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This tragic affair

Bebot Momay took photos for Mindanao’s Midland Review. He was assigned to cover the filing of candidacy of Ismael Mangudadatu a few days before the Ampatuan massacre took place. The body of Bebot has not yet been found. Bebot was 61 years old.

They say the human voice is the barometer of emotion; one of the more expressive instruments known to man. Note how effectively parents use this to inspire a whole rainbow of emotions (aka fear) in their little rascals — simply by vocalizing the name. And unless you’re deaf or immune to social contact, it should be relatively easy to gauge when a voice is oozing with venom-laced sarcasm…or breaking with every stifled sob and choked breath. In my case, it was the latter. When I heard her voice catch and the words die down to a mere whisper, I knew she was falling apart. She recovered quickly, however, and apologized for the moment of weakness. The focus of our interview was the Ampatuan Massacre; and for Reynafe Momay — daughter of slain photographer Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay — no amount of tears were ever going to suffice for her father’s death.

Before going into this interview (which was an assignment for our UP student publication, the Philippine Collegian), I was at the mercy of thoughts threatening to override my already fragile nervous system. How was one to approach the sensitive topic of death (of the perverse, brutal, and baseless kind, might I add) without seeming like a callous idiot? Thankfully, Reynafe was the most gracious interviewee; filling in my awkward silences and soldiering on despite the grief. Listening to her story was one of the more horrifying, nerve-wracking, and genuinely touching experiences of my life, and no two-bit write-up I do can ever give it proper justice. I believe, however, that Reynafe’s tale is one of those classifiable as a “need-to-know” — and people definitely need to know.

Her father, Bebot—described as a mild-mannered yet adventurous old soul — took regular pictures for Mindanao’s Midland Review. He was assigned to cover the filing of candidacy papers for Ismael Mangudadatu a few days before the massacre took place. Bebot was 61 years old.

Skewed Circle

In the late afternoon of Nov. 23, after news of the massacre broke out, Reynafe received a call from one of her uncles. “Sabi ng uncle ko, ‘Nen! Narinig mo na ba ang nangyari sa Maguindanao? Alam mo ba kung ‘san Papa mo? ‘Di ba kasama siya sa convoy?’” recalls Reynafe. “Tumaas lahat ng balahibo ko ‘nun.”

Early the next day, Reynafe and her relatives set out for Koronadal, South Cotabato, where the first batch of cadavers had arrived. “Pinasukan ko ang mga funeral homes, tiningnan ko lahat ng katawan,” says Reynafe. “Hindi ko alam kung maiiyak ako sa awa o magagalit dahil sa kasamaan ng sistema.” Braving the stench of decay and the sight of mutilated bodies, at one point Reynafe thought she saw her father’s body. “May isang cadaver, kalahati na lang ng mukha natira, akala namin si Papa…pero hindi pala.” Unable to find Bebot, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, the search party finally went home just after midnight.

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On Nov. 25, while continuing their search, Reynafe received a lead that Bebot’s body had been identified by one of his media friends in Tacurong City. After rushing over to the site, the discovery proved to be a false alarm. The corpse before her had no dentures — Reynafe’s identifying marker for her father. “Sa sandaling ‘yun, nawalan na ako ng lakas,” says Reynafe. “Hindi na naman si Papa…halos nagwawala na ang mga pinsan ko, iyak lang kami ng iyak.” It was in the midst of their agony when a crew from Mindanao news channel UNTV claimed the cadaver as their own. The crew mentioned that they had almost taken a similar-looking corpse in Koronadal — if not for the dentures, which they found on the body.

Encouraged by the new lead, the search party once again began their return trip to Koronadal. At the designated funeral home, the group was met by Dr. Dean Cabrera — forensic expert of the PNP crime lab — who suggested a DNA test to verify the body once and for all. Last Nov. 28, DNA samples from Bebot’s siblings were sent to the crime lab, with the promise of results after 20 days.

With Christmas long over and 2010 still wet behind the ears, Reynafe and her relatives continue to hold out for the text message or phone call that would mark the end of their vigil. Though almost 60 days have passed, they have yet to receive any conclusive results about the corpse’s identity.

Broken Dreams

Reynafe’s story is echoed by the many others whose lives have been shattered by the Ampatuan Massacre; and more precisely, by the entrenched culture of political warlordism in Mindanao. But that’s an issue better left to the analysts. For now, it’s all about the victims; the living, breathing, human beings that got caught in the crossfire. 

It’s funny how it only took one person to put everything in perspective for me. Before having that opportunity to speak with Reynafe (even if it was a long-distance phone interview), I already viewed the massacre as something horrendous beyond words. Ultimately though, it was also something remote and alien to me. This was breaking news, the talk of the town, the hype of the day; but it was also something that a lot of people had no direct experience with. And even if everyone was a burbling fountain of mixed emotions after seeing the photos and watching the news, the fact remains that most of us probably have zero idea of what the families of the victims were really going through. When I listened to Reynafe, I realized that her father was more than just collateral damage, more than just a statistic on TV, and more than just a tragic prey of circumstance — Bebot was her family, her friend, and her greatest fan. I realized that blind sympathy was the absolute worst thing to offer — saying that things would turn out fine, or giving false hope without knowing anything about the situation at hand. I realized that some dreams really are portend of things to come, as well as a shadow of things that never will be.

Right now, more than wanting peace in war-torn Mindanao, more than demanding transparency in the highest levels of government, and more than seeking social justice — all Reyanfe wants is for her father’s body to be identified…and for people to never forget what happened last Nov. 23, 2009.

Reynafe isn’t naïve, however. She knows you can’t always get what you want.

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