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When nostalgia turns dim: Memories of the Maguindanao massacre

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Nov 22, 2020 4:00 pm Updated Nov 22, 2020 8:42 pm

It was a morning to die for: dazzling, perky. Totally upbeat.  

I remember it like it was the coming of Spring, except that that we have no Spring in this benighted country, and that light, early morning smog, which hung low and menacing over Ayala Avenue that day, arrived much too ahead of schedule.

Weeks prior, my wife Che was greeted by a text message from the National Book Development Board while on her way to work. Her novel in Filipino, so-called "Chic Lit” in literary circles, had won first prize in a national writing contest. It was her first crack at writing a romance novel, too, and quite the lucky one at that.

At the Greenbelt 3 mall, we met one of the judges, the poet Gémino Abad. It would take the next couple of months before we struck a close friendship with this dazzling bard. But on that day, the morning of Nov. 23, 2009, we were practically strangers to one another. Just the same, it felt good for such an aspiring writer as myself to be in the company of an esteemed man of letters.

We, however, refused to stick around for the post-ceremony chitchat as we had deadlines to meet. We lost no time heading back to the newsroom of Dateline Philippines, the now defunct online news portal where my wife worked as writer and assistant to the publisher.

We arrived bearing good news to the thrill and pride of her colleagues. Little did we know that all that merriment would soon change in the blink of an eye.

I cannot now recall the exact time the phone call arrived. I was halfway to editing a piece for a publication where I was editor when the phone rang. Normally, phone calls do not bother me as much as warring subjects and verbs do, but for some reason, I decided to break my momentum.

My friend grabbed the phone. His face turned pale not a moment too soon. When his voice roared with urgency, everyone fell silent.

From where I sat wondering what was happening, the exchanges sounded sketchy on the whole. Words like “Shariff Aguak,” “Maguindanao,” and journalists being killed in what could only be described as a massacre hung like guillotine blades in the air, ready to fall on our necks at a moment’s notice.

For a second there, I thought another journalist had been gunned down. Gloria Arroyo’s administration was altogether notorious for murders of newshounds. But such murders came one at a time, not in throngs. That was why news of the sort well-nigh came as unexceptionally as a breakfast of eggs for most of us.

So, as we waited with bated breath, my colleague hung up the phone. He thereafter told us what was, and will always remain, as the most harrowing crime story in our career as editors and journalists.

“Journalism can never be silent,” said American journalist and diplomat Henry Anatole Grunwald, “That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air".

From our colleague’s retelling of the tale, it was apparent that the full number of those brutally murdered on the road to Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao had yet to be officially culled. Based solely on raw information, the number was large enough to render us speechless for some time.

The course of several months—these months turning into years—saw us and other journalists taking our grievances to the streets. Protest march after protest march, article after article, commentary after commentary: journalists’ efforts to break the cycle of impunity seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao, the prime suspects in the massacre, did not only wield an immense amount of power in the said province, they likewise brag of their closeness with the former president.

It took all of 10 years, across three presidential administrations, before a verdict was handed down against more or less 200 perpetrators. The tale of the worst election-related violence in the country’s history doesn’t end there. Those charged still have the right to appeal the court’s decision. Likewise, several suspects are still at large at this very hour, including a prime suspect belonging to the Ampatuan clan.

"Journalism (is) one of the most dangerous professions in the world, but the most essential, nonetheless, if we were to survive as a people and as a nation."

Just days ago, the 19th journalist to fall under Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s watch, Ronnie Villamor, was the second newshound to be killed in Masbate next to Joaquin Briones in 2017. Virgilio Maganes, who survived an assassination plot on Nov. 2016, roughly four months after Duterte took office, was later gunned down on Nov. 10, 2020.

“Journalism can never be silent,” said American journalist and diplomat Henry Anatole Grunwald, “That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air". 

This makes journalism one of the most dangerous professions in the world, but the most essential, nonetheless, if we were to survive as a people and as a nation.  

However much it pains us to remember, the Maguindanao massacre must forever stand as a road sign to this reality. #WeWillNeverForget