Monday, March 15, 2010

Worlds apart: The Ampatuans and cry for justice for murdered journalists in Mindanao

Maguindanao Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr, left, sits at a thatched hut with relatives and family members inside the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command in Davao City in the southern Philippines.

DAVAO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 15, 2010) –
Wearing a pair of signature sunglasses, he quietly sits in one corner, puffs his cigarette and stares at the open sea, unmindful of the armed soldiers and military nurses gathered near a thatched hut overlooking the Davao Gulf at the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command base in southern Philippines.

The man, Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr., is facing rebellion charges, along with his sons, who were all accused in the mass murder of 57 people, at least 30 of them journalists accompanying a political caravan of rival Esmael Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of Buluan town in Maguindanao province in Mindanao.

The Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus are no ordinary men—they belong to powerful and wealthy Muslim clans that have ruled the province for the past decade or so.

The 70-year-old Andal, the governor of Maguindanao, is being held by the military at a hospital inside the base in Davao City after his blood pressure shot up and his diabetes, among other illnesses, prevented him from being put in jail instead.

“I am a little okay now, but my arthritis is still a big problem. I could hardly walk and this is the only place inside the military base that I am allowed because it is in this small corner that I can smell and feel the cold breeze of the sea,” the clan’s patriarch said. Relatives who were visiting him listened. They nodded their heads and some just stared at the old man as if they wanted to cry because of what had become of him.

They seemed to pity him so much that they swear justice would be served.

The former strongman of Maguindanao and those who surrounded him did not speak about the massacre of November 23, 2009. They just spoke about his health condition and praised the military nurses and doctors for taking care of the old man.

“The nurses and the doctors are taking care of Datu Andal and we appreciate it so much,” said a relative and Ampatuan agreed. “Yes, that is true. The military is taking care of me and I have nothing to say, but [we] wanted to thank the nurses and doctors and others who are helping me get well,” Ampatuan said.

He was arrested in December last year and together with his sons Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the five-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao; Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr, the mayor of Datu Unsay town who was tagged by authorities as the alleged mastermind of the November 23 massacre in Maguindanao’s Ampatuan town.

Zaldy Ampatuan and his two brothers are locked up in jail in General Santos City and, like their father, facing rebellion charges. Andal Ampatuan Jr. is in the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila and facing multiple murder charges after being implicated by witnesses in the killings.

Among those murdered were the wife, sister and relatives of Mangudadatu, who is running for governor in Maguindanao in the May 10 elections. The Ampatuans denied all accusations against them and insisted that they were innocent.

Supporters of the politicians, many of them from Shariff Aguak, the hometown of Ampatuan Sr., continue to send him letters, some from children whose families he had supported financially and telling him to be strong and firm and always pray to God for him to overcome all problems besetting the clan.

Back home, volunteers take turns in cleaning his mansion. His servants say that he is innocent. “I am always in tears. I always pray that no harm shall befall Datu Andal and the others. They are kind people. My heart aches every time we hear bad things about them because they are all good people, good masters,” said 28-year-old Sandra Lakim, who volunteers her services along with a few dozen others in cleaning the old man’s sprawling mansion.

Villagers said Ampatuan Sr. should be freed immediately.

“Datu Andal should be released by the military and also his sons and others they arrested. They are all innocent. Now we are scared here. The rebels may attack our town and steal our cattle. There is looting every day and hooded men barge in houses and steal our things,” said Mustapha, a farmer in Shariff Aguak, the capital town of Maguindanao and a former stronghold of the Ampatuan clan.

But for the victims of the massacre, justice is just as elusive. They cry for justice and the slow progress of the investigation of the gruesome murders is also “killing” them slowly.

“We are crying for justice. Where is justice? They killed innocent people and they should pay for their crimes. We will not stop until justice is served,” said Myrna Reblando, whose husband Alejandro Reblando, a veteran journalist, was among those killed in the massacre.

Myrna added that the slow progress of the cases against the suspects in the murders is putting a heavy toll on the families of the slain journalists who are seeking justice.

“We are not rich. We don’t even know where to get our next meal. I am only praying to God to give us the strength so we may continue to carry on with this fight. Justice is all we ask for,” she said. Her daughter stopped going to school after the death of her husband.

Myrna now has to struggle to support a big family in Mindanao and the only means of livelihood for her is a small Internet café, which is being managed by her two sons and the boyfriend of her daughter.

Outside the Internet shop hangs a huge photo of the murdered journalist that reminds the family of the elusive justice they are seeking. (Mindanao Examiner)

No comments: