Children bear the brunt 10 years since Ampatuan massacre

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes will hand down the verdict of the decade on or before December 20, and only then can the children of those who died in the 2009 gruesome Ampatuan massacre truly move on.

For the past 10 years, the sons and daughters of those massacred that fateful November day in 2009 have had to bear the brunt of not only losing a parent, but also calling for justice.

At 16, Rhully Mae Shula Montaño is old enough to understand what's happening, but too young to be angry and frustrated. She was 6 when her mother Marife, a journalist of the newsweekly Saksi Mindanoan, was massacred on the way to covering the filing of candidacy of then-Maguindanao governor aspirant Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu.

"10 years? Bata pa ko walang muwang, lumaki ako, wala pa rin, sana naman dumating. Sobrang sakit, 10 years? Wow," Rhully Mae said while in tears, standing near the marker of her mother at the actual site in Sitio Masalay in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, where they were shot to death and buried in the ground with their mangled cars.

(10 years? I was young and didn't have a clue, I grew up, but still nothing. I hope justice comes. It's too painful. 10 years? Wow.) 

Rhully Mae didn't know that one of the principal accused, Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, had just won as mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha in Maguindanao in the last midterm elections.

She also couldn't answer the question of whether she has forgiven her mother's killers.

"Hindi ko masasagot 'yung tanong na 'yan kasi masakit talaga. Bata, hindi talaga kaya, ewan ko lang kung mapapatawad ko, pero tingnan natin," Rhully Mae said.

(I can't answer that question because it's too painful. I was a child. I cannot do it, but I don't know if I can forgive, let's see.) 

Who remembers?

That Sajid is back in power proves that many have already forgotten.

Performing a skit that surprised even their parents, 20-year-old Nicole Morales screamed in tears: "Wala nang nakakaalala, lahat kayo nakalimot na. Ang nakikita kong tanong sa inyong mga mata, bakit pa rin kami nandito?" (Nobody remembers, all of you have forgotten. I can see in your eyes that you're asking, why are we still here?)

The 10th year commemoration of the massacre was the first time that the children performed. The network of families, particularly the journalists, organized an art, theater and music workshop where the children could meet and bond occasionally.

"Hindi namin alam na ganun pala ang nararamdaman nila after 10 years, matindi pa rin 'yung galit, sakit sa kanila," Nicole's mother Grace said. 

(We didn't know that, that is still how they feel after 10 years. That anger and pain are still that strong.) 

Nicole and Grace lost their father Rosell in the massacre; he worked for News Focus.

Nicole's younger sister Xhandi, 15 years old, visited the site in Sitio Masalay only last year.

She said she started crying as the car traversed the hills before they reached the site, which now has a covered court beside it overlooking a lush Maguindanao forest.

Xhandi, the youngest of the family, has had to play big sister to the other children in the group who are as young as 10. 

"Kasama pa rin po ako sa pinapaliwanagan pa rin kasi hindi po mawawala 'yung sakit na bata pa lang kinuha nila ang isang ama," said Xhandi. (I'm still part of the group that is stil inl need of an explanation, because the pain from losing a father at a young age like me is still here.) 

They understand loss

Two of the youngest among the children are 11-year-old Franchesca Khrstylle Dalmacio and 10-year-old Princess Arianne Caniban, whose singing of an original song "Hustisya" – written by Nicole and Xhandi's sister Faye – had so much passion it looked like they understood what they were singing.


At sundown at the Forest Lake cemetery in General Santos City where Franchesca's mother Eleanor and Princess' father John are buried, the two girls lit candles that had these signs on them: Justice Now. Convict Ampatuan.

They can read the signs. They've also been shouting it since they joined the activities.

"Hindi po namin naiintindihan (We don't understand)," Princess shyly smiled when we asked her what those mean.

But Franchesca, more shy and timid than Princess, and who didn't want to watch the video of her own singing, suddenly opened up.

"Ang naiintindihan ko massacre. Pagpatay, ganun? (What I understand is massacre. Killing, is it like that?)" Franchesca asked.

"Sobra (miss ko si Mama). Kasi imagine, 8 months old, tapos namatayan na ako ng mama? Masakit, malungkot," she said.

(I miss my mom so much. Because imagine, I was only 8 months old, yet I already lost a mother? It hurts, it's sad.)

Franchesca doesn't understand conviction, and probably not even justice, but she sure understands loss.

Parents leave

Many of the widows of the journalists have gone abroad to be able to fend for their children.

"Yung asawa niya nasa abroad na para mabuhay 'yung anak niya," said Joann Duhay, the niece of Jose Joy "Boy" Duhay, a correspondent of Sultan Kudarat Gold Star Daily at the time of his death. (His wife is abroad so their child can live.)

"Sobrang hirap ng pinagdaanan nila, kaya nag-apply ng abroad 'yung asawa nito kasi para lang sa kanyang anak," Joann said. (They went through so much hardship that's why the wife applied abroad just for their child.) 

Boy's namesake Joy is now 19 years old.

Princess' mother Argie is thinking of leaving, too. Princess was recently diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease.

"Wala ako talagang choice, mag-abroad na lang ako makapagkita lang ng pangangailangan ng mga gamot niya," Argie said. (I really don't have any choice but to go abroad just to earn what we need for her medication.)

WATCH: Rhully Mae Shula Montaño is only 16 years old but at a young age she has had to carry the burden of calling for justice, that's been elusive for the past 10 years. She says she remembers her mother Marife's killing like it was just yesterday pic.twitter.com/EH2LFo6nCP — Lian Buan (@lianbuan) November 17, 2019


Commitment

Like other families, Argie's own family, according to her, has received offers as high as P50 million to drop the case.

"Kasi hindi namin matatanggap 'yun dahil lahat kami kailangan ng hustisya," said Argie. (But we can't accept that because what we all need is justice.) 

Rhully Mae's grandmother Maura said that the 16-year-old was not among the scholars of private organizations that had extended financial assistance to the families throughout the years.

Grace, one of the leaders of Justice Now or the group of families, said that the funds have run out.

"Nitong huli kasi, wala na ring pondo, ubos na rin, siyempre naiintindihan namin na ganun naman talaga, wala na ring mga ganung tulong," Grace said. (Recently the funds ran out, and we understand that that's what happens, that help won't always be there.)

Rhully Mae, who is now an orphan after losing her father too, has had to mature way faster than other girls her age.

"Kasi kung hindi ka magiging malakas, babagsak ka. Lumalaban ako kahit masakit," she said, tearing up, but with a strong resolve. (If you're not going to be strong, you will fall. So I'm fighting even though it hurts.) 

"Wala sa 'kin ang pera. Hustisya kailangan ko. Ibigay niyo," she said. (Money is nothing to me. What I need is justice. So give us justice.) – Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO.  Franchesca Khrstylle Dalmacio and Princess Arianne Caniban light candles at the Forest Lake cemetery in General Santos City on November 17, 2019, as the 10th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre nears. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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