Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 10 April 14 - 20, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
‘Death Squad’ Claims 4 More Victims
Human rights worker-poet, 3 farmers killed in second massacre
After the shooting, villagers heard one of the paramilitary men boasting, “They’ve all been wiped out. They’re now in the afterlife. It’s already peaceful there. Go get them.”
Daisy C. Gonzales
and Carlos H. Conde
DAVAO CITY – Health worker Jasmine Badilla was giving basic health training to 21 peasants inside a church in a hinterland village when they heard gunshots that went on for about two minutes. “It sounded like bamboos cracking,” Badilla, who works for the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development Inc., says. And it sounded so near.
In fact, the shots were fired in sitio Bukatol, barangay Kinawayan, about three kilometers from sitio Sariri, barangay Caridad, in Arakan town, North Cotabato, where Badilla was teaching Lumad peasants how to do First aid and how to use herbs to treat common illnesses. The villagers were alarmed, Badilla recalls. “They wanted the gunshots checked immediately,” she says. It was about noontime on April 5, 2002.
At around 2 p.m., a group of paramilitary men known as Cafgus (Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit) passed by Sariri. They came from where the gunshots had been fired and, according to villagers, one of the Cafgus declared: “They are all dead! If they’re allowed to live, they would come back here.”
The declaration was chilling because last year, not very far from Bukatol, a group of peasants had been massacred by paramilitary men in sitio Tababa. The case remains unsolved up to this day.
The villagers took it upon themselves to organize a group of about 40 of them to go to Bukatol. What they found there was pure carnage.
Dahilis Lagkoman, the 45-year-old barangay captain of barangay Kinawayan, was one of those who went to Bukatol. “The bodies were on the ground, in front of the porch of a house,” he says. “The bodies” were those of Benjaline Hernandez, 22; Vivian Andrade, 18; Crisanto Amora, 23; and Labaon Sinunday, in his 30s. All of them, notes Lagkoman, had their arms raised, “as though they were parrying blows or were in an act of surrender.”
Inside the hut lay the only testament to the victims’ last few moments: the food that they were about to partake had been prepared.
The villagers brought the bodies to the church in Sariri where Badilla was conducting the training. Badilla knew Hernandez, who was known to friends and relatives as Beng. “But I couldn’t recognize her,” Badilla says, because her face was so horribly disfigured. “All that was intact was her forehead. Her jaw was shattered. Her eyes were open.”
Badilla touched Hernandez’s head. “It was so soft,” she says. The human-rights alliance Karapatan, where Hernandez was the deputy secretary-general for Mindanao, said in a statement on April 8 that Hernandez “was apparently riddled with bullet wounds in the neck, upper right chest and left palm. Her skull was crushed, seemingly hit with a blunt object. Her mouth, jaw and teeth were disfigured by the exiting bullet (that hit her) neck. Bruises were found on her face, hands and body. Her chest was also burned, an indication she was shot at close range.”
The statement signed by Karapatan chairman Bishop Felixberto Calang of the Philippine Independent Church also pointed out that Amora was hit in the head and stomach while Andrade’s head was blown off. Sinunday managed to run a few meters, according to witnesses, but was shot nonetheless.
The culprits, according to Karapatan and its witnesses, were elements of Cafgus led by a staff sergeant of the 12th Special Forces Company in Arakan Valley. Karapatan said six Cafgus, “without warning,” strafed the hut where the four were about to take lunch. The four managed to jump out of the hut but were rounded up by the Cafgus, who pushed them to the ground. One eyewitness told Karapatan that he heard one of the victims pleading: “Enough, please. We are hurt and we have to see the doctor.”
After the shooting, villagers heard one of the Cafgus boasting that “they’ve all been wiped out. They’re now in the afterlife. It’s already peaceful there. Go get them.”
Residents also heard another Cafgu saying, “You should have seen how the women cried!” This indicates, according to Karapatan, that Hernandez and Andrade were pleading for mercy. During the initial examination of Hernandez’s remains, witnesses said they saw what could only be tear “marks” down her cheeks.
To friends, relatives and fellow activists, Hernandez’s death was particularly painful. At the time of her death, Hernandez was involved in human-rights work while at the same time serving as the vice president for Mindanao of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. She was a student at the Ateneo de Davao where she was also one of the editors of the school paper Atenews.
