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WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Thanatourism at Barangay Salman

AMPATUAN, Maguindanao (MindaNews/25 November) — “It’s not like how it was five years ago. I do travel at night now. I would not do that before,” confided Rene.

We were a kilometer off the Isulan roundball on the road that leads off to Sultan sa Baronguis, feasting on duck adobo, grilled hito, and fruit salad. Rene had excitedly kidnapped us from the lone fastfood on the town’s main road. He was insistent that we needed to come down to his roadside eatery. Kayle Kambingan, that’s what it says on the tarp. But at 3:30pm, goat dishes on the menu were all gone. Truckers happily feast on them as early as 4:00am.

“Sixteen dishes,” beamed Rene’s wife Miriam, referring to the daily menu. They’ve been steadily adding more tables in the last two years, courtesy of the brisk traffic coming and going to the banana plantation that opened in SSB.

The duck was to die for.

We stayed for the replay of the last three rounds of the Hungry for Glory bout where the Pacman lorded victorious over the spunky American kid who just bounced right back up every time he hit the floor. That wasn’t too bad. The Pacman had perfected the art of giving the audience their money’s worth. Everybody happy – even Chris Algieri. He didn’t look like he was hurt too bad.

The hospitality of Kayle’s Kambingan was a welcome cool down from witnessing dark tourism hours earlier up there in Barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Five years ago, Carol and I were having lunch with my ex-friend at a Chinese restaurant in Roxas Street when Fr. Bert Alejo’s frantic text came in about needing to mount a search for missing journalists. Carol and I began to be alarmed when everyone we called turned hushed and cautious about providing any lead. MindaNews knew people out there, and we heaved a sigh of relief when Carol finally reached some of them. They said they did not go with the Mangudadatu convoy, and they were as yet unsure then about what exactly happened.

Later that night, we had our first look at the pictures. I remember feeling so stupid about needing the help of the computer lab boys to open the file. I thought I shouldn’t let anyone else see, but I really need help when it comes to working electronic data. A few weeks later, these gruesome pictures would be on bootleg DVDs and selling like hotcakes on the sidewalk.

“It wasn’t this way the first time,” mused Toto Lozano as we hiked the last kilometer going up to the covered court where Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was scheduled at high noon to address the crowd gathered for the fifth year commemoration of the most heinous crime in the recent history of the Philippines. Fifty-eight people died here. Many among their mangled remains were found where the covered court now stands.

To the left of the stairs leading up to the covered court stands a concrete marker with the names of the victims inscribed. Next to it is a gated enclosure where 58 narrow white slabs rise out of the ground, like candles on a birthday cake.

We got there when people were done loitering the commemorative graveyard. Up there on the hill, the sun beat down and the wind was still. I found it strange that there were no lighted candles. What little flowers laid out to remember the dead were parched and lifeless.

There was a mile-long stretch of cars parked on the edge of the narrow mountain road. As we walked by, we noticed that most of these were occupied and had their engine running. From the highway junction, a team of soldiers or paramilitary was posted every thirty meters. Sometimes we’d see them out in the open; other times we had to peer around a bit to locate them. Toto and I laughed as we passed the Simba parked off the road. It was hemmed in by vans parked on the roadside. Not that it needed to move much to get its job done when needed. I think Simbas are like my Gail-proof camera: Point and shoot.

I got a headache trying to compute how many cars laid end to end it would take to make 1.6 kilometers. I tried to crowd-count at the covered court instead. It was around four hundred at 11:00am, rising to about 600 when de Lima swept in with Maguindanao governor Toto Mangudadatu and their entourage. Suddenly finding myself at a height disadvantage, I made up for it by clambering up a concrete post. Yup – 600. But there were a lot more people in the cars parked out there, and it really made me wonder why they even bothered to come up this God forsaken road if they would not leave their cars.

Dark tourism. Sometimes I call it disaster tourism. It is a growth area that caters to people’s morbid fascination with places associated with death and tragedy. But perhaps Thanatourism would better capture what was going up there in the massacre site. The term refers to traveling to places associated with violent death, and not necessarily to condole with the grief-stricken.

Listening to the speeches, one gets a sense of a dawning realization of Maguindanao’s liberation from the tyrannical yoke of the 11th infantry division. The backlash from the brutal death of 58 people had indeed deposed the tyrant of Shariff Aguak. Today, people are starting not to feel fearful all the time. Rene in Isulan claims he now feels safe to travel at night.

However, it is the widows and orphans whose suffering has yet to end five years later. That is something that Thanatourists fail to see when they are locked up in their airconditioned cars, refusing to hear the speeches, pay respects to the dead, or condole with the bereaved.

At the covered court, they made 21-year-old Jergin sing her mother’s favorite song: Lolita Carbon’s rock ballad of nightmares vanishing in the wind, like smoke, like bubbles. Jergin was 16 when her mother was brutally taken away from her by monsters that, according to de Lima, should never be allowed to walk among us. At 21, Jergin had seen last year her 9-year-old brother dying of complications from diabetes. There’s very little a 21-year-old high school graduate could do to care for the little ones, and especially if they need special care.

Someday Jergin and her surviving siblings would get the justice de Lima promised. Meanwhile, the young ones don’t stop growing and needing minding that parents are supposed to provide.

Heck – at 21, she’s still a kid herself.

This – and others like this – is the continuing tragedy of the most heinous crime in the recent history of this country. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)

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