Don’t Tell my Mom That I was in Maguindanao

November 23, 2009, the Filipino nation and the international community were shocked with the killing of 50+ victims in what is now known as the “Maguindanao Massacre”—the worst election-related violence at that time. Brought up by rivalry of powerful families that ruled the Cotabato basin, the supposedly peaceful convoy for filing candidacy was turned into bloodbath when armed men allegedly belonging to the ruling family intercepted the convoy and mercilessly killed, mutilated and hastily buried the victims in the hills of Maguindanao—leaving their lifeless bodies, crushed cars and a backhoe bearing the name of the ruling clan. Most number that was killed were journalists, same as with the wife of the opposition leader, his relatives, and some who weren’t part of the convoy at all. The event has left a lasting imprint to every Filipino psyche regarding Maguindanao—armed, lawless, deadly and violent. As of the time of writing, the province of Maguindanao, now under the then-opposition leader’s rule, is still under state of emergency.

Somewhere over those hills, the howling and the wailing of the dead seeking justice

Personally, I myself was stunned by the event. That same highway that I passed in 2005 (read my article on my 2005 trip at Maguindanao) was the same highway that the convoy was intercepted. I got numb when some of Tacurong City Hall people, whom have helped me in my thesis in college, was also murdered point blank-despite their non-involvement at the convoy. It was unbelievable that such cold-blooded act happened in this modern day and age—barbaric and devoid of civility. Then the opportunity came in, I was to visit Cotabato City when I went to GenSan—no other choice but to pass by Maguindanao once more. This time, I face Maguindanao on a different light, a different era…

That Morning…

After my overnight stay in the placid Lake Sebu, I headed to Isulan, the capital of neighboring Sultan Kudarat province, where I can get a bigger chance to whisk myself away to Cotabato City. Since the bus left a few minutes earlier, I took the van and it costs P100 from Isulan to Cotabato City in a two-hour long journey across the uncertain.

This highway somewhere in Ampatuan in Maguinadnao may have been the last vista of the Martyrs

Esperanza is the last town before entering Maguindanao province. By the time we crossed the bridge near the town’s center, it was a different world already. From the once dense housing and high volume of vehicles, the highway gradually became a desolate place to be with. Miles and miles of corn fields and coconut groves with a vista of Teduray Highlands at the horizon, there were only a few vehicles that were passing by here. Welcome to the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

It was eerie for me passing by this road, thinking that this was the last view that the victims saw. The hills were looming. Somewhere there was the “grave site” of the martyrs.

DMZ: Shariff Aguak…

One of the several military checkpoints in Maguindanao. But the strictest was here in Shariff Aguak

Before entering the capital Shariff Aguak, we have to pass by tons of military outposts scattered between Esperanza, Ampatuan and then Sharrif Aguak. The guarding soldiers were on full battle gear, inspecting every vehicle that passes by the highway. They were doing their duty to provide order and security in a place that is seemingly still armed and dangerous. Understood it very well what this place has gone through.

Sharrif Aguak Masjid and the Rotunda

Welcome to Sharrif Aguak! The sign says, "With cooperation, there is a way." and "Healthy and Progressive Community"

The town of Shariff Aguak, the capital of Maguindanao province, seems unassuming yet impoverished. It’s a town of surrealism—ordinary shacks against rising and the mansions of the ruling clan, and public buildings such as the Capitol and the Municipal Hall that seems to impose its grandeur and authority over the town’s skyline. Umbrella-topped tricycles still buzz around the only main road of the town while soldiers keep guard and greet sukran or thank you for passersby.

Overheard at Tacurong...the new governor prefers to hold office in his hometown, not in his rival's home--and there is a new capitol rising. Therefore, this multi-million capitol in Shariff Aguak may turn into another white elephant


Pedicabs with umbrellas: Only in Maguindanao

Looming on the hills is the pinkish yet grand Maguindanao Capitol—closed because it’s Sunday obviously. But as far as I heard, it may be closed forever. The new governor fears for his life if he performs in a town that is a known bailiwick of the once-ruling clan. As far as I heard from the people in nearby Tacurong, looks like Maguindanao will have a new capitol (and a capital—again!) in the town of Buluan—the governor’s hometown.

New Towns abound!

We passed by Shariff Aguak briefly and headed towards Cotabato City.

I was amazed with the number of new towns that sprung up between 2005 and 2009. One town seemed to have sprung up from nothing at all—such as Datu Unsay. Coincidentally, the mayor of this town is the suspected mastermind of the gruesome massacre. An empty newly-constructed public terminal and a public market are the biggest structures in the town. The rest is like a barrio.

Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao seems to be desolate

As we headed north, countless military checkpoints still abound. However, as we moved closer to Cotabato City, the checkpoints decrease. Passing through towns such as Datu Saudi Ampatuan, in which the office of the deputy governor of ARMM is located; Guindulungan with its green picturesque mosque; Talitay’s golden mosque; and a new town, Datu Anggal Midtimbang, just suddenly appeared out of nowhere—in fact, I didn’t remember it even existed back then.

The green Guindulungan Mosque

There were a lot of towns indeed but seemingly desolate. I saw houses made of wood, plywood that is that are found in these town centers. Seemingly that every three years, there’s a new town abound—a cartographer’s nightmare. In 2008, there was even a creation of a new province, Shariff Kabunsuan, which was made by towns of north and western Maguindanao. However, the Supreme Court of the Philippines nullified and have it reverted back to its mother province—citing that the regional council of ARMM has no power in creating newer provinces.

Because there are so many new towns, I forgot whether this particular mosque is in Talitay or Datu Midtimbang town

Dalican to Tamontaka

It was a long road ahead as we head down the plans of Dalican Poblacion, the town center of Datu Odin Sinsuat (DOS). Mindanao State University-Maguindanao is found here, and so is the Moro-inspired municipal hall. The town seems peaceful and military presence here is far less than it is in Shariff Aguak.

The Datu Odin Sinsuat Municipal Hall at Dalican Poblacion

Heading on, Cotabato City is just a 20 kilometer drive from the town. Trees, small houses and mosques dot the highway. There were only a few checkpoints that seem to be less strict than those at the southern part of the province. The Teduray Highlands seems to push itself against the vast wetlands of Libungan Marsh—signaling that we’re nearing Cotabato City, at the heart of Rio Grande de Mindanao Delta.

Jeepney heading back to Maguindanao

And then, we’re already at Awang. Although part of DOS, this is where the airport of Cotabato City is located. This is where the once thriving Mindanao Textile looms weave and export their products. Jeepneys that look like L300 vans (like those in Bacolod City) now fill up the streets and head its way towards the city center.

Crossing Tamontaka River

As we crossed Tamontaka River, I looked at the left side of me, the river was placid and the sun shines hard that noon. I just passed by Maguindanao—once more, but will come back again later on my way home. For now, I head to Cotabato City to satisfy my curiosity with Bolkiah’s mosque and have a grand time of nostalgia. Bai Maguindanao that I saw that day was the Bai Maguindanao that was placid. Yet I can see in her “eyes” that she got knocked out, and still struggling to get up again.

(To be continued…)

The map of my journey to Maguindanao

View My Journey to Cotabato City through Maguindanao in a larger map

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1 comment to Don’t Tell my Mom That I was in Maguindanao

  • Cedric

    It looks like a very beautiful place. It’s just sad that it’s gotten a bad rap because of everything that’s happened in it in the past. :(

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