There was a girl who loved to play in a field. Every day after school, she would go to it and hide herself in the long waving grasses. The girl didn’t need any playmates, not when the grass welcomed her with each rustle and the wind soothed her with each murmur. She talked to the occasional cane toad that appeared and even the rat snakes, who sometimes lingered by her feet before they slithered away.
The girl’s name was Ria. She was ten years old.
One day, when she went to the field, she saw that something had gotten there ahead of her. It was a backhoe, big and yellow, tilting crazily on its side. The door of the backhoe was swinging in the breeze, as if someone had left it in a hurry.
There was a big mound of upturned soil on one side of the field and a strange smell in the air. It was something that she had never smelled before.
There were a lot of people in the field, but Ria didn’t go near them. Instead, she went to the nearest hill and began to climb.
She stood on top of the hill and looked down as people swarmed all over her field. There was a car, belly-up, next to the backhoe. There was a mash of mangled car-parts. There were bodies in the field. It was from the bodies that the strange smell came from.
Some men were covering the bodies with banana leaves. Others were taking pictures. There were so many bodies that Ria ran out of fingers before she could count them all. She counted up to twenty before she stopped. There were a lot more bodies than that.
What had happened? It was as if there had been an explosion and the ground had belched bodies out. There was a roaring in her ears, a horror that sapped the strength from her body. She looked at the carnage beneath her and blanched.
As soon as she could move again, Ria ran down the hill to her home only a few meters away from the field. Her house was a single room that served as a living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. At night they rolled out mats and slept next to the firepit. During the day, they placed the stools next to the walls.
She heard voices coming from her house, so she stopped to listen before she made her way inside.
“Have you heard about the massacre?” Tita Josing was asking Mama. “Sixty people, killed in cold blood, left in the field. They were going to bury them with a backhoe, car and all, but someone heard the shots being fired and called the military. When the backhoe operator saw the soldiers come, he ran. He left the backhoe still running.”
Tita Josing was fat, with tightly curled hair. Her husband owned a sari-sari store, so she had time to sit around and gossip.
“Grabe, those Hassans…” she stopped when she saw Ria come in.
The Hassans had ruled Datu Mansaka for decades. The head of the family, Amir Hassan, was rumored to have once hacked an enemy to death using a chainsaw. Ria had never seen a Hassan, but she thought that they must look very scary, like the lutao, corpses who came back to life because they had done evil while they were still alive. The lutao dressed in black and their broken necks always canted to the left.
Everyone talked about the Hassans, but few had ever met them. The closest they’d gotten was when armed escorts cleared the road for a Hassan convoy. If you didn’t get out of the way, you would be mowed down without mercy.
Ria was a small girl, and she was skilled at slipping into rooms without anyone ever really noticing that she was there. In the days that followed, she managed to piece together what had happened by listening to the conversations that the adults had when they thought that she wasn’t around.
“Saad Yousif was challenging Nasser Hassan, the governor’s son, for his post in the coming election,” Ama told the men who had gathered at his home. They filled the small room, sitting shoulder to shoulder around the fire pit. The yellow light from the flickering flames danced on their worried faces.
“Yousif heard that he would be chopped up into little pieces if he filed his certificate of candidacy, so he sent his wife and his sister in his stead. He thought that even the Hassans would not dare to touch women. For added protection, Yousif asked thirty-five journalists to accompany his family members.”
Everyone was still trying to come to terms with what had happened. No one dared to go near the field, which the police had cordoned off. The bodies had been covered before the honey buzzards could feed from them. Still, a crowd of birds continued to wheel over the field, piercing the air with their cries.
The highway that the Yousif women traveled was five kilometers away from Ria’s field. It was a lonely stretch of road, but on the day that the Yousif convoy was traveling, there were two other vehicles on the road—a blue Nissan Sentra and a gray Toyota Hilux. The blue Sentra had five passengers—a man who was on his way to the hospital together with his wife and coworkers. The Hilux contained two people—a businessman and his personal assistant.
Though they weren’t part of the convoy, the two vehicles were stopped by a hundred armed men. Faced with an impenetrable human barrier bristling with guns, the cars had no choice but to stop. The Yousif women got out, along with their lawyers. Saad Yousif’s wife, Myrna, exchanged words with Nasser Hassan.
“Why are you blocking the road? Get out of our way,” she said, in a voice that trembled, though she held her chin up and looked straight into Hassan’s icy eyes.
“You’re not going to be able to register your husband’s candidacy,” Hassan said.
“It’s my legal right. You can’t stop me.”
Hassan slapped Myrna. The sharp crack sounded like a gunshot. The lawyers, a group of three women wearing sensible collared blouses over their jeans, jumped. Hassan’s henchmen moved their fingers nearer to the triggers of the guns.
Myrna took out her cellphone and began to text her husband. She’d just finished sending her message when the first shot cracked through the air. She went down first.
The others were driven to Ria’s field, where they were all gunned down. The women were raped before they were killed. Myrna, her lawyers, the journalists, and the people just passing through lay as they died, arms akimbo, legs splayed. The women’s zippers pulled down. The men who killed them began to bury the bodies of their victims in three mass graves which had been dug by a yellow backhoe. Bits of soil trickled down, sliding into gaping mouths and unseeing eyes. They men dug into the earth until their lookouts shouted that the military was coming. They slung their guns over their shoulders and ran, leaving the backhoe with its engine still chugging. There were a lot of bodies lying in the field, unburied, when the soldiers came.
Ria thought that some of the victims may have screamed before they were shot, or pled for mercy. No one really knew.
