TACURONG CITY, Philippines?Ian Subang, a long-time friend and former colleague in the now defunct Gensan Media Cooperative, was in his usual jovial mood, poking fun and exchanging jokes with us.
Alejandro ?Bong? Reblando, Manila Bulletin reporter covering the Socsksargen area?South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos?was, as always, in his fighting mood?insistent and persistent with his own opinion.
He always came late to media events, the reason why we used to tease him "The Late" Bong Reblando. Now, he will forever be called such.
That was last Monday morning, a few hours before the mass killing took place in Maguindanao province.
The painful truth that these guys together with 32 other media colleagues met death in the hands of a ruthless band of goons just won?t sink into my consciousness, not even now.
Ian would usually play the role of a clown and he could easily make anyone in the group smile with his jokes.
Bong, the most senior among us, was contented with the role of big brother to us. He was already a radio reporter when I was in high school way back in the 1980s.
Early Monday morning, a few hours before they were abducted and slaughtered, we were enjoying a breakfast of "pastel"? a kind of stew?served to us by our host.
An intense yet cordial exchange of ideas ensued as this reporter, Reblando and two other journalists discussed with ARMM Assemblyman Khadafy Mangudadatu the security concerns and the scenarios that may arise later that day.
Subang and his group, including several other reporters, were gathered outside the living room of Mangudadatu?s mansion in Buluan town, Maguindanao.
They were waiting for the result of our brainstorming inside. There were just six of us in that discussion?Mangudadatu legal counsel Cynthia Oquendo-Ayon, Khadafy, Reblando, Joseph Jubelag, Paul Bernaldez and myself.
We were insisting that reporters covering the scheduled filing of certificate of candidacy of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael ?Toto? Mangudadatu must be assured of their safety. Toto is eyeing the gubernatorial seat in Maguindanao.
Toto had requested for security escorts from Chief Superintendent Paisal Umpa, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) police regional director, but his request was turned down.
He turned to the Philippine Army for help but his request was also denied.
Had the police or military provided security escorts, the mass slaughter of defenseless women and journalists might have been prevented.
According to the Mangudadatus, a week before the massacre, there were massive movements of the Ampatuan?s armed followers?police, civilian volunteers and Cafgu members?in the area.
Believing in the power of the media, Mangudadatu, who felt helpless then, asked help from the media.
He requested several journalists?through Henry Araneta of DZRH?to cover the scheduled filing of his certificate of candidacy at the Commission on Elections provincial office in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.
Araneta managed to invite 37 journalists from the cities of General Santos, Tacurong and Koronadal.
?Maybe, they will not harm us if journalists are watching them,? Mangudadatu said.
Mangudadatu disclosed that he organized a group of women led by his wife, Genalyn, elder sister Vice Mayor Eden Mangudadatu of Mangudadatu town, Bai Farinna Mangudadatu, the youngest of the Mangudadatu siblings, and lawyers Cynthia Oquendo-Ayon and Connie Brizuela.
The gubernatorial aspirant claimed reports had reached him that the Ampatuans had threatened to chop him into pieces once he filed his COC with the Comelec.
?Under our tradition, Muslim women are being respected. They should not be harmed just like innocent children and the elders,? Mangudadatu stressed.
Governor Andal Ampatuan ran unopposed in the 2007 elections.
Mangudadatu claimed that the Ampatuans were considered above the law, warlords and political demigods in Maguindanao.
But, he said, someone must come to the fore to bring about change and improve the lives of the Bangsamoro people.
He said that women from Buluan should be the ones to file his COC, no security escorts, only journalists to avoid creating tension.
Eden, along with his sister-in-law and younger sister, was in a jovial mood before the departure. She was saying that Muslim women should play a more active role in Maguindanao politics to attain genuine social change and economic progress.
?This is women power in action. Let?s help our men chart a better future for the province,? she was heard as saying.
We were confident nothing bad would happen as some of us in the convoy had been frequent visitors to the Maguindanao provincial capitol.
Even while inside the vehicles, the group enjoyed each other?s company. There was no hint of the heartbreaking and vicious fate awaiting them.
All in all, there were 58 persons?37 journalists, 16 Muslim women who handcarried Mangudadatu?s COC and five drivers?in the convoy.
After several attempts, I was able to contact Major General Alfredo Cayton, commander of the Army?s 6th Infantry Division, through a mobile phone.
He gave an assurance that the national highway going to Shariff Aguak had already been cleared and was safe for travel. He even added that police checkpoints littered the long route from Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat to Shariff Aguak.
Five convoy vehicles left Buluan around 9:30 a.m. Monday. The lead vehicle was an L-300 van of UNTv.
Aside from UNTv reporter Victor Nuñez, his cameraman and driver, Paul Bernaldez and myself joined in.
However, while the convoy was refuelling in Buluan, I decided to transfer to Joseph Jubelag?s vehicle to accompany him. Bernaldez followed suit.
The five-vehicle convoy went ahead and we just told them we will follow right away.
We decided to drop by BF Lodge in Tacurong City where we stayed the night before to get some valuables and meet some personal necessities.
I didn?t expect that such digression would save our lives. I should have been there. I should have been killed together with them.
Two hotel attendants approached me and revealed that two unidentified men riding on separate motorcycles had left barely three minutes earlier.
The hotel personnel claimed the two men were asking for the names of journalists covering Mangudadatu?s filing of COC.
Luckily, the hotel management did not give any name.
This made us change our minds and we decided not to go to Shariff Aguak.
On our way back to Buluan, we tried several times but failed to establish contact with our media colleagues in the convoy.
Upon arrival in Buluan, the vice mayor told us that all the five vehicles had been seized by the Ampatuans? armed followers.
Not only journalists, family members, relatives and supporters of Mangudadatus were abducted and killed.
Military sources disclosed that several other innocent motorists from Buluan and Tacurong City were seized and summarily executed on mere suspicion that they, too, were followers of the Mangudadatus.
Out of the 34 journalists abducted and brutally killed, only 25 were identified.
They were Ian Subang, Leah Dalmacio, Gina Dela Cruz and Maritess Cablitas, all of Mindanao Focus, a General Santos City-based weekly community newspaper; Bart Maravilla of Bombo Radyo-Koronadal City; Jhoy Duhay of Mindanao Goldstar Daily; Henry Araneta of DZRH and Andy Teodoro of Central Mindanao Inquirer.
Neneng Montano of Saksi weekly newspaper; Alejandro ?Bong? Reblando of Manila Bulletin; Victor Nuñez of UnTv; Macmac Arriola, UnTV cameraman; and Jimmy Cabillo, a radioman based in Koronadal City.
Rey Merisco, Ronnie Perante, Jun Legarta, Val Cachuela and Humberto Mumay, all Koronadal City-based journalists.
Joel Parcon, Noel Decena, John Caniba, Art Belia, Ranie Razon and Nap Salaysay.
On Monday evening, gory scenes of slain media colleagues kept flashing in my mind. I didn?t have a decent sleep, for the very first time in my life.
Once again, several working journalists shed their blood in the name of press freedom.
This, however, will not deter us or discourage us from doing our job as journalists.
Underpaid and under threat, be that as it may, we will continue answering the call of our beloved profession.