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Retracing the journey to death

A year ago yesterday, under the same blue sky and glistening sun, on this barren hill in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, 58 people breathed their last in a massacre that would be remembered as the worst case of political violence in the Philippines.

Yesterday, friends and families retraced their loved ones’ journey to death. They shall never forget, they say, as they vow to fight with their lives until the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Somewhere between the heart of darkness and this deserted patch of dry earth in Maguindanao, a warlord and his private army massacred all 58 people, including 33 journalists, to death.

The date was 23 November 2009, a date that would be remembered as one of the darkest periods in the country.

On the morning of that fateful Monday, the group was on its way to Shariff Aguak to witness the filing of candidacy of Toto Mangudadatu, a member of a powerful political clan in the province. His wife Genalyn would be filing for him, along with a convoy of supporters and members of the working press.

But on their way to the provincial capitol, some 100 armed men – members of a rival political clan’s private army – intercepted the convoy and led them up to a dirt road, some four kilometres from the highway that they were traversing.

Huge boulders and potholes filled the long stretch of the rugged terrain. They were brought to an empty lot, from which they could only dream of their loves ones in the distant valley below as they stood helplessly to meet their deaths.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten… Fifty eight. All 58 members of the convoy were brutally killed. The victims’ screams of mercy must have echoed beyond the empty hills but the deafening sounds of gunfire must have drowned the whole fury.

The scenes that emerged from the bloodied hill when authorities discovered the massacre would never be forgotten. Half-naked bodies, smeared with mud and blood, were strewn grotesquely in shallow graves.

Authorities covered the bodies with banana leaves and old newspapers, offering whatever dignity they could to the victims.

One year after, friends and families of all 58 victims are still fervently dreaming of justice for the death of their loved ones. Witnesses have pointed to the powerful Ampatuan clan as the perpetrators of the crime, but to date not a single member of the family has been convicted.

The trial goes on at an agonizingly slow pace.

On the one-year anniversary of the massacre, the whole nation mourned with the families and friends.

On this so-called massacre hill in Sitio Masalay, in Barangay Salman in Maguindanao, thousands of supporters, clad in black shirts, gathered to retrace the journey of death. They lit candles, offered flowers, shouted prayers for justice.

White balloons filled the air as the victims’ friends and families prayed fervently.

‘We pray that justice will be served,’ Mangudadatu says.

Teresita Caniban, 63 years old, fights back tears as she remembers how she found her 30-year-old son lying in cold blood the morning after the massacre. There was no mistaking it, she said. Her son, a newspaper reporter, was wearing his dirty white polo shirt with light blue stripes.

‘He was body number 35,’ says Caniban. She adds that her agony is as fresh as yesterday.

Indeed, one year after, the pain remains. It shall never be forgotten because on this hill, under the same blue sky and glistening sun, 58 people were killed in cold blood.

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