– I was monitoring closely reports about a missing convoy in Maguindanao with media friends. Later in the day, reports of mass murder of the Mangudadatus were confirmed. Allegedly by Datu Unsay Ampatuan Jr. et al. My instincts told me this could very well be a very explosive situation. . When media called, I said I would recommend proclaiming a state of emergency. At 8 p.m. SND Bert Gonzales and I met. He told me the President had directed that I act as “crisis manager”.
(Note: Right after the Maguindanao incident, Dureza, then presidential adviser for Mindanao, wrote a personal account as “crisis manager” which was published and carried by media. Now back in the private sector and actively managing Advocacy MindaNow Foundation, he is writing his “recollections” with additional annotations on a day-to-day account recalling the four critical days of the incident. This will be a 4- part series starting today).
DAY ONE — Nov 23 (Monday) It’s one year ago, to the day. I was in Davao City that day and was finalizing arrangements for me and wife Beth to fly to Manila in the late afternoon flight for her usual medical check up. By noon, I was getting text messages from several sources about the missing convoy. I started inquiring.
General Santos City Inquirer Correspondent Aquiles Zonio told me over the phone that he was supposed to be with the convoy from Buluan to Shariff Aguak on board the Mitsubishi Lancer of Mindanao Bulletin Editor Joseph Jubelag, who was driving. But Joseph decided to peel off from the convoy and proceeded to the pension house in Tacurong where they stayed the previous night to pick up some belongings. They did not try to catch up with the convoy anymore.
At 9:30 a.m., Joseph said he called by phone Bulletin Correspondent Bong Reblando who was ahead in a rented van with the convoy en route to Shariff Aguak. He told Bong that they decided not to proceed anymore as they were delayed in Tacurong but would catch up with the group when they return to Buluan from Shariff Aguak for the scheduled press conference after the planned filing of the certificate of candidacy of (Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael) Toto Mangudadatu. That was to be the last phone call with Bong.
Bong was a close friend and a kumpadre, being ninong to one of his sons. I found close kinship with Bong because both of us had similar beginnings. I was Bulletin correspondent, too, during my early days as a journalist. He was always supportive of my work in Mindanao, in the peace process, as press secretary, etc. I recall Bong’s naughty practice of calling me by phone and telling me that his article about my latest statement was published in the Manila Bulletin issue that day. When I asked what it was all about since I had not issued any new statement, he would simply say: “Just confirm it, Kumpadre. It’s about moving the peace talks forward”. He knew me so well that press statements I issued a long time ago he would be able to recycle and spin aligned with current events. I would always caution him though: “Pakiusap lang kumpadre. Please always tell me ahead what statements I had supposedly issued to you before you report. It may trigger a war!” And we would laugh together.
From all accounts, the Mangudadatus knew of the dangers they were facing in opposing the Ampatuans. They were political allies before. The filing of the certificates of candidacy was a declaration of war. The media delegation to be part of the convoy was a security cordon. Most of them were from General Santos City.
Joseph later related to me that on November 22, he stayed overnight with some mediamen, together with Bong, Aquiles, etc. at a pension house in Tacurong in preparation for the activity organized by the Mangudadatus. The following day, at 6:30 a.m. Monday, he drove his vehicle to Buluan where the convoy was supposed to assemble before the jump off.
Joseph said there was some discussion, before the convoy left Buluan about the security concern as they learned that there was no security escort provided by the authorities. Joseph said they contacted by phone Maj. Gen. Alfredo S. Cayton, then 6th Division commander based in Awang, Maguindanao just outside Cotabato City who said that while there were no security escorts, there should be no concern. Joseph, however, got worried. That’s when he decided to just let the convoy go ahead and instead drove to the Tacurong pension house to first pick up his belongings. On board his vehicle were media friends Aquiles and Paul Bernardo. His close buddy, Bong, rode in a van and went ahead with the group. There were 6 vehicles in the caravan. Joseph’s Lancer would have been vehicle No. 7.
Aquiles remembered that while they were at the hotel lobby, and while Joseph went up to the room for his belongings, one of the waiters approached him. The waiter was nervous. He told Aquiles that when they left the hotel early that same morning, some unidentified and suspicious-looking men arrived and asked about the identities of those who joined. Aquiles suspected something was wrong and got nervous. He recalled that they were not able to catch up with the convoy as Joseph stayed in the comfort room for a long time. “Thank god for that bad stomach, I survived,” Aquiles in hindsight told me. Unknown to Aquiles, Joseph had already decided not to proceed to Shariff Aguak and his upset stomach was due to tension and fear. Being an old hand in the area, he trusted his instincts. He decided not to go. That’s when they called Bong at 9:30 a.m. and told him about the decision that they would not be able to catch up and join. The next call at 10:30 a.m. to Bong’s cellphone and all the frantic calls that ensued were no longer answered, except for one call to another mediaman’s phone and someone with a Moro accent answered briefly then cut the line.
Later that day, the gruesome massacre of the Mangudadatu convoy, including the media contingent, was confirmed. At first it was a feeling of denial. Almost all of the mediamen in the group were my close friends. Every time I made trips to GenSan or Cotabato before that, many of them would always be there covering my events. To some of them who joined the Mangudadatu delegation, perhaps, it was another opportunity to do a job. And I can tell you, media work especially in the provincial press, although exciting at times, is a hard, dangerous grind. For one, it does not pay well. But many stick to it for what I call “psychic income” – not the cash rewards, but of course it also counts, but more for the adventure and the excitement of getting a good story out. That’s why they are a special breed – and for all of their faults too. That was the reason why when I was press secretary, to the discomfort of some sectors in Manila, I was giving priority to the provincial press. I recall changing the format of presidential coverage’s. Where the usual practice was the accompanying Manila press took the front seats and got the first shot of asking the first questions with the provincial media at times sidelined or even excluded from the event, I revised this, giving the locals priority even in the physical arrangements. For a change, Malacañang hosted Christmas parties on a regional basis for the provincial press while I was there. I knew how it was as I was once one of them.
By the way, the tragedy befalling our media victims could not be sufficiently vindicated, even if all the perpetrators were sent to jail. For some sectors to even say or suggest that I received bribe money from the Ampatuans to help quash the cases is mercifully wrong. Even my visit at the military hospital as part of my work as in charge of Mindanao affairs to check on reports that Bapa Ampatuan was reportedly getting VIP treatment was dramatized as another telltale evidence that there was bribery. I was fortunate that the emissary of the Ampatuans who was always sent to me during the whole period came out and gave his full story of how I even declined to lift a hand on the case, knowing that many lives of my friends were lost aside from the fact that it was ridiculous – if not dangerous – for me to get a payoff to quash a case totally outside of my control. I asked for a separate investigation but nothing happened up to now. But I guess that’s par for the course for public officials like me. Too bad for me. So you will all understand why being back now in the private sector is so liberating! But it’s another story altogether.
That fateful day was a media tragedy unmatched anywhere in the world. The unfolding of the gruesome event continued later in the day. And being in charge of Mindanao for the Palace, I braced myself.
I was trying to piece together the events of the day as more reports came in. When media called for a statement, I said I would recommend proclaiming a state of emergency. Late afternoon, as I was boarding my flight to Manila with my wife Beth, Defense Secretary Bert Gonzales called by phone. “Do you know what’s happening?” he asked. I simply said: “It’s unbelievable!” He told me to proceed to the lobby of Edsa Shangrila hotel in Ortigas immediately upon landing. At 8 o’clock that night Bert told me that the President directed us to go to Maguindanao immediately. I was designated “crisis manager”. (To be continued)