BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, November 28, 2009

about a carnage

Somewhere between the long road to Shariff Aguak and the heart of darkness, at least 57 people breathed their last. They were brutally murdered, in broad day light, in an island they call home.

Theirs is a story so brutal, so senseless and so evil.

There's nothing like it I've seen in my years as a journalist. The November 23 carnage in Maguindanao has come to define this period in Philippine journalism. Our generation. My generation.

I can't fathom what happened. Yes, it was the first time I ever encountered such evil.

I weep for all the victims, the men, women and children left behind. I weep for a nation who continues to have a government that is as evil as the atrocities that it allows.

I weep for the women, the mothers and the female lawyers killed in the massacre. I weep for the women including the pregnant ones, who were, witnesses say, were raped before they were killed.

But most of all, I weep for the death of at least 27 journalists. They set out that early morning of November 23 thinking they would, like any other day, come home to their loved ones after a day's work. They just wanted to get the story. They, like all of us in this profession we dearly love, just wanted to tell the truth. They just wanted to be there. They just wanted to tell the world what is happening in a place they call the Promised Land.

They weren't able to tell their story. But the world knows about it now.

It is a story of courage and hope.

Let us not forget their names.

Benjie Adolfo, Gold Star Daily.
Henry Araneta, Radio dzRH.
Mark Gilbert “Mac-Mac” Arriola, UNTV.
Rubello Bataluna, Gold Star Daily.
Arturo Betia, Periodico Ini.
Romeo Jimmy Cabillo, Midland Review.
Marites Cablitas, News Focus.
Hannibal Cachuela, Punto News.
John Caniban, Periodico Ini.
Lea Dalmacio, Socsargen News.
Noel Decina, Periodico Ini.
Gina Dela Cruz, Saksi News, General Santos City.
Eugene Dohillo, UNTV.
Jhoy Duhay, Gold Star Daily.
Santos Gatchalian, dxGO.
Bienvenido Legarte Jr., Prontiera News.
Lindo Lupogan, Mindanao Daily Gazette.
Ernesto “Bart” Maravilla, Bombo Radyo.
Rey Merisco, Periodico Ini, Koronadal City.
Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, Midland Review.
Marife “Neneng” Montaño, Saksi News.
Rosell Morales, News Focus.
Victor Nuñez, UNTV.
Ronnie Perante, Gold Star Daily.
Joel Parcon, Prontiera News.
Fernando “Rani” Razon, Periodico Ini.
Alejandro “Bong” Reblando, Manila Bulletin.
Napoleon Salaysay, Mindanao Gazette.
Ian Subang, Socsargen Today.
Andres “Andy” Teodoro, Central Mindanao Inquirer.

There is no writing 30 for these people. Their story will continue. Each and every journalist in the Philippines today is outraged. I salute all of my colleagues in this beloved profession who in spite of their grief, continue to endure and tell the story of the evil that happened in the early morning of November 23 so that the perpetrators be brought to justice.

As Inquirer columnist Patricia Evangelista said, there is no journalist today who will not stand up for those who were lost.

(Thank you to Romel Bagares of CenterLaw for the list)

Monday, November 23, 2009


by Inday Varona-Espina

The abduction and murder of around 45 persons, including around a dozen journalists, in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao is a spear thrust in the heart of our fragile democracy.

Let us grieve not just for our media colleagues -- though theirs is an especially tragic fate, to die in the line of duty, serving a profession that more often than not deprives provincial practitioners of a living wage and social benefits.

Let us grieve, too, for the other dead: the wife of a mayor, lawyers, drivers and followers. Let us grieve most for democracy, for election-related violence violates our people's right to an enlightened choice of leaders. Election-related violence prevents people from asking tough questions of prospective leaders; that violence is almost always aimed at subverting a people's free will.

Today's outrage brings this country closer to failed state status, and not just because of the number of persons killed. What is truly chilling about today's tragedy is, that the alleged perpetrators were not just excitable henchmen of a local politician -- in this case, Shariff Aguak Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.

The perpetrators, according to military reports, included not just the mayor and his men but also practically the entire local police force, para military forces and senior police officials.

One hundred men; that's the equivalent of a company in the military. One hundred men; it's no wonder that journalists who tried to follow up the carnage could not get a word out of anyone.

Anyone includes the top officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Camp Crame.

Even as media was getting the names of those killed, even as the mayor of Mangadadatu told television reporters about how his wife called him to report being waylaid, even as Major General Alfredo Cayton of the 6th Infantry Division and Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner Jr. confirmed that the 21 bodies had been recovered in Ampatuan town at around 4:30 p.m., the Public Information Office of the PNP continued to insist they knew nothing of the incident.

We have heard the usual statement of condemnation from Malacanang. They might as well condemn themselves.

