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 fighting mood?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 in Maguindanao.
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.
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 a mobile 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.
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 followed me.
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.
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 Koronadal-based 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.