Blessing in disguise

Punchline

With Ali G. Macabalang

There is a saying that natural or man-made problems contain opportunities that may lead affected people for the better when harnessed in what clerics sometimes call a “blessing in disguise” from God, the Almighty Master of Universe. And this has turned out true to me.

On Nov. 18, 2009, a police demolition team returned to the vicinity of the Tajah Sulayman Mosque in Baclaran on the border of Parañaque and Pasay cities to evict Moro informal settlers who rebuilt makeshift homes after law enforcers demolished such two years earlier.

The second wave of demolition drive was reportedly meant to pave the way for the construction of a public transport terminal in the area as an annex of the wide area of the famed Mall of Asia.

Like in the past demotion drive, the mostly Moro informal settlers and the police demolition forces clashed fiercely. In the Nov. 18 incident, more than a dozen from both sides were injured and one of the informal settlers was hit in his lower leg by a bullet fired by cop in retaliation to barrage of stones and bottles hurled at the team.

Things turned complicated when some media entities, notably the ABS-CBN TV news and the Philippine Star, carried an allegation by a leader of the resisting settlers that three of his compatriots named as Hakim Usman, 30 years old; Rajib Batalo, 7; and Yacob Macaona, 37 were killed in the clash.

Then AMIN Party-list Rep. Mujiv Hataman and former scribe Samira Gutoc called me up by phone separately, gave me the identities of the supposed fatalities, and urged me to write something about the incident.

The phone calls came a few minutes after I confirmed to the family of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu my intent to join the group of media people that would cover the filing of his Maguindanao gubernatorial candidacy in Shariff Aguak capital town set on Nov. 23 that year.

Immediately after the calls, I phoned up then PNP Chief Director General Jess Verzosa, a frat brother in APO who had entrusted me his personal contact number in one of our past meetings in Central Mindanao, and verified in a condemning fashion the veracity of the news reports as corroborated by Hataman and Gutoc.

I realized my harsh words during my phone talk with Gen. Verzosa he complained: “Brod, parang subordinate mo ako na pinagagalitan mo.”

In an apparent bid to appease me, Brother Jess asked me to fly to Manila, offering to shoulder my expenses just to unearth the real situation. He even promised to shoot in the head the sitting National Capital Region police head in my presence, if there indeed was fatality in the demolition stride.

I flew to Manila on Nov. 20 and booked a Nov. 22 return flight ticket to Mindanao purposely to catch up in the preset filing of Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy, an event I deemed significant because it signified an unprecedented challenge to the political clout of the influential Ampatuan clan led by now deceased ex-Gov. Datu Andal, who won two elections without an opponent.

But before my flight to Manila, I had written a heart-touching published by the Manila Bulletin which I learned drew the attention of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo through then Press Secretary Cerge Remonde, my intimate friend until his untimely demise on January 19, 2010.

In Manila, I interviewed many of the informal settlers and learned that there was not fatality in the Nov. 18 clash. Out of shame, I did not ask brother Jess to replenish my expenses as promised. What consoled me though was his grant of my request for a suspension of the demolition drive pending investigation and mediation by concerned parties.

I met for the second time the settlers on Nov. 21 in a gathering attended by Muslim personalities including Haji Putri Zorayda Abbas-Tamano, wife of the late ex-Senator Mamintal Tamno, and Lala, one of the wives then of Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. of Maguindanao. Lawyer Ali Diampuan, a diplomat, served as head of the secretariat of the meetings for the settlers.

In the meeting, I called up Sec. Remonde to update him on my representation, with my phone’s loudspeaker mode on.

Responding to my quest for Palace intervention, Sec Remonde told me that President Arroyo allotted P5-million aid as payment for the damages among the settlers and that she had ordered the PNP to call off the demolition efforts.

In the afternoon of the same date, I accompanied the group of settlers and Muslim personalities to the Paranaque City hall and helped convince the city mayor follow up the Presidential order calling off the demolition.

In the evening of Nov. 21, I started packing up my things for my scheduled early morning return flight to Mindanao the next day. At that juncture, my Cotabato media colleague Ferddie Cabrera called up and told me that DOST-Region XII Director Dr. Zenaida Laidan, a fellow alumna from MSU main campus, was inviting me to cover an international forum on the halal industry on Nov. 23 in Metro Manila.

I told Ferddie I could not extend my sojourn in Manila because I ran out of money, and besides I had a standing commitment to cover the filing of Mangudadatu’s gubernatorial candidacy. But he told me that Dr. Laidan already booked me for two-day more stay in another hotel, and set aside some pocket money.

While reasoning out to Ferddie, my second phone rang. My eldest brother, then BFAR-Region XII Director Sani told me he would also attend the halal forum, he being the focal person halal development program of the Department of Agriculture, under which BFAR operates. Kuya Sani said he was already in Manila and I should cover the event and write something about it, prodding me about my being a member of the Islamic da’wa movement.

Convinced of the more benefits that Filipino people could derive from halal forum, I heeded the persuasions of my brother and colleague Ferddie. I asked both of them to provide me data about the forum and wrote an advance story for the international event. The Manila Bulletin carried my story as a front page banner article the following day. The DOST-XII bought hundreds of copies of the newspaper to serve as among reference materials for forum delegates.

Due to the change in my travel itinerary, I called up fellow Manila Bulletin scribe Alejandro “Bong” Reblando of Gen. Santos City to fetch in for me in the media coverage of Mangudadatu’s filing of candidacy. Bong gladly accepted my request after confiding that I should have flown to Manila with him as usual in our three decades of partnership.

In the morning of Nov. 23 (about 10a.m.) while I was in huddle with forum delegates at our designated table, I felt my heart burst into tears when I received a call from Central Mindanao informing that Bong Reblando alongside other local media people had been “kidnapped.” Another call came later, saying the bodies of the “kidnapped” journalists were found headless.

Many of the halal forum delegates, including my brother Sani, who knows my intimate friendship with Bong, saw me sobbing. I revealed to the delegates about the nature of the calls, prompting a disruption in the flow of forum official discussions as every tuned on several standby TV sets watched the blow-by-blow reportage on the incident along the highway of Ampatuan town’s Barangay Salman – now called the 2009 Maguindanao massacre that left 58 people, 32 of them media workers, killed.

On that fateful day, I received dozens of calls from people, especially those aware of my consistent company with Bong Reblando, to say “Alhamdulillah” and “Subhanalllah” upon hearing my voice. They al thought I was with the media team accompanying the Mangudadatu family’s ill-fated convoy of vehicles.

Since that day and every annual anniversary of the 2009 massacre where I was asked to say some words, I could not help by shed tears.

Allah (subhanahu wa taala) granted me a “blessing in disguise” out of the wrong information received about the Nov. 18, 2009 clash between informal Moro settlers and police demolition elements. (AGM)

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