It’s the heart of darkness up there,” said one of a group of young local lawyers from Maguindanao province, in the Philippines, last Friday, November 27, as a group of us stopped by a General Santos coffee shop, having just come from the wake of the first six journalists to be released for burial by the authorities here.
Police with M-16s stood guard outside the funeral home as the first of many passers-by filed in to pay their respects. Members of another security group looked on in their black uniforms and dark sunglasses.
The journalists in death and in their white caskets were far better protected by the authorities than they were in life and when they needed it most on Monday, November 23.
How many of the journalists and their lawyer colleagues realised they effectively comprised the security detail of the convoy of Mangudadatu womenfolk who were headed to file candidacy papers on behalf of Buluan vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu?
They hoped there would be real strength in numbers, but it was simply not to be.
All 57 members of the convoy were killed by gunmen, in one of the worst incidents of its kind in recent Philippines history.
They were heading for the municipality of Shariff Aguak – the place where many would say the Philippine government allowed a latter day Colonel Kurtz to operate and run his private armies and exercise control for far too long.
Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr has been charged with 25 counts of murder. He and 20 other suspects in custody deny any involvement in the atrocity.
And it is so that under law everybody must remain innocent until and unless proven guilty. Yet it is equally true that in Maguindanao there has been not much law – and very little justice.
I was there in August last year covering the refugee crisis caused by the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF. Coming back from the municipality of Datu Piang and having been startled by what sounded like heavy calibre machinegun fire in the marshes, we came across armed men at a checkpoint by the side of the road. “Who are these?” I asked innocently, “MILF or AFP?” My local expert colleague replied without missing a breath, “Neither.”
They were said to be men under the command of the Ampatuan clan.
The members of the ill-fated convoy had been reportedly stopped and abducted at gunpoint, then taken to a hillside off the main highway and shot.
The area is such a lonely desolate place to spend the last seconds of your life. And who can ultimately imagine the kind of terror that swept through the minds of the group as they looked down into their own graves?
Before the November 23 massacre, colleagues from overseas used to joke and roll their eyes when I would suggest there were comparisons to be made between the Philippines today and El Salvador in the mid-80s. Now they see the possible links.
Yet the victims of Maguindanao were of course not victims of any civil war, like the one that raged in El Salvador. They were not killed as a result of any ideological conflict. There was no issue of subversion or succession here. The victims, 57 or 64 or whatever the final toll will be, were just civilians trying to exercise their political and civil rights in a country whose leaders talk so much about security and law and order, yet do so little to actually maintain it.
Surely then, the fact that this crime happened not in El Salvador in the 1980s or in Nazi-occupied Belarus or Poland makes the case against those in power so much worse.
Yet how many of those in charge have offered their resignation?
Who has so far put their hands up and taken real responsibility? In so doing, who will demonstrate real leadership and moral authority that this country requires?
This country sorely needs a new generation of political leaders who can match up in stature and commitment to so many in the media and civil society: those who have perished on that hillside, those who have gone before them – and all those who deserve far greater protection.
They are giants among men and society owes a huge debt of gratitude to them all.
We will do them a great disservice if we forget the Maguindanao victims, and the circumstances of their deaths, when votes are cast in next May’s election.
Alan Davis heads IWPR's Asia programmes and for the past two years had led IWPR 's Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.