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Remembrance held for Maguindanao victims five years on

Anniversary of massacre falls just days after key witness murdered

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Remembrance held for Maguindanao victims five years on

A woman walks past markers bearing the names of victims of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre (Photo by Pop Salahog)

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There was a long silence as Maria Reynafe Momay Castillo gazed at the hill in a green span of countryside on the outskirts of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province.

"That’s where my father was buried. Somewhere there," she whispered. "Nothing seems to have changed."

Reynafe's father, photojournalist Reynaldo Momay, was one of 58 people, including 32 journalists, who were killed five years ago this weekend on November 23, 2009.

Reynaldo's body was never found. Investigators, however, included him on the list of victims based on his dentures that were found at the scene of the killings.

Half a decade after the incident, fear continues to haunt Reynafe and many victims’ relatives. Though the principal suspects of the massacre are in jail, others remain at large and the trial is still ongoing.

"We cannot freely go to that area," she said, pointing at the distant hill. "We need to be escorted by soldiers and policemen, and be careful that no one will harm us," Reynafe said.

Her fears are not without basis. On Tuesday, a key witness to the killings was murdered by unidentified gunmen believed to be hired assassins.

At least seven people — four witnesses and three relatives of other witnesses — have been killed already in connection with the trial of those accused in the massacre.

While Reynafe works far from Mindanao, she is concerned for her other family members. 

"Fear follows me in my sleep," she said. "What will happen to them?"

Five years ago, Norhaida, who asked to be identified using a pseudonym, was working with her family in a cornfield when she was jolted by the sound of automatic gunfire. 

"We ignored the gunfire and continued working," she said.

When she and her family learned about the massacre, they left their homes, bringing with them whatever possessions they could carry.

None have returned since then. "It's hard to live in an area where you know danger lurks nearby," she said.

'Pray for us'

In the nearby town of Shariff Aguak, local resident Abdul parked his motorcycle at the local market, a few kilometers from the mansion-like homes of the Ampatuan clan.

"Some things changed but they are still here," Abdul said.

At least six Ampatuan clan members are among the almost 200 people charged over the massacre, which was allegedly carried out to prevent a member of a rival clan from running as governor of Maguindanao.

At least 110 people have been arrested for the crime, but a recent court decision allowed 42 suspects to post bail.

On Friday, journalists, political activists and family members of the victims marked the fifth anniversary of the crime. 

"It's some sort of reunion," said Governor Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao province. 

Mangudadatu lost his wife, Ginalyn, and several relatives in the massacre.

"The children miss their mother," he said. "But we must go on and fight for justice." 

The group has appealed to Pope Francis, who is visiting the Philippines in January, to "please pray for us".

"We can no longer have them back," read a letter of the victims' families addressed to the pope. 

"But we know that our God is a loving God, especially for us who are helpless in the face of challenges and tragedies. Give us more strength that we will be able to pursue our quest for justice," the letter said.  

Journalists and relatives of those slain in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre hold a remembrance ceremony to mark the 5th anniversary (Photo by Karlos Manlupig)

 

This week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the killing of a key witness to the massacre, saying the incident showed the failure of the government to protect witnesses.

Dennis Sakal, who worked as a driver for former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr, was killed by gunmen in Shariff Aguak town on Tuesday. The former governor is one of the suspected masterminds of the killings. 

Phelim Kine, deputy director of HRW's Asia Division, said the death of Sakal speaks of the continuing culture of impunity pervading the Philippines.

"The killing is a reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians of the vicious status quo in the Philippines in which gunmen with powerful backers routinely get away with murder," Kine said in a statement.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the latest attack "is a setback that will clearly have an adverse impact on the trial" of the massacre suspects.

HRW described the massacre case as being "in limbo," with a total of 87 suspects still at large.

"After five years, justice remains elusive for the victims," said the National Press Club of the Philippines, which was to mark the massacre anniversary with a torch parade Friday evening.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has called the Maguindanao massacre "the deadliest single attack on the press ever documented".

At a Friday memorial, Grace Morales, who lost her husband, Rosell, and sister Marites Cablitas, teared up as she listened to speeches. 

"It was here where they were killed," she said. "Here in this place, they begged for their lives." 

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