In the Philippines, local governments are allowed to form their own paramilitary forces to fight against local insurgents. President Arroyo owed the Ampatuans during her 2004 election because in Maguindanao the administration got sweeping votes against the opposition. Not a single opposition candidate won in Maguindanao. Ever since, the administration has been tolerant of the the Ampatuans despite allegations of their ‘war-lordism’ and private armies.
We journalists were invited to cover the filing of the candidacy of a member of another Muslim clan, the Mangudadatus, standing for governor of Maguindanao. It was only this time that the Ampatuans had a political rival; nobody had challenged them in past elections. Mangudadatu asked his wife and sisters to file his candidacy and they believed that since they were women – even the lawyers were women – and because a large number of journalists would be accompanying them to the election officer’s office, no untoward incident would happen. That was our belief before we left.
We left General Santos city around 8pm on the Sunday night and stayed overnight some 15km from Buluan Town, where the Mangudadatus were. It was early morning, before we went to Buluan town for a briefing at the house of the Mangudadatus, that I learned we would not be provided with security escorts, I was thinking that if our group, especially journalists, were held at the capital by the Ampatuans, I would be the most endangered reporter.
I write for a national newspaper and community newspaper, but I wrote one particular story during the local election in 2004 focusing on the unexplained wealth of the Ampatuans as well as Ampatuan Snr’s involvement in summary executions and killings in Maguindanao. After that there were rumours that people had been hired to get me.
So in our last minute conversation with the group of journalists I told them that I would not take the convoy but my own vehicle; they should just proceed, and that I’d be just behind them. But they didn’t know that I’d have to stop to get my personal belongings at the hotel first. Two colleagues decided to go with me because they thought that if I was alone I might find myself in a dangerous situation.
When we got there we were told that there were two people who had been asking for our identities at the hotels. I thought that this was very unusual: why are people asking for our names? So that made me decide not to proceed. I called up one of my colleagues who was with the convoy and I told him: ‘I will just wait for you at Buluan town’, because there was a scheduled conference after they had filed their candidacy. He said they were already at the Ampatuan area.
All of my colleagues who were killed among the convoy had been concerned about my safety if I was with them because they knew about the grudge of the Ampatuans against me. They were even kidding: ‘Joseph please don’t come with us, we’ll be in danger because of your presence.’
When we went back to Buluan and arrived at the town we were informed by the Mangudadatus that the convoy was held. [Mangudadatu’s] wife was able to call him up to say that they were held by armed men led by Mayor Ampatuan Jnr, so we were worried. All of our colleagues’ mobile phones could no longer be contacted. Until 5pm I was still hoping that maybe they were just taken as hostages, that they were only abducted and later they would be released. I didn’t expect that they would be all killed.
We stayed at the house of the Mangudadatus who were monitoring what was going on. They were really helpless. They were trying to contact police authorities. They asked for help from the police chief of Maguindanao, asking him to send police personnel to rescue the victims. They were told by the officer; ‘We can’t do anything’.
At the time, the mayor of Buluan town, the brother of the candidate, took a chopper to survey the area and they were able to look at the victims, the dead bodies and the vehicles. Soldiers came to the area but it took some two hours before reinforcements were sent.
The way I see it, the national government has been exerting all efforts to solve the case and a lot of witnesses came out, but no local judges were willing to handle the case because they were afraid. The local prosecutors in Cotabato city filed a leave of absence.
We were able to contact the division commander of the army – the highest ranking military commander in the area. He told us that there was no problem about our security. I don’t really know if he knew something bad would happen, but one thing we were very disappointed by is that he failed to give orders to his subordinates to prevent any untoward incidents.
The Ampatuans are alleged to have been involved in various summary executions, but not a single incident has been investigated. Their private armies number more than 3,000. They made a monster.
Now, if I am in General Santos city I feel more safe because it’s more than 150km from Maguindanao, but I’m taking my own personal safety seriously. I’ve learned that some media organisations have offered [to arrange for my two other surviving colleagues] to relocate to other countries. I have to continue my journalistic profession. I’ve been in this job for 20 years – it’s my vocation.
During my college days my ambition was to become a police officer because I studied criminology, but maybe it’s my calling that I ended up being a journalist, All my knowledge from my college days, from my course, seems to be useful in my work now. I know the intricacies of police work and they cannot fool me about procedures of criminal investigation. That’s my advantage, working with the enemy.
• Joseph Jubelag was interviewed by journalist Jo Baker.