“It was terrible…terrible…I can’t shake it off my mind”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 March) — I was seated beside the driver of a D4D passenger van bound for Davao. We were cruising the hi-way between Midsayap and Aleosan  (in North Cotabato) when I noticed another white van trying to negotiate its way to the front of the long line of vehicles on the road that day. The road was rough and dusty due to ongoing road repairs. I noticed that van must have been in a hurry – for some reasons unknown to us. At one point, it was forced to stop because the large vehicles ahead of it, stopped. Then our van, together with the other cars behind us, overtook and drove ahead of in one sticky curved section. As we sped off  between the boundary of Aleosan and Pikit, I noticed that van forced its way to overtake the other vehicles. I noticed through the side mirror that it was right behind us now

Then, our driver stepped on the break to reduce speed as we approached the place in Brgy Nalapaan called ” the double bridge.”  Our driver must be very familiar with the place because he slowed down even though the bridge was not visible to us. Then, lo and behold, that van behind us suddenly passed on our left side,  very, very fast. In fact, a hand appeared through one of its windows and gave us a “thumbs down “ sign. I saw a guy in yellow smilingly taunting us.

Then it happened in split second. It careened way over the opposing lane, hit the Lawin jeepney, swerved and turned towards the opposite direction, and slammed into the incoming 6 by 6 Army truck. The impact was very, very strong because, at that instant,  I saw its roof  was shaved off and people went flying out from the van. It stopped right in the middle of the highway over the bridge. At this point, there were only four vehicles on that spot:  the Lawin jeepney,  Army truck, that van, and our van. We stopped immediately at the roadside. Then I saw the whole carnage right in front of me. I believe that our driver and a nurse who was my co-passenger in the front seat saw it, too.

I immediately alighted from our van and ran towards the crumpled vehicle. I saw scattered brain matters, limbs, and blood all over the place. The roadside neighborhood rushed to the spot. I could hear women’s voices shouting and screaming. The soldiers of the Army truck suddenly jumped down and started to attend to the wounded and carried them to another Army truck.

I directed the bystanders to bring in all the available vehicles in their community to help carry the wounded and the dead to the hospital. I took several pictures actually. But it was more like pressing my finger on the shutter without aiming at a particular view. I pressed the shutter as I ran around to rally the people to lift and carry the wounded and/or extricate those who were still pinned down under twisted metals. I reckoned that at least four died on the spot.

After a while, I rummaged through the scattered books, folders, papers, vegetables, and brooms. I noticed that the folders contained medical case study documents of St. Benedict College nursing students. The people respectfully removed the personal belongings of the victims and fatalities and stacked them carefully by the roadside.

It took about 30 minutes before the first ambulance arrived. The second Army truck had already carried the wounded to Pikit. The whole place around this time was already swarmed with people, onlookers, rescuers, peace keeping officers, etc.

I sat shaking by the roadside. My co-passengers were all stunned. Our faces couldn’t deny that fact. Finally (after  one hour), a portion of the highway was cleared for vehicles to pass. The driver and I were actually crying when we left the area for Davao.

I will not post the photos here, in respect to those who have died and the wounded….in respect as well to the sensitivity of their families.

It was terrible…terrible…I can’t shake it off my mind this time. (Prof. Rey Dan  Conlu Lacson  is an anthropologist and researcher based in Cotabato City.  He is currently working  in the Mindanao Think Tank, an active discussion forum for the Mindanao peace process).