BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Grace Morales knew something was wrong when a friend sent her a text message urging her to go home to listen to radio reports of a massacre close to her home in Maguindanao, a province in the conflict-torn southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Her husband and sister, both journalists, were among 31 reporters who had accompanied the family of Esmael Mangudadatu, a rival of the politically powerful Ampatuan clan, that morning to witness the filing of his election papers for the post of provincial governor.
The trip on Nov 23, 2009 led to the election-related massacre of 57 people, described by the International Crisis Group (ICG) as “one of the worst acts of political violence in modern Philippine history, and the largest number of journalists slain on a single day ever, anywhere in the world.” About 100 armed men attacked the convoy of vehicles on a lonely stretch of highway and drove them to the top of a hill before killing them all. Several women were raped before they were killed.
Morales, who identified the bodies of her husband and sister and now heads a support and lobby group for the bereaved, says she’s still waiting for justice.
“It's already three years now and yet no one has been convicted. There are many accused who are not yet arraigned or who are still at large,” she told journalists in Bangkok on Wednesday night at the screening of a 2011 documentary on the families’ quest for justice.
“I don't understand why it happens like this,” said Morales. “As one of the families of the victims, that's what we dream of, to have justice for our loved ones who were killed by the brutish people.”
Andal Ampatuan Sr, whose family ruled poor and troubled southern Maguindanao for nearly a decade and has close ties to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was charged with murder in February 2010, along with 196 others (members of the Ampatuan family, soldiers and police officers and members of a civilian militia).
About 100 of those charged are still at large, rights groups said, and bail proceedings have dominated the trial for the past two years.
Meanwhile, at least three witnesses have been murdered and others talk of intimidation and threats by the still powerful Ampatuan clan. Victims’ families, living hand-to-mouth, also received offers of millions of pesos to settle the case but have so far refused, Morales said.
In their latest setback, on Monday the Supreme Court denied the request of victims’ families for live media coverage of the trial.
"Our enemy is very powerful. Many members of the clans continue to hold government positions,” said Morales. The families of the victims do not have the resources to fight them as many are struggling to survive, she said.
“Most of those who died were breadwinners and those left behind are ordinary housewives with no work experience. One is a 67-year-old grandmother who suddenly found herself saddled with six grandchildren to feed,” she added.
IMPUNITY REIGNS IN PHILIPPINES
Mindanao, where more than 120,000 people have been killed in 40 years of fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels, has some of the worst social, educational and economic indicators in the Philippines.
A 2008/2009 United Nations Development Programme report said seven of the 10 provinces with the country's worst human development ratings are in Mindanao. Around two-fifths of Mindanao's people live on about a dollar a day, against a national average of 26.5 percent.
In October, the government and the Muslim rebels reached an agreement to end a conflict which had enabled clans such as the Ampatuans to achieve positions of great local power in exchange for supporting then president Arroyo with crucial votes and armed followers.
Despite the peace deal, activists and rights groups say justice remains elusive for victims of the Maguindanao massacre.
The Philippines also remains the third most dangerous country for journalists, with 128 journalists killed since 1986 as a direct result of their work.
Seventy-nine of the killings, including those in Maguindanao, occurred during the Arroyo administration (February 2001 – June 2010) and 11 journalists have died since President Benigno Aquino came to power in February 2011, said the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines.