MAGUINDANAO, Philippines - I was in Maguindanao in November 23, 2012, when I heard on the radio a news report quoting Senator Franklin Drilon questioning how the Ampatuans made it to the list of nominees of Liberal Party for the 2013 elections.
It took me a few seconds before I was able to grapple on my mind whatever memory I can recollect of whose name from the Ampatuans are running under the banner of Liberal Party: Board Members Yasser and Sarip Ampatuan.
They are relatives indeed, with one root.
The question on their inclusion in the list of Liberal Party was based on the premise that people who are involved in the massacre should not be included and those who are allied with the family of Andal Ampatuan Sr. should not be accorded the opportunity to drag down the political party that President Benigno Aquino belongs to.
The other Ampatuans
I remember meeting Yasser in 2011 -- he with a balding pate, salt and pepper whiskers, and very comic.
"Jorge, si Yasser. Ampatuan iyan,” said Governor Esmael Mangudadatu when we were introduced, followed by a laughter and giggles from other people in the group who were with the governor at that time.
"Pero mas gwapo ako sa mga iyun," said Yasser as he took off his dark black sporty sunglass from his face.
Then, another man stood from his chair and reached out his hand to me. As we shook our hand, the governor said, "isa pa yan, Ampatuan din," triggering another volley of laughter from the group.
"Sarip," said the man in introducing himself. He then smiled as he let go of the grip from our handshake.
They said they are members of the provincial board. I asked if they are just namesakes or really related to the Ampatuans.
Yasser said he is a nephew of the former governor, while Sarip is a stepbrother.
That meeting was the first, and each time I would visit the province, we would bump into each other and have an exchange of the usual jokes.
They are estranged with Datu Andal Sr., and most of the stories they told me are about their hatred for the former governor's family.
I'm not in the business of fanning the flames of perception and speculation, which is already prevalent against the family of the former governor.
I know in my heart that journalists should only deal with facts and methodically tell the story with precision and relevance.
I saw them when they took their oath as members of Liberal Party in Balai in Cubao, Quezon City, with other newly sworn members of the party from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
I saw them again when they filed their certificates of candidacy in Cotabato City on October 4, 2012.
Yasser will run for a seat in the assembly of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, while Sarip is running for mayor in his hometown in Shariif Aguak municipality.
Prejudice against Ampatuans
"Sinabi ni Drilon na iimbestigahan ng Partido Liberal kung paanong napasok ang pangalan ng mga Ampatuan," as I heard the radio announcer reading the news article, over cracks and hisses on the car stereo.
|Incumbent ARMM Governor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu. Photo by Jay Directo, AFP|
We were heading then toward Ampatuan, Maguindanao, to cover the commemoration ceremonies for the 3rd anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.
To my surprise, Sarip arived on the massacre site, followed minutes later by Yasser.
They spoke before the gathered crowd and condemned the massacre, while appealing to the people not to judge each and every Ampatuan, since not all of them were part of the massacre.
Their presence at the commemoration of the massacre was highighted in the early evening news programs of Philippine TV networks.
Three weeks later, I did an interview with Sarip and he couldn't forget that day at the massacre site.
He admitted that he was bothered the first time he heard the news of the question posed by Drilon against their inclusion in the Liberal Party.
"Pagkarinig ko sa usapan diyan at narinig ko na binitawan ng ating mahal na senador, eh medyo nakabahan din ako, napaano, bakit ganun ang mangyayari sa amin," said Sarip.
Looking down and shaking his head in disbelief, Sarip said they are not involved in the massacre.
"Kaya hindi ko natiis na nakapunta ako doon sa Maguindanao site, Maguindanao massacre site ng ganun para gusto ko magbigay at makapagsalita na ang dapat kong sabihin dun para para malaman ng taong bayan ang aking katayuan," he said.
Sarip said that he has been sufffering in silence since 2009.
He recalled that whenever he would go to Manila, people would whisper in groups and look suspiciously at him after learning that he is an Ampatuan.
Ampatuans with Mangudadatu
According to Mangudadatu, Sarip is a younger stepbrother of Datu Andal Sr., but disavowed by the former governor, in the name of politics.
"Hindi binibigyan ng kumbaga, puwang or butas na mamuno or magserbisyo dito sa bayan nila," said Mangudadatu in explaining the rift between the brothers.