Her colleagues in Karapatan said Hernandez was in Arakan to follow-up on the Tababa massacre case, which Karapatan had investigated. She was also there on the invitation of the Arakan Progressive People’s Organizations (APPO) to do a research on the peasants’ situation in the area.
Italian priest Fr. Fausto Tentorio PIME, executive director of the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development Inc., remembers receiving Hernandez sometime in the first week of March. “It was like a courtesy visit to me by Beng as the areas covered by her research are part of the communities we are also serving,” Tentorio said during a press conference last week. “She was also going to check on the victims and survivors of the Tababa killings. She explained that she led the fact-finding mission on that incident and that Karapatan is making a post-incident documentation,” the priest added.
The Arakan Massacre, as it has come to be known, elicited widespread condemnation in Mindanao. “While Karapatan has previously documented and condemned several cases of human-rights violations inflicted on hapless civilians and violations of international humanitarian laws, the murder of Hernandez signals an alarming development in the human-rights situation now prevailing in the country,” says PIC Bishop Felixberto Calang. The murders, he adds, “signals a dangerous trend toward physical elimination by the AFP of people whom they perceive as obstacles to their fascist and terrorist acts especially in the rural areas.”
Bayan Muna Rep. Crispin Beltran, who flew in here to condole with the victims’ families, condemned the massacre and promised to initiate a congressional investigation into the case.
Bayan Muna national deputy secretary-general Robert de Castro, in a eulogy at Hernandez’s wake here last week, said the massacre was just the latest in a series of violence directed at activists and progressives, particularly those from Bayan Muna, which saw its leaders nationwide being killed one after the other this past year.
Davao City councilor Angela Librado, a former CEGP officer herself, also raised alarm over the violence targeted at individuals like Hernandez. She has since asked the national government to disband the Cafgus, whom she blamed for many human-rights violations in the countryside.
“The AFP is gratified with the performance of the Cafgus as these paramilitary elements are the vilest (and low-cost) implementors of the government’s anti-insurgency campaign,” she said in a statement. “Beng’s cold-blooded murder by her Cafgu captors poses further questions on the continued Cafgu recruitment. Cafgus are modern-day atrocious CHDFs of the Marcos martial law years,” she said. She described Cafgus as “terrorists in the midst of poor hinterland villages.”
Lagkoman, the barangay captain, says his constituents are worried about the presence of Cafgus. “They behave like they own our place. They throw their weight around. They have no respect for civilian authority. The government should do something about this,” he says.
Even Fr. Tentorio, while admitting that he has friends in the communities who are Cafgus, is likewise alarmed by the abuses committed by the paramilitary men. He thinks that within the Cafgu organization in Arakan Valley, there reigns a “death squad that does the dirty work.”
The military has denied any violation of human rights in the Arakan Massacre. Maj. Julieto Ando, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division based in Cotabato City, said Hernandez was with a group of New People’s Army and that the killings were the result of a “legitimate encounter.” He said the Cafgus were alerted about the presence of the NPA and immediately checked out the area. He added: “Our soldiers are trained to respect human rights.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines did not stop there, however. Last week, they released to the media a supposed diary of Hernandez that, the military implied, proved that she was an NPA member.
The military in Southern Mindanao also released a statement by 701st Infantry Brigade spokesperson Maj. Vic Tomas that said “Beng was also our friend.” Tomas’s statement also said that Hernandez had supposedly been in contact with the AFP, implying that she had been friendly with them. Tomas also said that Hernandez had grown disillusioned with Karapatan and that because of this she was “punished” by sending her to the countryside.
“Whoever sent Beng… to Arakan should be equally liable and responsible for their deaths. Allowing NPA armed men to act as their security made them as baits for government forces conducting security patrols in that area,” Tomas said.
Tomas’s statement was condemned by Hernandez’s colleagues, friends and relatives. Joel Virador, Karapatan’s secretary-general and Hernandez’s direct superior, criticized Tomas for sowing intrigue against the group. “He can now say whatever he wants to say about Beng and about us because Beng is not here anymore to refute him,” Virador says. Virador also calls the release of the alleged diary of Hernandez as a “cheap shot” aimed at sowing further intrigue.
Hernandez was buried here on Saturday in a simple funeral. Prior to that, she was honored by all sorts of people from Southern Mindanao, many of them vowing to continue the human-rights work that she had been doing. One of her friends said: “They may have killed her but not the idea that she fought for – an idea of justice, equality and freedom.” Bulatlat.com