The Ampatuan clan played a major role in the fraud that marred the 2004 elections; the fraud that allowed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo another six years in power; the fraud that many of us chose to ignore because the alternative was another outsider-actor in Malacanang.

Maguindanao was where they tried a shutout of Fernando Poe Jr -- a zero vote. Maguindanao, as the Hello Garci tapes told us, played a big, big role in ensuring Mrs. Arroyo's continued hold in power.

Five years since that election, Ampatuan can strike at will, almost reassured of impunity because, after all, nobody ever got punished for the fraud of 2004. On the contrary, many elections officials and military officers implicated in the fraud reaped promotions and other rewards.

Now we are told the government is about to place the entire Maguindanao under military and police control. God help us all, because with protectors like these, we don't need enemies.

Maguindanao carnage

(According to the National Press Club, members of the media will gather for an indignation rally tomorrow, November 24, at 6 p.m. in front of the Central Police District Station, Kamuning, then proceed to Camp Crame along EDSA. Let's all wear black.)

MANILA- Bodies of at least 30 kidnap victims, including the wife and relatives of Buluan town's vice mayor, were recovered by government troops in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province Monday afternoon.

Map of Maguindanao province, showing the location of the capital town Shariff Aguak, and the municipalities of Ampatuan and Buluan. (ABS-CBN News Graphics)

The killings are the first reported violence related to the May 2010 polls, which are still 6 months away. Most of the victims are women. Some are members of the media.

In a phone interview with ABS-CBN News, Buluan Mayor Ibrahim "Jong" Mangudadatu confirmed that at least 30 bodies have been recovered as of Monday evening.

Earlier, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. confirmed to the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) that 13 female and 8 male bodies were found by members of the 601st Infrantry Brigade of the AFP around 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Buluan vice mayor Ismael "Toto" Mangudadatu told ANC that his wife, Jenalyn, his sister, and some relatives were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy on his behalf when a group of about 100 armed men abducted them.

Mangudadatu, who is running for governor of Maguindanao, said some 15 media men who went to cover the event were also seized.

The Mangudadatus believe the abduction was politically motivated. Madaser "Toy" Mangudadato, a member of regional legislative assembly of ARMM, told ANC that they sent their female relatives to file the certificate of candidacy for "Toto" in the hope that their political rivals would not harm them.

Toy said they were warned that if Toto will personally file his candidacy, he will be hurt.

The entourage left for the provincial capitol at around 9 a.m.. Toy said the group could not be contacted because the cellphones of those in the convoy were "blocked."

Toto said his wife called him at around 9:30 in the morning to say an armed group, supposedly of the Ampatuan clan, a political rival, flagged down their convoy on their way to Shariff Aguak town, where the election office of the province is located.

He said his wife's parting words over the phone was about the armed men slapping them around and commanding them to swallow the certificate of candidacy forms.

He told ANC it was the Ampatuans who beheaded and mutilated the bodies of his wife, his youngest sister, a lawyer, various relatives, supporters and other civilians, after robbing them.

ABS-CBN News has tried to reach the Ampatuans for comments but they could not be reached.

Family, political feud

The Mangundadatus were long-time allies of the Ampatuans, whose patriarch, Andal Ampatuan was re-elected governor of the province of Maguindanao in 2007.

Last year, the Mangudadatus went to Shariff Aguak to ask the senior Ampatuan to allow a member of the clan to vie for the gubernatorial post in 2010, according an Newsbreak's military source who is familiar with politics in the area.

According to the source, however, the Ampatuans were displeased because the Mangudadatus brought with them about 200 fully armed men. This, according to the source, contributed to growing animosity between the two camps.

Buluan Vice-Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu denied the Shariff Aguak incident during the ANC interview.

The senior Ampatuan wants one of his sons to succeed him as provincial governor, according to the Newsbreak source.

Sources in the military say Andal is known to control his own private army, which includes two CAFGU companies and a host of civilian volunteers.

Brawner said there were about 100 gunmen, most of whom were militiamen deputised as government guards by Ampatuan's family.

Brawner said the leader of the militiamen who staged the kidnapping was one of Ampatuan's sons. Ampatuan could not be reached for comment as of posting time.

Revenge killings and clashes among rival political families are common in Maguindanao and other parts of Mindanao island, where unlicensed firearms proliferate and parts of which are lawless.

Islamic militants on Mindanao have also been waging a separatist rebellion for decades.

(Read background on Maguindanao clan and political wars here and here.)

Toto Mangudadatu told ANC that he will proceed with his plans to run for governor next year. "No one can compel me not to run for governor. And I just want to state this in the presence of the people of the Republic of the Philippines, especially [those from] our province that I plan to run for governor to reform our province."

Election violence

In a radio interview, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said, "Dapat malaman kaagad ng kapulisan natin kung sino ang may kagagawan nito, para maipakita rin natin sa publiko na hindi natin mapapalagpas ang ganitong karahasan."

