OVER the course of few years, thousands of hectares of banana, oil palm and corn plantations have dotted the village of Salman in Ampatuan township, Maguindanao province in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Its fast progress is one of few success stories in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a poverty-stricken region largely brought by the decades-old armed conflict waged by various Islamic groups fighting for self-determination.
Behind Ampatuan township’s economic gains, however, is a horror story that shocked not only the Philippines but also the entire world eight years ago on Thursday.
Some 58 people, including 32 media workers, were brutally murdered in broad daylight in a sparsely populated part of the town. It was the worst case of politically-motivated violence in the country’s history and the single deadliest attack against media workers in the world.
Eight years on, justice has not been served to the victims, and the agricultural plantations that surrounded the massacre site have become mute witnesses to the cries of the victim’s families for a just closure to the highly-celebrated case.
“After eight years of the gruesome killing, the families of the victims are still waiting, patiently waiting for justice to be served,” Ma. Reynafe M. Castillo, the daughter of one of the slain local media workers, told Asian Correspondent.
“It is frustrating but I know and I believe in my heart that if justice will not be achieved here on earth, I’m sure justice will be served by God who is just and faithful,” she added.
Castillo, who migrated to the United States along with her husband and two children in 2012, urged the court to hasten the dispensation of justice for the victims.
Key members of the Ampatuan clan were blamed for the gory manslaughter. The Ampatuans, up until the time of the massacre, wielded political power not just in Maguindanao province but also in the autonomous Muslim region.
Former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. allegedly masterminded the massacre along with his sons Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the ARMM and Andal Ampatuan Jr., then mayor of Datu Unsay township also in Maguidanao province.
Ampatuan Sr. died due to an illness in 2015 in detention, while the two sons remained in jail today.
The killings were dubbed the “Ampatuan Massacre” not only because it happened in Ampatuan township but also because it was masterminded allegedly by the Ampatuan clan. Before their fall from power, they accumulated enormous wealth through alleged corruption, were feared for their sizeable private army.
Clan members moved around Mindanao then in a convoy of expensive cars with a coterie of heavily-armed bodyguards, including soldiers and policemen.
On November 23, 2009, Andal Ampatuan Jr. allegedly led more than 100 militiamen in stopping the convoy of their political opponent, Esmael Mangudadatu, from filing a certificate of candidacy for governor in Maguindanao.
Mangudadatu had sent his wife Genalyn and several female family members to file his candidacy for governor in a bid to wrest power from the Ampatuans. The media workers were with the convoy to cover the story, which was considered a big one by local journalists as no one before had dared challenge the Ampatuan’s grip on power in the province.
After blocking the convoy of their political opponent and the media workers at the national highway of Ampatuan township, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. herded them to the isolated village where they were mowed down by high-powered firearms.
Several civilian commuters who were passing by were also killed. The wife of Mangudadatu, then vice mayor of Buluan township also in Maguindanao, was able to contact him before they were massacred.
The Mangudadatus dispatched a helicopter to Ampatuan township and saw an excavator trying to bury the victims and their vehicles. The perpetrators fled upon seeing the helicopter.
Mangudadatu, who eventually won the governorship of Maguindanao and now on his third and last term, expressed hopes justice would be served to the victims before he bows out of office in 2019, or under the term of President Rodrigo Duterte ending in 2022.
The victims failed to receive justice under the terms of former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III.
Nena Santos, a lawyer of some of the victims, was expecting the conviction of 112 persons facing 58 counts of murder next year.
Of the 196 charged, 115 were arrested meaning 81 are still at large. Out of those arrested, two became state witnesses, 112 were arraigned, one was granted bail, while four died in prison and three were acquitted for lack of evidence, Santos said in a Philippine Daily Inquirer report on Wednesday.
A special court has been created by the Philippines Supreme Court to solely handle the Ampatuan Massacre case.
Castillo, the daughter of the slain media worker who migrated to the United States, noted that the horrors of the gory massacre still haunted her sometimes even if she already left the country. “I prayed that each family of the victims could totally move on and live normal lives,” she said.
After eight years of seeking convictions for those responsible, Castillo and the rest of the families of the victims are yet to have justice served on behalf of their beloved. The waiting game is not over.