Saturday, July 22, 2006

Meanwhile: Burying two friends on Mindanao

Orlando de Guzman
International Herald Tribune
Published: July 20, 2006

COTABATO, the Philippines
As a Filipino who grew up on the northern island of Luzon, Mindanao, in the south, has always had a magical allure - the myth of the Promised Land, blessed and cursed and claimed by a volatile mix of Christian cults, Moro rebels and tribal groups.

In spite of its dangers, Mindanao has beckoned me back many times. I preferred to see beyond Mindanao's faults and focus on the amazing people it produced, many who've become good friends.

Last month Mindanao called me back once again. This time it was to bury two journalist friends who were gunned down in broad daylight in Cotabato province.

George and Maricel Vigo were the kind of journalists I always aspired to become but knew I never had the guts.

When I first met them in 2001, they were struggling to publish their weekly tabloid, called the Headliner. They reported fearlessly on police corruption and abuse of power. They were just recovering from an arson attack at their office - Cotabato's version of a letter to the editor. The fire destroyed everything, but they were determined to start over again.

Back then I was writing about the insidious growth of right-wing militias in Mindanao. They have been around since the early 1970s, when President Ferdinand Marcos used them to fight the growing Muslim insurgency. Then, in the 1980s, they were unleashed to deal with the Communist rebels, the New People's Army. These vigilantes did not hold back when they slaughtered human rights workers, priests, farmers and journalists.

On June 17, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced a new military campaign against the NPA. She instructed her generals to "bring home the bacon" - a choice of words that can have macabre interpretations among vigilante groups.

George and Maricel are not the only journalists and activists to fall this year. They are victims of a growing lawlessness that prevails when you declare open season on an amorphous enemy.

In 2001, I spent a drunken evening at a karaoke bar with one of the militia's self-confessed backers, Joselito Piñol, in a violent town called Mlang. I recall arriving at the pub with Joselito's entourage of men bristling with shotguns, automatic weapons and grenades.

The next day, Piñol, the vice mayor of the town, showed me a factory where they manufactured a whole assortment of illegal weapons, including a machine gun with an obscenely long clip. He fired it off, and smiling, said, "This is for the use of the Ilaga," referring to a local vigilante group that made its reputation in the 1980s chopping up its victims.

I remember interviewing an Ilaga member who coolly related how he cut ears off his Communist prisoners. Bring home the bacon.

The brutality of local politics in Mindanao made the courage of journalists like George and Maricel all the more remarkable. I took comfort in the idea that somehow they were invincible.

They were gunned down on June 19 while driving home on their motorcycle to their five children. Their assailants followed them on two motorcycles, and the killer, riding pillion, fired on them point blank.

Two days after the killings, the police declared they had "70 percent of the case solved." The couple were Communists, the national chief of the police concluded, and their killer was also a Communist whom the NPA sent to kill them for spying for the military.

The police then had Maricel's mother sign what they called a "routine affidavit." She was in fact giving her approval to go ahead with a lawsuit against the NPA. The document was in English, a language she neither reads nor speaks.

Weeks before his death, George told friends that he was being followed by military intelligence. George also told friends that he was on a military blacklist. He had mentioned that his troubles began after he showed local officials a propaganda video mailed to him by NPA.

So far, it seems, the police seem more concerned with smearing the Vigos as Communists than finding the real murderer - who, as other campaigning journalists and activists in Mindanao are painfully aware, is still at large, along with whoever hired him.

Orlando de Guzman is an Indonesia-based radio journalist working for the BBC and Public Radio International.

Read the article in IHT

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


A silent protest march for George and Maricel was held on 30 June 2006, followed by a mass and all-night vigil. They were buried the following day.

By Orlando de Guzman

Here are a few photos of the silent protest march on June 30. I must admit that its been hard to think about all this. It’s all a blur. The rain, our tears, the burial, the long and lonely trip home.

George and Maricel’s murder has knocked the wind out of many of us. And I, like the rest of you, can’t help but despair at times about their deaths.

I would like to share with you some thoughts about death that have helped hope beyond hopelessness.

I like to believe that this is George and Maricel’s destiny -- that they wouldn’t have chosen any other way to go. And that they wanted to go together. Their life-long struggle for justice, peace and non-violence challenged the status quo. And this brought them closer to their destiny. They acted like all heroes have done before them, which is to go ahead and initiate their actions without regard for what destiny will bring them.

All our lives have an ending -- a limitation that we will one day reach. George and Maricel pushed that limitation, and in doing so bought themselves closer to that ending.

A few days after George and Maricel were killed, I came across the courageous words of Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke these words a few days before he -- like the Vigos -- was assassinated:

“I know that in pressing on for this justice and this cause I am challenging death.”

George and Maricel challenged death many times. Each time they brought themselves closer to their destiny. But they carried on, believing in the truth of their mission.

They used everything at their disposal to carry out their work. They were journalists first. When words and stories weren’t enough, they acted and got involved in organizations that offered alternatives to the violent and corrupt politics of Cotabato.

How many of us can claim this kind of courage?

At the vigil on June 30th in Kidapawan, I met many of George and Maricel’s friends. We sat together, our clothes soaking from the afternoon rain. We traded stories, and little by little the Vigos came to life in our conversations.

I hadn’t realized, for example, that during the height of the madness of President Estrada’s “All Out War” against the MILF, George and Maricel went into Carmen to meet with terrified refugees and document the military abuses that were going on there. The 105mm Howitzer shells were screaming over them and landing nearby, but they carried on with their work.

I think what drives remarkable people to act in this way is that they have compassion -- the belief that other people’s suffering is your own. I saw that in both of them. They were moved by what they saw. They didn’t sleep over what they saw and forget about it. What they witnessed -- and felt -- inspired their actions.

I recall hiking for hours in darkness with George and a small platoon of MILF fighters in Maguindanao. We couldn’t use our flashlights. The military had began their nightly barrage of 105mm artillery shells on our side of the mountain. The shells made a deep thud and a bone chilling crack when they landed. I felt safe, because I was with George -- a man confident of his destiny. I didn’t know it at the time, but perhaps that’s why I felt safe with him.

Deep in the jungle the next morning, a battled-hardened MILF commander I was interviewing burst into tears when I asked him why he’d been fighting for the past 20 or so years. I hadn’t expected it, and neither did his men, who stood in disbelief as they watched their commander crumple.

I looked over my shoulder and saw George. He too was crying. He felt the pain too. It was the aching pain of a life-long struggle for dreams yet to be fulfilled. George understood this.

When I think about this now, I wonder what lessons are left for us who remain in this world.

When our friends die, so do we. But their deaths offer us a resurrection. They offer us a transformation that will give us strength to find more compassion and love.

George and Maricel, your work is over. Thank you for everything you've taught us. Trust that the rest of us will continue what you started. May you rest in peace.