Ho­tel in­ci­dent made us skip me­dia con­voy at last minute

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - By Aquiles Z. Zonio Inquirer Min­danao

TACURONG CITY—IAN SUBANG, A LONG­TIME friend and for­mer col­league in the now de­funct Gensan Me­dia Co­op­er­a­tive, was in his usual jovial mood that Mon­day morn­ing, pok­ing fun and ex­chang­ing jokes with us.

Ale­jan­dro “Bong” Re­b­lando, Manila Bul­letin re­porter cov­er­ing Soc­sksar­gen (South Cota­bato, Sul­tan Kudarat, Sarangani and Gen­eral San­tos City), was, as al­ways, in his fightingmo­od—in­sis­tent and

per­sis­tent with his own opin­ions.

He was al­ways late dur­ing me­dia events, so we used to tease him “The Late” Bong Re­b­lando.

That last joust among us took place out­side the liv­ing room of the man­sion of As­sem­bly­man Khadafy Man­gu­da­datu of the Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion in Mus­lim Min­danao (ARMM) in Bu­luan, Maguin­danao.

A few hours later and 50 kilo­me­ters away, Subang, Re­b­lando and 32 other me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers would meet their tragic deaths in the hands of a ruth­less band of armed goons in Am­pat­uan town, also in­Maguin­danao.

That painful truth re­fuses to sink in my con­scious­ness.

Subang would usu­ally play the role of a clown and he could eas­ily make any­one in the group smile with his jokes.

Re­b­lando, the most se­nior among us, was con­tented with act­ing as Big Brother. He was al­ready a ra­dio re­porter when I was still in high school, way back in the 1980s.

That Mon­day, a few hours be­fore they were kid­napped and slaugh­tered, we were en­joy­ing a pas­tel break­fast served by our host. Re­b­lando, Joseph Jube­lag, Paul Ber­naldez and I were dis­cussing with As­sem­bly­man Man­gu­da­datu and his le­gal coun­sel, Cyn­thia Oquendo-Ayon, the se­cu­rity con­cerns and sce­nar­ios that may arise in an in­tense yet cor­dial ex­change of ideas.

We were in­sist­ing that re­porters cov­er­ing the sched­uled fil­ing of the cer­tifi­cate of can­di­dacy (CoC) of Es­mael “Toto” Man­gu­da­datu, vice mayor of Bu­luan, must be as­sured of their safety. Man­gu­da­datu is seek­ing the gu­ber­na­to­rial po­si­tion in Maguin­danao.

Gov. An­dal Am­pat­uan Sr. ran un­op­posed in the 2007 elec­tions. Vice Mayor Man­gu­da­datu claimed that he had re­ceived re­ports that the Am­pat­u­ans threat­ened to chop him into pieces once he filed his CoC.

The Am­pat­u­ans are con­sid­ered above the law, war­lords and po­lit­i­cal demigods in Maguin­danao, Man­gu­da­datu said. Some­one must come to the fore to bring about change and im­prove the lives of Bangsamoro peo­ple, he added.

He said he had re­quested for se­cu­rity es­corts from Chief Supt. Paisal Umpa, ARMM po­lice di­rec­tor, but this was turned down. A sim­i­lar ap­peal for help to the Philip­pine Army went un­heeded.

Had the po­lice or mil­i­tary pro­vided se­cu­rity es­corts, the mass slaugh­ter of de­fense­less women and jour­nal­ists could have been pre­vented.

Mas­sive move­ments

A week ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to the Man­gu­da­da­tus, there were mas­sive move­ments of the Am­pat­uan po­lit­i­cal clan’s armed fol­low­ers—po­lice, civil­ian vol­un­teers and mili­ti­a­men—in the area.

Be­liev­ing on the “power” of the me­dia, Vice Mayor Man­gu­da­datu, who felt help­less, sought help from jour­nal­ists. He asked Henry Araneta of dzRH ra­dio sta­tion to con­tact other me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers to cover the sched­uled fil­ing of his CoC in the Com­mis­sion on Elec­tions (Com­elec) pro­vin­cial of­fice in Shar­iff Aguak town.

Araneta was able to in­vite 37 jour­nal­ists from the cities of Gen­eral San­tos, Tacurong and Koron­adal.

“Maybe, they will not harm us if jour­nal­ists are watch­ing them,” Man­gu­da­datu had said.

Man­gu­da­datu dis­closed that he organized a sup­port group of women, led by his wife Ge­na­lyn; elder sis­ter, Vice Mayor Eden Man­gu­da­datu of Man­gu­da­datu town, youngest sib­ling Bai Farinna Man­gu­da­datu, and lawyers Oquendo-Ayon and Con­nie Brizuela.

The women from Bu­luan should be the ones to file his CoC, no se­cu­rity es­corts, only jour­nal­ists to avoid cre­at­ing ten­sion he said.