She added that the incident should be a warning that security is a priority in areas where election-related violence are high.

Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said it was the Philippine National Police (PNP) that was in charge of the security in the filing of the certificate of candidacy at the provincial capitol in Sharif Aguak town.

Cayton said they have sent a battalion of soldiers and 5 armored vehicles to help the PNP restore peace in the province.

Brawner said no arrest has been made yet.

Mangudadato convoy

In a phone interview with ANC, Toto Mangudadatu enumerated the following names as part of the group who accompanied the Mangudadatu family in filing Vice Mayor Mangudadatu's certificate of candidacy on his behalf:

Next of kin:
1. Eden Mangudadatu (Vice Mayor of Mangudadatu municipality and sister of Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu)
2. Jenalyn Tiamson-Mangudadatu (wife of Toto Mangudadatu)
3. Mamutabay Mangudadatu (aunt)
4. Rowena Mangudadatu
5. Farina Mangudadatu
6. Wahida Ali Kalim (civilian)
7. Faridah Sabdullah (aunt)
8. Zorayda Bernan (cousin)
9. Rayda Sapalon Abdul (cousin)
10. Pinky Balayman (cousin)
11. Ella Balayman (cousin)
12. Rahima Pyuto-Palawan (relative)

13. Atty Cynthia Oquendo
14. Atty Connie Brizuela
15. Mr. Oquendo, father of Cynthia
16. Unto (driver)
17. Razul Daud (driver)
18. Eugene Demillo (driver)
19. Miriam Kalimbol (business supervisor)
20. Civic Edsa (driver)
21. Patrick Pamansang (driver)
22. Chito (driver)
23. Abdullah Haji Dolong (driver)

24. Ian Subang (Dadiangas Times)
25. Leah Dalmacio (Forum)
26. Gina dela Cruz (Today)
27. Marites Cablitas (Today)
28. Joy Duhay (UNTV)
29. Henry Araneta (DZRH)
30. Andy Teodoro (Mindanao Inquirer)
31. Neneng Montaño (formerly of RGMA)
32. Bong Reblando, Manila Bulletin
33. Victor Nuñez (UNTV)
34. Macmac Ariola (UNTV)
35. Jimmy Cabillo (UNTV)

Mangudadatu said he cannot account for 9 of the 44 who joined the convoy.

The total number of those who joined the convoy remained hazy with some accounts reporting up to a total of 65.

The number of media practitioners in the convoy is yet to be confirmed, too, with some accounts reporting up to 35 - with reports from Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza of, and AFP

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Autumn in Germany

(I scribbled this piece while waiting at the Dusseldorf airport for my flight back to Manila but had no time to upload it then.)

GERMANY - A visit to this European country has always been on my bucket list -- albeit somewhere at the bottom -- but still there.

So when my editors assigned me to join a study tour and cover a press conference here, I didn't have second thoughts. I accepted. I didn't even care what the assignment was. Whatever it was, I knew I could pull off something. Even if I were to search for Hitler's descendants or compete with the journalists around the world to cover the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, I would without doubt, take the assignment. It would be my ticket to Germany.

And so I left Manila at midnight for the long plane ride to the western part of the world.

Germany, here I come. I was beaming with excitement and not even a temperature of four degrees would dampen my spirits.

After more than 15 hours on an economy flight, I made it here. I rushed out of the Dusseldorf airport to realize the dream I had for a long, long time.

Like most dreams I had, however, there's that momentary rush you feel when you realize it. And then, the exhiliration disappears, blown away by the autumn wind just like the dried cherry color leaves.

That's the downside...You'd think...ok so it's done...what now? That big constant dream is suddenly demystified. There's nothing more to look forward to. It's crossed out. Over.

There is that yearning to go home soon. Suddenly I missed home like I never did in absolutely every out-of-the-country trip I had since I was 13 years old.

This is not to say I did not enjoy. Sure I did. Germany did not disappoint. It is as European as it can get -- old churches, castles, different dishes, German beer, good wine and cheese, chocolates, interesting people, efficient train system, the breathtaking view of Koblenz along the Rhine Valley from the train, the football stadium and many, many more.

The coverage, too was interesting enough. The usual corporate blah-blahs notwithstanding, I picked up enough interesting points. I was happy talking with fellow journalists from other countries, learned from them, drew inspiration from the older ones and enjoyed the interviews, too.

I even had the energy to extend my stay for several days to go backpacking to other parts of the country with some friends. And I certainly had a good time especially with all the festivities during a very historic period.

So what was missing?

I am waiting here at the airport trying to figure it out.

And then a mother with a baby girl in her arms appears from nowhere. The girl, probably two years old, has curly, golden hair. She has freckles on her rosy cheeks. The mother carries her with her right hand and pushes a stroller with the left hand. She doesn't seem to mind the load. They laugh over something. The baby girl claps her hand.

My thoughts drift back home. I can't wait to board the plane.