The Mourners of Mamasapano

They are the wives of dead rebels, the mothers of lost children, the women who watch the sky and wait for the mortars to fall. Welcome to Mamasapano, where the government’s terrorists are the men their people call heroes.

Text and Photos By Patricia Evangelista

10:33 AM, Feb 18, 2015


It is a quiet town. There is a river. There are cornfields. There is a main street, a clinic, a barbershop, a number of small roadside stores. Electricity is rare; water is pumped out of wells. In the afternoons, groups of children toss balls in the field.

It is a pastoral postcard, marred by the occasional odd image. Bullet holes, for example, on the moorings of a wooden bridge. Unexploded M32 slugs half-buried in the cornfield. A chalk drawing, on the wall of a classroom, of fishermen on a boat with a helicopter overhead dropping bombs into the water.

This is Mamasapano, population 22,354, stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The wide swathe of fields and villages are swallowed by the Liguasan Marsh every June. Once it was called Manganoy, until it was named for the eldest son of Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. Here, the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front live among the community – they are the elected village captains, they are farmers, they are fishermen with waterlogged fingernails, they are the men who ruffle the hair of the barefoot babies toddling down the road. Many of them have seen action, most were once part of Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front, have cousins among the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, some of whom live in the heat of small huts.

The people here know how to disappear. How to crouch, in the dark, at the sound of gunfire. How to pack, fast, gathering children and food and changes of clothing. How to run, when the floodwater comes and rises to the waist.

It is a town of water lilies, says a local official. They move away when the prow of a boat cuts into the water; they slip back into place once the danger is past.

Now there is blood soaking the water lilies. It is scarcely metaphorical. It was among the water lilies, after all, that the last bleeding survivor of the 55th Battalion of the Police Special Action Force hid after 35 of his comrades fell in the cornfields of Tukanalipao.

The dead range in age, gender and religion, from the terribly young to the not quite old. Some of them were recognizable when they were found, others were identified only by the clothes they wore. Some were buried to the sound of trumpets under the flag of the republic, others were wrapped in white, while wife and children sat in huts unaware of their loss. The dead include an 8-year-old girl with a speech defect, a 37-year-old rebel with an infant child, a farmer who wandered into the killing field with a flashlight and a cellphone, a former security guard, a one-time veterinary student, a medic, a man planning his wedding, a Moro policeman, a new father, a father of 2. They came from all over the country, and died, sprawled in the dirt of Bangsamoro.

The toll is high, 65 from the government’s official count.

Former Police Special Action Force chief Getulio Napeñas claims a different number.

He has no doubt his men shot down at least 250.



What Nadia saw

Nadia Kasim's husband was young when he joined the MILF. She knew he was a rebel when she was a 15-year-old in her sophomore year in high school. He was not very tall, but he was good-looking and kind, and would pick her up from class every day. It was a short courtship, she says, giggling with the memory. They were married soon after.

When the peace agreement was signed, he was so happy he joined a peace rally. He had great plans for his family.

Every day she would wake up at 6 in the morning to cook rice and eggs. He would go out to the fields and work whatever crop was in season. At night we would come home to play with the children, chasing the laughing 5-year-old boy, tossing their baby girl.

He was an affectionate man, with no real vices. Except for the smoking, she says smiling.

The last she saw him alive was before dawn, when he left with the other rebels to avoid the fighting. It was what the rebels were ordered to do, what they always did at the sound of gunfire. Ever since the ceasefire, even before it, they were told to run with their guns when battle came to the community.

There was a gathering place, said an MILF leader. They were to remove themselves as targets and avoid involvement. The trouble, he said, was that the police beat them to it.

Nadia’s husband was found just after the crossing of the Tukanalipao bridge.

At noon, she walked to the mosque with her son. Her husband was laid out on the ground, a bullet in his elbow and on his side. He was one of the few whose head hadn't been shattered.

He was still good-looking.

How they lost Sarah

It looks, at first glance, like a hole on the woman’s face. It begins from a cut under her eye, then opens into a tear-shaped crater that closes just above her cheekbone – almost as if someone had shoved a long fingernail into the surface of a fondant cake and dug deep. Samrah’s toddler son screams whenever he sees her face. She has given up his care to a relative, even if it hurts her to let him go.

Samrah is 37, has been married for 15 years. Neither Samrah nor her husband Tots knew where the gunfire came from. It was before dawn on a Sunday, and the whole family – Samrah, Tots, and the 2 children – lay sleeping on a mat. They woke to the sound of heavy shooting. Husband and wife grabbed the children and ran outside, to the yard. They crouched in the dirt, in the shadows, pushing their faces into the ground.

The bullets flew, fast and thick.

One ripped against Samrah’s cheek. The blood pumped out. There was nothing to hold against the wound, because the nights were hot and the family slept with as little clothing as possible. She crawled to the house, one hand stretched out, then found the first piece of cloth she could reach and wadded it to staunch the blood. When she returned, the family crawled to hide by a nearby stream. Tots was bleeding from a graze on the shoulder.

Nobody noticed the other bullet, the one that found its way into the side of 8-year-old Sarah.

When Saad was shot

Lokande Butuan ran at the sound of gunfire. She ran towards the fighting, not away.

She and her children had been visiting another village, but early in the morning Lokande had sent Saad home to tend to the family carabao.

She ran, down dirt paths and through fields, ran again when she discovered her son hadn't made it home. For 2 hours she searched. The sun rose, and still Saad didn't come home.

They brought him home in the cab of a tricycle. They had laid him inside, a 15-year-old boy with a bullet in his chest. He was covered in blood.

Lokande fainted.

She woke to screaming. A cousin shook her - your son is still alive.

When he opened his eyes in a hospital 3 days later, Lokande was there, waiting.

Ma, he asked, why did you send me home?

She asks herself the same question, every day.

What Suweb said

Suweb Kemod called his wives love. Tayan, he would say, tayan.

He was kind, says his second wife Norma. Suweb’s first wife Farida only smiles under the blue veil.

Between the 2 women they have 5 children, the youngest is barely a year old.

Suweb - whose name means sweet – is from the MILF Headquarters Unit, under the command of Abdulhak. He was the first in the family to hear the gunfire.

Norma asked him where he was going. Away, he said, to avoid the fight.

Norma and Farida told the children to be quiet. They told them to crouch, to hide, because the women were afraid of stray bullets.

Information trickled out at noon. There were injured men. There were dead men. Her Suweb was dead.

Norma refused to believe them, until they brought his body home.

What Norma will say

When their infant son is grown, Norma will tell him how his father died. She has a new name for Suweb. She calls him shahid – martyr.

She is angry, but it does not matter because there is no one to be angry at. She is afraid, but not of bullets or mortars. She is afraid for the 5 children. Who will farm the fields? Who will pay for school? Who will be their father?

She knows the Moros are being blamed for all the deaths. She sees it. They blame Mindanao. Men come in and invade her home, and when they are hurt, when they die, it is still Mindanao at fault.

She is used to this - it is how it has always been. – Rappler.com