“Un­der our tra­di­tion, Mus­lim women are be­ing re­spected. They should not be harmed just like in­no­cent chil­dren and the el­ders,” Man­gu­da­datu stressed.

Ac­tive role for women

Eden, his sis­ter-in-law and younger sis­ter were also in a jovial mood be­fore de­part­ing to Shar­iff Aguak. She was even say­ing that Mus­lim women should play a more ac­tive role in Maguin­danao pol­i­tics to at­tain gen­uine so­cial change and eco­nomic progress.

“This is women power in action. Let’s help our men chart a bet­ter fu­ture for the prov­ince,” she was heard as say­ing.

We were con­fi­dent that noth­ing bad would hap­pen as some of us in the con­voy fre­quently vis­ited the pro­vin­cial capi­tol.

All in all, there were 58 peo­ple in the con­voy—37 jour­nal­ists, 16 Mus­lim women who car­ried Man­gu­da­datu’s CoC and five driv­ers.

Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts, I was able to con­tact Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cay­ton, com­mand­ing gen­eral of the Army’s 6th In­fantry Divi­sion, through amo­bile phone.

He gave an as­sur­ance that the na­tional high­way go­ing to Shar­iff Aguak had al­ready been cleared and safe for travel. He even added that po­lice check­points lit­tered the long route from Isu­lan town in Sul­tan Kudarat to Shar­iff Aguak.

Five ve­hi­cles, led by the L300 van of UNTV, left Bu­luan at around 9:30 a.m. that Mon­day. I was with UNTV re­porter Vic­tor Nuñez, his cam­era­man and driver, and Ber­naldez.

Fuel stop

How­ever, while the ve­hi­cles were re­fu­el­ing at the Petron sta­tion in Bu­luan, I de­cided to trans­fer to Joseph Jube­lag’s ve­hi­cle to ac­com­pany him. Ber­naldez fol­lowedme.

The con­voy pro­ceeded. We de­cided, how­ever, to fol­low the rest of the group af­ter drop­ping by BF Lodge in Tacurong, where we had stayed the night be­fore, to get some valu­ables we left and meet some per­sonal ne­ces­si­ties.

Two ho­tel at­ten­dants ap­proached me and said two uniden­ti­fied men rid­ing on sep­a­rate mo­tor­cy­cles had just left three min­utes ago and were ask­ing for the names of jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing Man­gu­da­datu’s fil­ing of CoC. The ho­tel man­age­ment did not give any name.

The rev­e­la­tion made us change our minds and de­cided against go­ing to Shar­iff Aguak. On our way back to Bu­luan, we tried to con­tact our me­dia col­leagues sev­eral times but failed to reach them.

Upon arriving in Bu­luan, Vice Mayor Man­gu­da­datu told us that the ve­hi­cles were seized by the Am­pat­u­ans’ armed fol­low­ers. Jour­nal­ists, his rel­a­tives and his fam­ily’s sup­port­ers were ab­ducted and killed.

Sev­eral mil­i­tary sources dis­closed that in­no­cent mo­torists trav­el­ing from Bu­luan to Tacurong were seized and ex­e­cuted on mere sus­pi­cion of be­ing fol­low­ers of the Man­gu­da­da­tus.

Dead jour­nal­ists

I re­mem­ber the names of only 24 of the jour­nal­ists in the group.

They were Subang, Re­b­lando, Leah Dal­ma­cio, Gina Dela Cruz and Maritess Cabli­tas, all of Min­danao Fo­cus, a Gen­eral San­tos City-based weekly com­mu­nity news­pa­per; Bart Mar­avilla of Bombo Radyo-Koron­adal City; Jhoy Duhay of Min­danao Gold­star Daily; Henry Araneta of dzRH; Andy Teodoro of Cen­tral Min­danao Inquirer.

Ne­neng Mon­tano of Saksi weekly news­pa­per; Vic­tor Nuñez of UNTV and Mac­mac Arriola, his cam­era­man; Jimmy Ca­billo, a ra­dioman based in Koron­adal; Rey Merisco, Ron­nie Per­ante, Jun Le­garta, Val Cachuela and Hum­berto Mu­may, all Koron­adal­based jour­nal­ists; Joel Par­con, Noel De­cena, John Caniba, Art Belia, Ranie Ra­zon and Nap Salaysay.

Later that night, gory scenes of slain me­dia col­leagues kept flash­ing on my mind. For the very first time in my life, I didn’t have a de­cent sleep.

Once again, sev­eral work­ing jour­nal­ists shed their blood in the name of press free­dom. This, how­ever, will not de­ter or dis­cour­age us from do­ing our job.

Un­der­paid and un­der threat, be that as it may, we will con­tinue an­swer­ing the call of our beloved pro­fes­sion.

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