ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – The dead go first, packed into the bed of a city truck. The convoy drives through the near-empty streets, past military checkpoints and shuttered stores.
There are 11 bodies, piled two layers deep, each corpse rolled in blue tarp, the ends secured with rope and packing tape.
The convoy moves fast, ripping down the highway until it trundles into the rutted narrow road cutting through Mercedes Public Cemetery. It stops before a hole in the ground, two meters deep, a few meters wide and widening by the minute as a yellow backhoe eats away at the packed soil. Volunteers pour out of vehicles, mostly young people in jeans and bright shirts who stand watching on piles of earth.
The burying man
The man in charge is in his early sixties. He wears a skullcap and a green government-issued vest. He is short and squat, glasses pushed up to his forehead.
The trouble, says Ustadz Jamad, is that people see a Muslim with a machine gun and assume the man stands for all Muslims. It should not be. A man who does wrong stands for himself and no one else.
The people call him Ustadz. Today is his sixth day in a cemetery since Zamboanga City went up in smoke. Before Habier Malik marched into the city followed by more than 200 armed men to declare the independence of the Bangsamoro Republic, Ustadz Adulquddos Sanday Jamad sat in the office of the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos, translating Arabic text to English for anyone who cared to ask.
Today he watches the bodies, a translator conscripted into war service by virtue of being the only imam in Zamboanga City working for the government’s Muslim commission. He has supervised the burial of over 143 rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front in the span of 3 weeks. Of the 143, three are women, most are older men in their forties, fifties, sixties, with bullet wounds in head and chest and gut.
He does not know the names of the rebels. His job means picking up the phone and saying yes when the government requests another burial. Then he drives down to Villa Funeral Homes, just outside the conflict zone in Sta. Catalina, to take the bodies and load them into the back of a government truck for one last trip down a Zamboanga highway.
Following Islamic tradition, he says, the bodies should be washed soon after death. Each body should be wrapped in clean white cloth, and lowered into a fresh-dug grave while surrounded by grieving family and friends, with an imam leading prayers.
Here, the white wrapping is obscured by the second layer of plastic tarp to tamp down on the stench of the dead. There are no individual graves, just a hole in the ground now almost a dozen feet long, 6 feet deep and 6 feet wide.
It is too difficult to bury individually, says Jamad, not with bodies coming in daily. Some of them have been recovered from sewers and bolt holes, many of them have been exposed for days before they are hauled in. There is no time to dig graves one by one, no family to claim the bodies, there is only Ustadz Jamad to check off numbers on a list and a clock that ticks towards sunset.
As for prayers, he will not pray. God, he says, will take care of them.
The men who pray
The bodies are lowered one at a time. A cadaver is rolled from the truck bed into a large blue tarp, and is lowered down into the waiting arms of four men who stand at the bottom of the grave. The bodies are laid out, side by side, shoulder to rotting shoulder.
This is the image from above: A rectangle, long and deep, the macabre image of a Christmas candy box filled with treats wrapped in cheerful blue.
The men climb out. The volunteers begin stripping off their used gloves. One by one, then in threes and fours, the white latex floats down to land over the bodies. From afar, they look like rose petals.
The cemetery empties. It is quiet. The only sound is the whine of the backhoe. It rolls back, its operator maneuvering from inside the glassed-in cab.
The man inside is Ariel Malicay, Heavy Equipment Operator 1 from the Office of the City Engineer. He has been working for the city for 20 years, a 36-year-old father of one from Sta. Maria, Zamboanga City. It takes him another 20 minutes to fill the grave. When he is done, all that is left is a flat field, newly plowed.
He drops down from his perch on the big machine, a lanky bald man in a white shirt and glasses.
Another man joins him, heavyset, sweating from the heat, the driver of the truck that carried the corpses.
Call me Sunny, he says.
His ID says Sunny Boy Arriola, Driver 1. Sunny has worked for the city 10 years. Like Ariel, he serves wherever he is assigned. These days he ferries the dead.
Both of them work in city construction. Once a year, they are called to bury the city’s accumulated dead—the unclaimed, left behind by disease or accident, the homeless and the hopeless. In the last few weeks, they have buried more than they have in years.
Sunny has seen the bodies, the holes in the corpses’ heads. Ariel has trouble sleeping at night. The dead stay with him, and they weigh heavy.
He crouches down on the dirt, holding a handful of candles. He lays them down, then lights them. Stretches his hands over them. Sunny does the same.
They stand at the center of the fresh grave and pray.
The smell of a dead soul
They do this, after every burial. Ariel buys the candles, P45 for every set. They wait until the cemetery empties, because they are Christian, and worry they will offend Muslims by their small ritual.
They admit they know little about the battle that raged in the city, only that Zamboanga City is at a standstill and there is some sort of war. They have noticed no family comes to the funerals. Those they have buried may be bad men, rebels and killers, but the dead are dead, they say, and the two of them will stand for what family cannot be here today.
The smell stays with a man, says Sunny. Every night, he strips before he walks through the gate of his house in Putik, where his wife and 3 children wait. He does not want to bring the smell of the dead into his home.
He is philosophical. It may be a job he is uncomfortable with, but it is better to do the burying, instead of being the one loaded into the back of the white truck.
It is quiet, almost sunset. The men finish their prayers.
They walk to their vehicles, Sunny to his truck, Ariel up to the cab of his backhoe. They drive away, bringing the dead with them.
The army of the lost
In Sta. Barbara, members of the Special Action Force slog through the rain, digging for bodies rotting under schoolhouses. In Lunzuran, a couple sits blank-eyed in an aunt’s home, two weeks after their small son died in the crossfire with a bullet in his head. In the Enriquez Stadium, a family of eight that ran barefoot from the fires of Rio Hondo is told there is no home to return to.
There is a price to any war, and in the dim light of the Mercedes Public Cementery, far away from the flag-wrapped coffins of the young soldiers who offered their lives to the Republic, lie 11 faceless men who may or may not have chosen to pay that price.
The Philippine National Police say all those who have been buried in mass graves are MNLF rebels. Ustadz Jamad is not certain. Perhaps some are civilians.
According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, 249 MNLF rebels have been killed in the three weeks of the Zamboanga crisis. Ustadz Jamad has buried only 143. He does not know if there are more.
The men who bury the dead do what they must. They are family men and praying men, whether imam or truck driver or backhoe operator, all government workers who have seen their city reduced to rubble. They will describe how a man looks when his head is shattered by an M14 bullet. They will talk about the stench that clings to shirt and shoes.
Mostly they will say this—that this is a war they do not understand, and they hope this grave is the last grave they will be asked to prepare.- Rappler
Video directed and edited by Paolo Villaluna, written and produced by Patricia Evangelista, with cinematography by Raymund Amonoy. Research by Joseph Suarez.