An Uncounted Victim, a Year After Philippine Massacre

The New York Times
Published: November 22, 2010

MANILA — Every day, Maria Reynafe Momay-Castillo has been in the courtroom — following the proceedings; grasping other women’s hands at emotional moments; quietly crying with them, as witnesses testified that their loved ones had died at the hands of one of the most powerful political clans in the southern Philippines.

Prosecutors say 57 people died a year ago Tuesday in a massacre that shocked even this country, which has long been accustomed to political violence: the gunning down of a convoy of people on their way to file candidacy papers for a rival of Andal Ampatuan Jr., scion of a family that has long dominated the strife-torn province of Maguindanao.

The trial in Manila of Mr. Ampatuan and other defendants has been slow and painstaking. And Ms. Castillo, legally speaking, has no connection to the criminal case. But she says she has felt bound to attend the court sessions because she wants people to remember 58 victims, not 57.

Ms. Castillo and others believe that her father, Reynaldo Momay, a 61-year-old part-time photojournalist for a weekly newspaper, was among those killed, although none of the remains were identified as his and no one has been charged in his death.

Mr. Momay’s I.D. card was found at the site where the victims were buried in mass graves, along with dentures and clothing that his daughter says belonged to him.

“I know he is buried in one of those graves,” Ms. Castillo said last week.

An attorney for Ms. Castillo’s family, Harry Roque, said he intended to conduct further excavation at the scene of the killings in January. Meanwhile, he argues that the lack of a body should not prevent the authorities from charging the Ampatuans and the other defendants with killing Mr. Momay, because of “strong evidence” — the dentures, the I.D. card and personal items — “and testimony to show that he was part of the convoy.”

Ruel M. Lasala, deputy director for intelligence services at the National Bureau of Investigation, said Monday that he did not discount the possibility that Mr. Momay’s body had yet to be discovered. “We hope he is found,” Mr. Lasala said.

Rights groups have assailed what they say was the mishandling of evidence at the crime scene near Ampatuan, a town in Maguindanao named for the powerful family. Nearly 200 people, including the family patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., have been charged in connection with the massacre, although the majority remain at large.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last week that in addition to the Nov. 23 massacre, the Ampatuans and their well-armed private militia were implicated in dozens of other killings dating back decades.

It has been a macabre year for Ms. Castillo and her family. It began after the remains of the massacre victims were recovered, at funeral homes where some families quarrelled over bodies, many of them too decomposed to be readily identified. One that had been labeled as Mr. Momay’s proved not to be his, although a red jacket and a shoe that Ms. Castillo said she recognized had been placed beside it. “I was sure it was the one my father wore that day,” she said of the jacket.

Other relatives of victims have described a difficult and chaotic scene after the remains were recovered. Editha Tiamzon, whose husband, Daniel Tiamzon, a journalist, was killed in the massacre, said his body was initially misidentified as a colleague’s. “It was traumatic but understandable,” Mrs. Tiamzon said.

A government offer of 100,000 pesos, or about $2,300, in compensation to victims’ families only worsened the tension between families, Ms. Castillo said. Although she says she believes her father’s body remains at the grave site, she also suspects that another family might have claimed it.

Mr. Momay had been running a mom-and-pop store and restaurant in Tacurong City, near Maguindanao, when he began working for the weekly newspaper The Midland Review, first as a messenger, then as an advertising agent and later as a photojournalist, according to Ms. Castillo.

“It didn’t pay well, but he liked what he did, taking pictures, feeding information to their reporters,” Ms. Castillo said. She said he worked for the paper for more than 10 years, in spite of his diabetes and the meager income the work brought in.

Excluding Mr. Momay, there were 31 journalists and media support workers, including drivers and messengers, killed in the Nov. 23 massacre, which the Committee to Protect Journalists called the worst single attack on journalists it had ever recorded. (The committee counts Mr. Momay as one of the victims). They had been invited by Esmael Mangudadatu, who was about to run for governor against Andal Ampatuan Jr., to accompany the campaign workers filing the candidacy papers.

Aquiles Zonio, a reporter for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, who had planned to accompany the group but backed out at the last minute, said he saw Mr. Momay in the convoy before it departed. “He wore a cap and a jacket,” Mr. Zonio recalled in an interview.

Ms. Castillo said her father’s disappearance had devastated the family. She went back to work as a nurse at Sultan Kudarat Provincial Hospital in January, she said, but quit on her first day when she realized that one of her patients had the surname Ampatuan.

“I thought that was the sign that I had to quit my job,” Ms. Castillo said. “I still had hatred in me. I could have hurt him.”

She now devotes most of her time to the case, attending court sessions, lobbying officials and making media appearances.

“People ask me why do I keep showing up in the courtroom,” Ms. Castillo said. “I want to show to the government that I am seeking justice for my father as well. As long as they see me, they will be reminded that someone remains missing.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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