and friends who will visit the site of the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre for the second anniversary on November 23 will find the three gravesites fenced off, as workers rush to finish construction of the memorial shrine.

How the shrine will look, no one knows as there is no billboard about the project within the vicinity and the victims’ relatives say they have not been consulted on the matter.

On October 31, members of the Cotabato City chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) visited the massacre site and reported that construction workers found three spent shells from  M-14 and M-16 weapons and a faded press card or  press event card in a plastic holder with black neck cord.

Fifty-eight persons were killed here, 32 of them from the media, shortly before noon of  November 23, 2009, most of them buried in three mass gravesites here.

The Cotabato City-based reporters said only the words “Sultan Kudarat” can be read on the press card.

Steel frames, grills and solar-powered lamps are being installed at the site of the Ampatuan Massacre when reporters visited the area Nov. 5. Last year, a "multi-purpose hall" made of coco lumber and GI sheets were constructed on the same site for the first anniversary rites. But by September 2011, less than half of the GI sheets were left. MindaNews photo by Toto LozanoLimba Jikit, security personnel at the construction site, told MindaNews on November 5 that workers found the empty shells and the press card while digging the roadside of Gravesite 2 for the construction of the now meter-high concrete fence. On the other side of the road, where Gravesites 1 and 3 were, a similar meter-high fence is under construction, parts of which are already topped with 15-inch iron grills.

From the highway, Gravesites 1 and 3 are on the right side of the road, Gravesite 2 on the left.

Asked why these former gravesites were fenced off, Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu told MindaNews in a text message: “para ma-preserve at ma-protect ang area” (to preserve and protect the area).

Relatives and friends who visit the massacre site usually light candles and offer flowers in the area where their loved ones were found buried or where their bodies were found.

In Gravesite 2, the trees planted by soldiers from the 46th Infantry Battalion have grown, the tallest now ten feet high.
The shed made of coconut lumber and galvanized iron sheets, which was hastily constructed for last year’s first anniversary rites, is gone. A 15×18-meter structure – just a skeletal frame of posts and roof beams made of steel – has replaced it on the hill in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, from where one can have a good view of the three gravesites below and the breathtaking panorama of  the foothills of Daguma Range.
The massacre site is located 3.5 kilometers from the Cotabato-GenSan national highway, where the 58 victims were flagged down by about a hundred armed men led by Andal Ampatuan Jr., the mayor of Datu Unsay town. Andal Jr. was going to run for governor of Maguindanao.

Of the 58 victims, 52 were from a convoy that would deliver to the Commission on Elections’ provincial office in the next town of Shariff Aguak the  certificate of candidacy for governor of then Buluan, Maguindanao Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, while six were from two vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time.

Herded  to this site at gunpoint, the victims were gunned down and dumped into the three mass gravesites the perpetrators had dug earlier using a backhoe of the provincial government.

Police investigators noted the perpetrators apparently intended to bury everything – victims and vehicles – to bury any trace of evidence.

By the time the military and relatives of Mangudadatu arrived at the scene at around 3 p.m.,  only 21 bodies out of the 58 had not been buried. They were found  inside and outside the five vehicles that had not been buried, too. The three other vehicles had been flattened by the backhoe and buried along with the victims in Gravesite 2:  the vehicle of UNTV and the two vehicles of the passersby.

The police officer tasked to oversee the search for bodies, Chief Supt. Felicisimo Khu, described the burial of the bodies as “layered.” He said the perpetrators intended to deceive anyone who would dare look for the missing persons.

He described the “layered” burial as “Bodies, soil, bodies, soil, bodies soil.” One gravesite yielded six layers of bodies/soil, he said.

Twenty one bodies were found at the end of the day on November 23, 2009.  By morning of November 24, one more body was found. By afternoon, 24 bodies were dug – or a total of 46 bodies. But it was only on Day Three of the diggings – November 25 – when the final count of victims was made: 57 bodies had been recovered by then.

The remains of the 58th victim, Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, photographer of Midland Courier in Tacurong City, remain missing but for his dentures which were found a few days later, when foreign forensics experts came here along with then Commission on Human Rights chair Leila de Lima, now Justice Secretary.

As of November 5, 2011, three lamp posts powered by solar panels stand guard on Gravesite 1 (they were not there during MindaNews’ last visit on September 15), another near the skeletal structure and the third on the side of the road where the 21 unburied bodies and five vehicles were found.

A memorial marker made of cement and painted in white was put up last year in the periphery of Gravesite 1, containing the names of the victims – most of them erroneously spelled – and  a last entry about four unnamed students of a university in Cotabato City when there was no student among the victims and the university reported no missing student.

The marker has not been replaced. The coco lumber shed is completely gone.

Between November 2010 and September 2011, reporters who visited the site noted the galvanized iron sheets of the shed disappearing, a few sheets at a time. By September 15, the GI sheets were almost gone.

Maguindanao’s provincial board on October 5, 2010 passed Resolution 020 appropriating P10 million “chargeable against the appropriations of the Office of the Provincial Governor for the concreting of road form the national highway to the massacre site.”

As of November 5, 2011,  the only concrete portion of the 3.5-kilometer road leading to the massacre is on the right lane, spanning only 150 meters from the highway. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)