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From grief of Maguindanao, a 'family' emerges

Families at the graves of Maguindanao victims. (Aquiles Zonio)

Today marks nine months since the Maguindanao massacre, the deadliest event for the press that CPJ has ever recorded.  On November 23, 2009, at 10 a.m., a convoy traveling to the provincial capital of Shariff Aquak to file gubernatorial candidacy papers stopped at what appeared to be a routine military checkpoint. Hours later, authorities would find the bodies of 57 people, among them 32 journalists and media workers, who had been executed and their bodies dumped 3 kilometers from the main road.

I traveled last week to General Santos City in Mindanao with CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz and Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin. At the airport, we met Prima Quinsayas, a private prosecutor helping the government represent 17 of the victims' families, and Aquiles Zonio, one of three journalists who narrowly missed being caught in the massacre. Immediately, I was struck by Quinsayas and Zonio's serenity as they guided us through the loud and somewhat hostile chaos of the General Santos airport. Their irrefutable commitment to ensuring that justice is served has turned them into willing guides for international media and human rights groups who have visited the Maguindanao site since last November.

On Saturday, Zonio arranged for our group to meet with several of the journalists' families. We first met with Maria Clara Subang, whose husband Francisco, a veteran General Santos reporter, was among those killed. Subang and her three teenage children live in the same house that the couple shared for over two decades. November 23, 2010, would have been the Subangs' 25th wedding anniversary.

Next, we met Nancy Dela Cruz. Her daughter, Gina, was one of several female journalists who traveled with the convoy. Gina Dela Cruz left behind five children, the youngest just months old at the time of her death. All five now live with their grandmother in a very small, dark house that doubles as a bodega.

Grace Morales' house is also divided into a home, a small store, and a makeshift karaoke bar, allowing her family to make ends meet. Morales lost her husband, Rossell, and her sister, Marites Cablitas, both local reporters with decades of experience. All family members, including Cablitas' 18-year-old daughter, wore t-shirts marked "Heirs of the Heroes of 11/23." This is an advocacy group created by the General Santos City families to seek justice. The group also serves as a financial and emotional support mechanism for its members.

Our last visit was to the home of Merly Perante, wife of journalist Ronnie Perante. Along the way, we picked up Maura Montano and her 6-year-old granddaughter, who dressed in their Sunday best had taken two buses and were slowly making their way on the side of the main highway in the mid-afternoon heat to come speak to us. Montano lost her daughter Marife, known by her nickname, Neneng. She and Perante are both struggling to care for small children, while trying to deal with the trauma of the massacre and its aftermath.

At around 1 p.m., we packed our van with Zonio, the CPJ group, Morales, Perante, Montano, and several of their children and grandchildren, and drove to a local restaurant where Quinsayas and six other families were waiting to speak to us. We all sat around a long table. Near me was a middle-aged police officer, who throughout our conversation held Montano's hand.  Next to him was a fashionable man in his 20s, and across, Perante huddled with Dela Cruz, a girl in her teens and three older women. Morales, Subang and other family members were also there.

All of those gathered lost a loved one in Maguindanao nine months ago--most lost their main bread-winner. They live in or around General Santos and survive on grants from the government and scholarships from local and international press freedom groups, including CPJ. Some manage to survive with creative business ventures such as Morales' karaoke bar. But looking at the group, sitting tightly knit around the table, it was evident that they all come from different socio-economic worlds within the same city. What holds them together is the shared horror of the massacre and an astounding commitment to seek justice. The tragedy, they say, has made them into one family.

This improvised family revolves mainly around the group, Heirs of the Heroes of 11/23. Recognized legally as an organization, the group meets at least once a month to commemorate the killings and visit the cemetery together. They have had black and white t-shirts printed with the group's name in bold letters, like the ones the Morales family was wearing when we visited their home. The group's members wear the t-shirts to all massacre-related events to ensure that the public knows that they are the families of the Maguindanao killings, Morales said.

The functioning of Heirs of the Heroes of 11/23 reminded me of another group of families, across the world, who are also advocating for justice and press freedom: Cuba's Ladies in White. Like the well-known Havana-based group, Heirs of the Heroes of 11/23 was improvised, its members told me. At the beginning, three or four families would meet to discuss their legal strategies and the hardships they were facing. Quickly, the number doubled, and the group was registered with local authorities. Now, Morales said, they also have members who are not from General Santos, as well as members whose loved one was not part of the local media.

All members pay a monthly fee, which is used to sponsor their activities and events. Additionally, the fee is used to help members who are facing particular hardship. Months earlier, Morales said as an example, the group pitched in to help buy food and baby formula for Dela Cruz's children when their elderly grandmother was unable to provide for them. But the money is not always enough to cover all basic needs, some of the members said during our meeting.

They did agree that the group has given them much-needed psychological and emotional support. In the early stages of the case, the local press freedom group National Union of Journalists of the Philippines provided families with post-trauma counseling and training, Morales said. According to Perante, the lessons learned then, combined with their instinct to help each other is what has gotten them through the horror of the past nine months.

"We can talk to each other and understand," said the young man, who asked not to be identified. His sister and her partner were murdered, leaving behind three orphans. "Other people tell us to just move past it, to keep going with our lives. But our group knows that dealing with it and talking about it is our only way. We just don't want to forget."

(Reporting from Maguindanao)

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