On the road leading to the site of the massacre of 58 people in 2009, a banner bearing the photographs of the victims hangs tattered, like the shattered dreams of residents who fled from the area but are now slowly rebuilding their lives.
On Friday, families and friends of the victims marked the third anniversary of the massacre, and hanging in the air was a new banner that says “Remembering Maguindanao Massacre on its 3rd Year.”
Below the sign, nobody bothered to replace the old banner, which had served as a reminder of the killing field three kilometers away.
Around the massacre site, signs of a new dawn are emerging. Unlike the slow pace of the trial of suspected perpetrators of the killing, residents here have moved on with their lives.
“We returned here three months ago, back to our farms. This is where are lives are, and we are rebuilding,” said Kashim Angeles.
Nowadays, smoke billows from huts and farms, and along the road sacks of corn are ready for transport to market. Children play, a wife cooks inside an unfinished hut, and newly planted corn sprout on the rolling hills.
Angeles said around 50 families have already returned to the village of Ampatuan, the site of the country’s worst politically motivated violence and also the largest single deadly attack on journalists in the world.
Of the 58 victims, many mangled beyond recognition by bullets, 32 were journalists.
Following the grisly massacre, residents around the site fled and built about 100 core shelter units. Angeles lived at the evacuation site until the family decided to return three months ago.
“It was rotten when we came back because nobody kept it in shape. We’re still fixing it. A plastic sheet is protecting us from the elements,” he said.
He has been maintaining five hectares of cornfield, a kilometer from the death spot.
In one of the huts, along the road near the massacre site, Bailem Pasandalan was cooking lunch using wood she gathered.
“It’s difficult to live in the evacuation site, and the farm is not tended well if you live there, so we decided to return here,” she said.
Pasandalan, a former domestic worker in Bahrain, said three families share her hut. “During the day, the men work on the farms,” she said.
Pasandalan brushed aside rumors about ghosts in the area. “We can sleep well at night. The breeze is cool,” she said.
Changes have swept the area since last year’s commemoration.
The pit where many of the bodies were excavated has been fenced off. It is located opposite the graveyard where tombstones were erected.
Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu said he wants to develop the massacre site as a “tourism spot.”
On Friday, families, friends and media workers marked the third anniversary of the killings with a mock funeral, using a dozen black makeshift coffins.
Yet justice remains elusive for the victims. Not a single suspect has been convicted in what has been dubbed the country’s “trial of the century.”
The court proceedings, according to lawyers of the victims, have barely progressed as many of the prosecution witnesses have yet to testify.
Grace Morales, wife of one of the killed media workers, decried the slow pace.
"Why can’t the government show its resolve by convicting even just one as an example?” said Morales, secretary-general of the Justice Now Movement.
Mark Cablitas, a 20-year-old son of the victim Maritess Cablitas, also expressed his dismay. “Three years is already a long time,” he said.
The last time he saw his mother alive was the early morning of November 23, 2009, having coffee with media colleagues who were also killed later in the day.
Of the 98 detained suspects of the killings, 81 have been arraigned, including a policeman who reportedly jumped to his death from his detention cell. At least 196 people have been charged with 58 counts of murder.
Of the 100 suspects at large, two have reportedly died. Of those detained, 57 have filed separate petitions for bail.
Of the members of the Ampatuan clan that allegedly masterminded the killings, only two have been arraigned and pleaded not guilty.
Since hearing of the cases began on January 5, 2010, a total of 307 motions have been filed by the defense and prosecution panels, of which 204 have been resolved. More than 100 are pending resolution.