Killing fieldsBy Radel Paredes
From the General Santos airport, we drove to downtown Takurong in Sultan Kudarat, where another car, our lone security escort, had been waiting for us. Trailing behind the private vehicle, we left the city, stopping by several army and police checkpoints.
Whenever the road was clear, our driver shifted to high gear and I fastened my seatbelt, which is something I tend to forget when I’m on countryside trips. I tried to distract myself from the eerie silence inside the car by taking pictures of the scenery outside: roadside mosques, a truck overflowing with vegetables and people, a boy on rusty bicycle.
I shared our driver’s anxiety. After all, we were already in Maguindanao where not even government checkpoints could be trusted as safe.
Barely two months ago in the same highway we passed by, a car parked along the road suddenly exploded as the governor’s convoy passed by. It spared the governor who was then on his way to his birthday party and was thus believed to be the target of the unsolicited literal “blowout.” But a provincial board member and his driver were killed instantly by the blast, which hit their car directly. Several others in the convoy were wounded.
I couldn’t help myself from imagining roadside bombs blowing up or machine guns suddenly spraying us as we sped through open fields and empty hills, trying to catch up with the convoy of visiting prosecutors from Manila and their military escorts.
They had gone ahead of us to inspect the site of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, which killed 58 people, including my lawyer friend Cynthia Oquendo and her father. I joined this group of prosecutors upon invitation by Gemma, Cynthia’s sister who is also a lawyer now fighting with other families of victims to bring them justice.
Being in such a huge convoy consisting of police cars and armored vehicles gave a sense of security. Still, as in the recent attempt at the governor’s life, it was no assurance against bombs that could be remotely detonated by a cell phone. And ironically, it was in the same illusion of safety in numbers in a convoy that Cynthia and the other civilian casualties in the massacre were persuaded to go to this place two years ago.
No trace of violence could now be seen in the place, a desolate grassland on top of a hill where they were led forcibly to be executed. The scars and blood on the earth had long been covered by a carpet of grass or washed out by the rain. The deep holes made by a backhoe hastily trying to bury the corpses and their cars have now been filled up. A concrete marker, shaped like the stone tablets of Moses and inscribed with the names of all the victims, stood above the ground where the bodies were laid.
The peaceful silence and the sight of a lone mosque in the distance makes it hard to imagine how this place once echod with the sound of machine-gun fire, screams, moans, and mocking laughter.
Late in the afternoon when it happened, those sounds could have merged with the song of prayers broadcast from the minaret of the mosque across the hill. Watching it from the site of the killings, I wondered whether the armed men paused to think of Allah as they heard the prayer blaring through the loudspeaker or, conversely, what people in the temple felt when they heard the gunfire and the wailing.
But then again, this was Maguindanao, where silence is normally interrupted by occasional gunshots, whether celebratory or murderous. Here, stories of violence are told in whispers, if they are being talked about at all.
Cynthia’s sister pointed to the spot where they were killed. Cynthia was said to have held on to her dad when they tried to grab him from their seat in the van. Both of them were immediately shot and dragged out of the vehicle. I wondered what she was thinking at that moment when she faced death for the second time. She had earlier survived a difficult pregnancy that almost killed her, an ordeal of which she recounted an encounter with God.
In fact, it was death that we always talked about when she visited us twice in the same year she died. She strongly believed in the possibility of the dead being able to speak to the living through dreams and music (she played the piano). This was the topic of our last chat just a few days before the massacre.
Before that happened, I had gotten used to finding her smiley in my inbox so I could invite her to another long chat about our families, her horse, my paintings, her music, guns (she was required to practice shooting as their law office started receiving threats), death and her incessant invitation for us to visit them in South Cotabato.
We never had a chance to visit her in Mindanao when she was alive. But her death makes it now almost a duty for me to do so.
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