[This is the sidebar story to ‘Media Support Groups Face Huge Odds Battling Impunity‘ also by Nan Lwin]
The rains threatened to snuff out the lighted candles as Merly Perante struggled to shield the flickering flames with her bare hands.
Every second day of November for the last five years Merly has been coming to this place called Forest Lake Memorial Park in General Santos City, Mindanao to pray for the eternal repose of her husband Ronie. November 2 is All Souls’ Day in the Philippines during which families visit their departed kin to pay their respect.
She looks like the other women in the memorial park praying for their loved ones, except that Merly is pleading for something more: justice for her husband.
Ronie was one of 32 journalists who were killed by men reportedly controlled by the Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. Ronie and the other journalists joined the convoy of civilians organized and sent out by Esmael Mangudadatu, who was then challenging the Ampatuans for the gubernatorial post, to file his candidacy in the town of Shariff Aguak. A total of 58 persons were murdered including the wife, sister and other relatives of Mangudadatu in what has been described as the worst atrocity committed against journalists in a single event.
“It was hard to accept. I was pregnant with him when it happened,” says Merly, pointing to a boy shyly peeping from behind her. Now five years old, the boy whom she named Ronie III still does not fully comprehend why they are lighting candles.
“I tried to explain things to him especially when he asked me where his father was,” she says softly, her dark, round face etched with worry lines. She has two other sons in school but Merly worries where to get the money for their next tuition.
Media support groups like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) provided immediate assistance and legal support. Later, through grants from international media organizations like the Rory Peck Trust, these groups were able set up scholarship and livelihood assistance programs.
From those funds, especially the ones she received from NUJP, Merly was able to build in her backyard a small room that she is now renting out.The income she gets from it is barely enough for her family’s daily subsistence.
But her eyes twinkle when she talks about her second son, 13-year-old Ronie Jr.
“He wants to become a journalist like his father and even though he is very young he knows how to write already. His father’s journalist friends are impressed and are encouraging him,” she smiles.
“I told him it is very risky…look what happened to your father. But he told me ‘Let me.’ So I will support him” she adds.
Like the other widows, mothers, daughters, and sisters, affected by the killing that day in November 2009 the one question that haunts her is why it is taking so long for the case to be adjudicated.
“We demand justice, but it is as if our pleas are falling on deaf ears,” she says, probably echoing the lament of the other women at Forest Lake that afternoon.
The rains have stopped and the sea of flickering lights covering the memorial park somehow eased the gloom.
Merly makes the sign of the cross and stands up. She takes one long look at the grave of her husband and, almost audibly, lets out a sigh. She takes the hand of five-year-old Ronie III and mother and son walk resolutely towards the gate.
[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Nan Lwin is a Burmese Journalist, working as a senior reporter for The Kumudra Weekly Burma, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.]
Click this photo to see all of Nan Lwin’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.