By 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.