According to the governor, Yasser has more reasons to hate the old man Ampatuan.
"Si Yasser Ampatuan, itong board member na tumatakbong assemblyman ngayon, ang kapatid nya mismo ang binaril ni Andal Ampatuan Sr. ng nagdeclare sya nung 2001 ata yun ng ah pagka-alkalde sa Shariff Aguak at lalaban kay Andal Sr," said Mangudadatu.
It was only then when I began to understand why they hated the former governor.
With former Governor Datu Andal Sr. in detention, Sarip found a chance to pursue his ambition to run as mayor in his hometown, under the Liberal Party, headed in the province by Mangudadatu.
Asked why he joined Mangudadatu and did not stick with kin in the Ampatuan clan, Sarip said "nakikita ko po ng sa 100% ng programa ng ating pamahalaan na mga 80% na-accomplish nya at nakikita ko po ang ginawa nya para sa kabutihan ng maraming tao."
Sarip said he talked with the other members of the Ampatuan family regarding his decision to avoid misunderstanding.
"Ang sinabi ko naman sa kanila, itong eleksyon natin dito, na bilang tayo lang clan ng Ampatuan, ang pag-aagawan natin dito yung kagustuhan ng tao," said Sarip.
'Not all Ampatuans are bad'
On previous occassions, in different and separate media interviews, Mangudadatu told reporters that not all people with the surname Ampatuan should be condemned.
Yasser and Sarip are among those that he explicitly mentioned.
In an undated photo shown to me, a candid shot shows the governor exchanging pleasantries with Mayor Zahara Ampatuan of Shariff Aguak town at a gathering of local government leaders of the province in Cotabato City.
|The other Ampatuan, Sarip Ampatuan. Photo by Dessa Jimenez for ABS-CBNnews.com|
"Nagtatawanan kami nung time na yun, kasi napag-usapan namin nung nagsisimula pa kami ng negosyo namin nung 1990’s ako ang supplier nila ng bangus, pero puro utang kasi kami nun," Mangudadatu said.
He said he never looks down on each bearing the name Ampatuan. "Hindi ko nilalahat yan Jorge, ang daliri nga natin, mismo ito, sarili natin, hindi ito magkakaparehas ng sukat. So hindi naman pwede, masama naman sa tingin ng panginoon yun, lahatin mo, isali mo kahit na walang kasalanan," he said.
I had personal encounters with the Ampatuans, those who are close with former Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr.
On one occasion, during the media coverage of the massacre trial in Bicutan, Taguig, former acting Governor Zajid Ampatuan gazed to his left, while was being led upstairs to return to his detention cell.
His eyes met mine, and he shouted my name while smiling. "Kumusta ka na?" Zajid asked with a smile.
I replied accordingly and before the 15-second conversation ended, he called out his father, Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr., to introduce me with a gesture of a his hands that were bounded in handcuffs.
The old man Ampatuan was scaling the stairs, but struggled to lean to his left to give a smile at me, before disappearing from my view.
That only was the second time that I saw Zajid, yet he remembered my name.
The first time was at the height of investigation on the 2009 massacre, when the police was raided his house looking for weapons or other pieces of evidence.
During the search, I did an interview with him and asked for his sentiment on the indictment of his family in the massacre.
After a short interview, he gave me a pat on the back and said, "Ikaw lang yata ang mediaman na nag-abala na magtanong sa akin kung ano nararamdaman ko, lahat yata galit na sa amin."
And ow can I forget a young lady in Shariff Aguak named Mae Ampatuan whom I met by accident, while my team was in a news coverage of the exhumation authorized by the Department of Justice to look for supposed a mass grave and skeletal remains of victims of Ampatuan atrocities.
We were running in circles, looking for the NBI and PNP Crime Lab team doing the exhumation, and we decided to go back to the national highway and ask for directions.
Mae, whose name I later found out, was then standing outside their house, so we decided to pull down on the side of the road and asked her for directions.
When I opened the car window, she smiled and said "Ay, ikaw yung reporter ng ABS-CBN! Ikaw ha, bias ka sa amin ha!"
I just smiled with what she said and courteously asked for directions. She politely talked to us, but before leaving, she asked me if she can have a picture with me in her camera phone.
I obliged and after that snapshot, she introduced herself to me, saying she is a niece of the old man Ampatuan.
She smiled at us before we left.