The place was deserted when the group arrived. But we can still see the telltale signs of the day before: The footprints on the fresh, sandy earth; the flowers, once fresh, beginning to wilt; the streamers soiled by the wind.
The sun burning furiously on my temple, I took the camera to frame the 12 newest graves. Twelve, I heard Richel say in a car on our way here, was the highest number of dead ever buried in the history of this cemetery. Behind the lens, a photojournalist once told me, one should detach oneself from the scene one was about to record; one should stop being herself and put ones self at the service of an image. So, as I crouched to frame the 12 graves, I was a bit puzzled by sounds. A sniffling or two coming at intervals and in increasing regularity, as each journalist crouched before each grave to offer a single flower, or light a candle. Until I put down the camera to take a candle to light, I never understood that sound.Until I, too, crouched on to the nearest grave, and caught sight of a name—just a name—and realized she was a woman. She must have been looking forward to do a story that day, aboard the convoy that left Buluan town in Maguindanao on its way to the capital town of Shariff Aguak; after an imam said a prayer at the house of the politician set to run for governor; after they took breakfast and went aboard the convoy, smiling--maybe, laughing--as they heard women in the clan saying, ‘women should be given more space in the leadership’ of that province because they can do many wonderful things simply because they were women. It suddenly crossed my mind that this woman journalist, whose name I happened to read, whose grave I happened to see, had left behind a son or two, a daughter or an eight month old baby, and may not have known what awaited them along the road to Shariff Aguak. She may not have known or believed there was this reigning culture of impunity in our midst, and that press freedom in this country was merely skin-deep. Did she secretly love covering that story? Was she thinking it was a big scoop?But there was no longer a story to cover that day. Over a hundred men armed with the most powerful weaponry under the command of a warlord clan who had powerful links with Malacanang, had killed the story right on the road to Shariff Aguak, in an isolated lot in Ampatuan town. They tried to kill the story by killing the representatives, lawyers and supporters of the political clan who wanted to challenge the ruling governor. They killed the journalists so that no one could write about it. They buried everything under the crunch of a backhoe, thinking that in burying the bodies, everything can easily be forgotten and everything will be business as usual in the province ruled by terror.
But the sheer monstrosity of what they did was a story that could not be contained; not by the perimeters of their power, not by the bounds of their territory. It was beyond words to describe; and because it was indescribable, it escaped language, itself. It escaped their hold and spread to the remotest corners of the world.
No one could probably know the extent of the horrors that those killed in the carnage suffered—not one among those journalists was able to file a story. But they continue to speak to us in many other ways; and the task of writing that story fell upon us, who remained.