“I will prove to them I am right”
A week after being granted the privilege of the writ of amparo, Raymond led the fact-finding mission to the military camp. Before the sun rose, Raymond had already identified the camp layout while other mission members set up tents and cordoned areas where the possible gravesites were.
According to their observations, there was painstaking effort to erase the camp’s footprint in the area. The concrete hut floors, the basketball court, the flag pole as well as the Marian grotto were broken up and thrown in a clump of bamboo trees about 100 meters away. All the holes were backfilled and the water pipes removed. Still, amid the shrubbery and the wildflowers that overrun the abandoned camp and under the sprawling shades of the dozen huge mango trees that blanketed the area, Raymond managed to identify the spot of every structure that stood in the military camp.
“Hindi ko aakalaing babalik pa ako rito. Takot ako, nanginginig, giniginaw. ‘Nung una kaming dinala rito, akala namin ay isa-salvage na kami,” Raymond said. (“I never thought I would come back here. I am afraid, shaking, and I feel cold. When we were first taken here, we thought we would already be summarily executed.”)
By the time the CHR team arrived by mid-morning, the mission was ready to dig and document whatever could be found in the area.
At noontime, De Lima arrived from Manila and conducted an ocular inspection of the possible gravesites. She also ordered additional diggers to complement the Karapatan team who found the stony soil difficult to penetrate beyond a foot and a half.
The first four holes in three possible gravesites produced negative results. But there were signs of unusual human activity such as burnt tarpaulins, tabletop covers, shoes, among others. Raymond identified one shirt that might have belonged to Cadapan. The anthropologists also confirmed that some of the spots pinpointed by Raymond bore “disturbances” by human activity.
As dusk neared on the mission’s first day, a fifth hole was dug which the experts said was “promising” as the soil was still soft and comparatively loose past two feet. It was then that the experts ordered a halt to the diggings on account of the approaching darkness.
Night falls on the mission camp
Under the pale light thrown by old-fashioned “petromax” lamps, the remaining 30 or so human rights workers ate dinner while a squad of Philippine National Police-Regional Mobile Group troopers kept a somewhat loose perimeter security. Before dinner was over heavy rains fell on the camp, overturning tents and soaking both mission members and their clothing and equipment. The victims’ relatives bussed back to Manila due to security considerations, along with some Manila-based journalists. Only then did the CHR-sourced generator arrive from the town proper to provide electricity.
By 7 pm, when the rain stopped, the mission members slept with their wet clothes and soaked sleeping provisions. The generator was turned off an hour later and the last mobile phone calls and text messages were sent. Even the police retreated inside their tents and vehicles.
The mission’s second day started with a briefing between the CHR, UP and Karapatan teams. Datar expressed confidence that if Raymond was telling the truth, they would find human remains such as small bones of the hand and feet. “These are the things that betray the perpetrators of the crime,” he said.
But that morning provided more disappointments. Site Three was abandoned after it produced no convincing evidence. A new site was opened in the hope of more positive results. Datar interviewed Raymond several times and asked him to walk from the camp’s edge to where he thought Merino was taken at least four times. Raymond also informed the expert that he remembers Merino was wearing an old pair of yellow “Beach Walk” flip-flops. Assured that Raymond was certain about his coordinates and facts, Datar ordered the widening of Site One.
While standing on the edge of the camp Raymond found clothing on the ground, nearly covered with soil. When he picked it up, he identified it to have belonged to Caigas. “Shorts ito ni Caigas. ‘Basic Wear’ ang tatak. Siya lang ang meron nito—pantulog niya,” he said. (These are Caigas’ ‘Basic Wear’ brand short pants. Only he had them—as sleepwear.”) He said he was certain because he washed the soldiers’ dirty laundry.
At exactly 12:30 pm, anticipation gripped team members on Site One. What was thought to be just a layer of burnt wood close to the surface yielded a four-centimeter splinter, which Datar immediately identified as human bone. He then ordered a wider surface scraping of the site. Before the team decided to take a delayed lunch break the hole already produced 15 more bone pieces.
When digging resumed more bones were found on the burnt-out hole. At 3:45 pm, Datar’s graduate assistant struck another vital piece of evidence—an overturned slipper found on the edge of the small cavity with yellow straps and bearing the brand name “Beach Walk.” When Raymond saw the article, he exclaimed “’Yan ‘yun! Kay ‘Tay Manuel! ‘Yan ‘yun!” (That’s it! That’s old man Manuel’s. That’s it!) Datar then said, “Positive na tayo.” (“We are already positive about this grave site.”) A few minutes later a simple ring band was also found as well as a human vertebra.