by Samantha King
November 23, 2009
It was five ‘o clock in the afternoon when the lady of the house, Reynafe Momay, had just come back from work. She was a mother of two, and a nurse at the Sultan Kudarat Provincial Hospital. Reynafe had just worked the overnight shift and was fervently anticipating the comforts of home, though she still had a couple more hours to clock in. She’d make up for it some other time. Right now, all she wanted was a good movie, her two boys, and a light meal.
At thirty-seven years old, Reynafe felt she had made her peace with the world. Her parents had separated when she was barely a year old, and as the eldest of five half-siblings, Reynafe had to fill in both their shoes. Her delicate mother and oft-absent father meant she had to put herself through school, and because of this, she grew up quickly. Though she was of less than average height and slightly plump, Reynafe cut a strong figure. It was the gait of her walk, the set of her jaw, and the calm, almost steely look in her brown eyes. Above all a realist, she took pride in the fact that very little could faze her.
Reynafe tied the strings of her apron and set about making dinner. Her children were still at school, and she was home alone. The weariness of the day was getting to her. She could feel it deep down in her bones. Her youngest, RJ, had slept badly the night before. He had called her at work, telling her about a dream where he was travelling on a motorbike with his lolo.
Half of lolo’s face was gone, shared the eleven year old. But I wasn’t afraid, it was lolo anyway. I wanted him to drive faster, he was so slow. He said he wanted to spend more time with me because it would be our last time to talk.
Her son had been getting into fights in school, and Reynafe worried it was seeping into his dreams, which were disturbing as of late. She had been so busy at work; she promised this day to watch a movie and spend some quality time with her son. That was why she decided to come home early.
While peeling the onions, her hand slipped and the knife clattered to the floor. A sign I need to sleep, Reynafe thought.
Then, in the deep silence of the house, the phone rang. She let it ring once, twice, thrice.
The voice on the other end was tense.
Nen, said her uncle. Did you hear about what just happened in Maguindanao? His voice rose, but he enunciated each word slowly, as if to keep the bubbling hysteria at bay.
Where is your father?
The hair on Reynafe’s arms all stood on end.
November 24, 2009
The early morning light broke into the cramped conference room of the Isulan City Hall, where Reynafe, members of her family, and a crowd of other people were sitting, waiting. She had spent the last night in a blur of activity; trying her father’s cellphone, making numerous phone calls to anyone who could give her information, convening the Momay clan in her house. She had gone without sleep for almost twenty-four hours, and felt as if her every movement was hampered by an invisible wall of air. The Isulan governor was speaking into the microphone, giving words of encouragement and briefing the crowd on how to go about claiming the bodies. Reynafe was barely listening.
Her father, Bebot, was sixty-one years old, a photojournalist for Mindanao’s Midland Review. He was assigned to cover the filing of candidacy papers of Ismael Mangudadatu, and was part of the convoy of journalists and
reporters. She had spoken to him on the phone not two days ago, when he inquired about her health and told her he would be at Looney dela Corte’s for a round of drinks. Bebot was mild-mannered, convivial, a ladies’ man. It had taken him years to apologize to his daughter. But for all his lapses, Reynafe loved him fiercely. He said he would call her again soon.
Reynafe spent the whole day in the conference room, unable to sleep despite the long wait. Finally, she was approached by one of the governors’ aides.
Ma’am, you should try Koronadal, South Cotabato. The rest of the corpses were brought there.
As a nurse, Reynafe thought she was used to dead bodies; desensitized to them, even. But anyone would have been defeated by the sight at the Koronadal funeral home. It was her cousin, Jing, who first reacted; running outside to vomit. The rest of her cousins started to cry, huddled by the door and unable to move any further.
The bodies were all lined up in a row, their feet pointing towards the entrance. Starting from her right-hand side, Reynafe moved along the rows of more than twenty bodies, allowing her gaze to travel slowly from the feet to the faces of each one. She did not last long. The stench, like a hundred eggs left to rot, was sickly, cloying, and sweet. The spilled guts and open stomachs, blasted faces and mutilated genitals, the arms and legs horribly twisted…it was all too much. Reynafe had not even gone past the second corpse when she fell to her knees, fighting back the rising bile in her throat and the all-consuming urge to cry.
Be strong, Nen! If you cry, you won’t be able to stop. Until you find Papa, you will not cry!
Picking herself up, Reynafe continued the slow, painstaking search.
She and her family gave up past midnight of November 25.
November 26, 2009
The previous day’s search had taken a more organized turn, with the Momay clan splitting up into four groups to follow different leads—Tacurong City, General Santos, Koronadal, and the massacre site itself. Reynafe herself ventured to the crime scene, where volunteers and army men continued the digging for bodies.
Today, however, the whole family had rendezvoused in Tacurong City. They were gathered together in a funeral home following a call from one of Bebot’s media friends. One of the diggers recognized your father, the friend said.
They were shown the corpse. Reynafe’s siblings all started to cry, hugging one another and piling around the body, holding out tentative fingers over the tight, leathery flesh. But Reynafe couldn’t bring herself to move.
The face was mostly blown off, though the hair and height of the body seemed about right. The shape of the legs, too, were like Bebot’s; resembling candlesticks, thin and long.
It’s Papa, Nen, her half-brother cried. It’s Papa. Reynafe shook her head. Something was holding her back.
The ache in her chest refused to go away. It was a clamp around her heart, clenching tighter and tighter.
Please remove the dentures, Doc, she said to the head medic. If he has dentures, that’s my father.
The medic put on gloves and kneeled beside the head.
Ma’am, he said haltingly, his teeth…they’re intact.
There, in a funeral home, in Mindanao’s deepest twilight, a thirty-seven year old woman started to cry.