“I would look my killer in the eye and spit in his face,” Tita Josing told Ria’s inahan, three days after the massacre. Ina arched her eyebrow.
“Really Josing?” she said. “I would be too terrified to scream.”
Ria tried not to think about what she had seen, but at night, she watched shadows flicker on the wall and remembered. One week after the massacre, her family fled to a temporary shelter made of hastily erected sawali next to the national highway. Like all the other families who lived near the field, they feared that the armed men would come back and kill them too.
There wasn’t much to do in the shelter. At night, the men would gather in a circle and talk.
“Did you hear what happened to Fred Chavez?” Romy said. “He worked for Bombo Radyo. He’s a big man, twice my size. He was gagged and hogtied before he died. They found a pack of his favorite Marlboro reds in his left back pocket.”
Romy was one of Ria’s father’s closest friends, so slight that it seemed like a strong wind could pick him up and whirl him away. The night was warm, but he shuddered as he spoke.
Ria knew how pigs were tied—their legs strung together with a line running in between each set of hooves. She saw Romy before her, his broad body bowed by the rope, helpless as a shotgun was placed against his temple. He would not even have been able to scream.
Did the gunmen line up the others and shoot them? Did Nasser Hassan simply watch, or did he take a gun in hand and help in the shooting? Ria could almost hear the sudden sharp pops, followed by screams, or even worse, silence.
There was a city twenty kilometers from their village. Its buildings were riddled with bullet holes, and armed soldiers patrolled the street corners. No one walked in the city after dark because it was all too easy to be mistaken for someone else and shot.
What if the sound of gunfire was the last thing that you ever heard, the waving grass the last thing that you ever saw?
She missed her field.
The Hassans sought to end their enemy’s ambition in a field, but the sheer number of victims came back to haunt them. Sixty people killed in cold blood.
The furor did not die down. Ria watched as every day, more and more people traveled the highway on their way to her field. They arrived with notebooks, cameras, sympathetic voices. After one month, the families of the victims had come to the morgue, identified and claimed them. Sixty gravestones were being built on the field, where a tarpaulin had been erected. Never forget, it said, in stark white letters on a black background. Ria could feel the tarpaulin bleeding red, dripping vermilion into the rusty soil.
She still went to the field as often as she could. But the grasses no longer greeted her, and the wind’s whisper was no longer friendly. She could feel a weight in the air, a specter of horror and sadness. So many had died, and their spirits were still restless.
The Ramirez family never found the body of their father, David, a reporter for UNTV. He was a slight man, a chain-smoker, with an acerbic pen. “I’ve joined the Yousif convoy. Don’t worry, I’ll be home for dinner,” was the last text that he sent to his wife, Maggie. He never returned. Maggie, a calm woman with curly hair, and her two sons Samuel and Rick, went from morgue to morgue, looking at all the bloated bodies, but they were unable to find him. Rick, fourteen and a dead ringer for his father, had nightmares for months. Samuel, sixteen and serious, didn’t have nightmares but he cried sometimes, when he thought no one was looking
Ria felt David Ramirez’s presence the most. He had been crushed by the backhoe, his bones ground into the soil. Not even his teeth remained intact.
Her field was no longer what it was. The grasses were bent from the backhoe, from the hundreds of feet that had tramped upon them, and from the misery of what they had witnessed. All the animals had left too. Swiftlets no longer chirped in the field and cane toads and rat snakes no longer passed through.
The corn grew poorly—maybe because the men had to travel from the shelter to tend to their fields, or maybe because it also felt the horror of what had happened. A blight had fallen over the town and its people.
How did you recover from a massacre? Ria had no idea.
She heard on the radio that a helicopter had picked up Nasser Hassan and brought him to Manila, where he was put behind bars. James Mercado, a visiting journalist with a stubbled chin and laugh crinkles in the corners of his eyes, showed her a newspaper photo of Nasser Hassan getting down from the helicopter. He wore a green headband, like a bandit leader of yore, and looked defiant.
Ria continued to read the news whenever she could get a hold of a newspaper. She looked for articles about the Hassan massacre and recited the facts slowly, to sear them into her memory.
“Apparently, all of the victims were killed by M16 bullets. At least six different M16 rifles were used. One of them was belt-fed. It could’ve been a Shrike mini-M16.” She was only a little bit taller than an M16, but she was definitely heavier. She wouldn’t be able to carry one without her amahan’s help. Not that she would ever touch a gun, feel its cold steel beneath her fingers.
When there were no newspapers, she tuned in to Tita Josing’s radio. Before having breakfast, she walked with her parents across the shelter to Tita Josing’s room to listen to the latest updates from Manila. “Tsk,” Ria’s inahan said when they heard that there was a hidden armory behind a concrete wall in the Hassan mansion. There were also ammo cases for M-16 and M-14 rifles painted with the words “Department of Defense Arsenal”.
“I’m not surprised, Tita Josing said. “Sad and angry, but not surprised.” Ria’s amahan folded his lips into a grim line but said nothing. Ria flattened her palm against the scarred, pitted wood of the table where the radio stood.
Altogether, over a hundred people were charged for the Hassan massacre. This was what the media began to call it, because the town nearest the massacre site was called Hassan. It was a coincidence. Or it could have been fate. The location ensured that the Hassans and the massacre were forever linked in the people’s minds.
One month before the trial began, Maggie, Samuel, and Rick Ramirez moved to Manila to stayed with Maggie’s sister Alice. Maggie thought it would be good to enroll the boys in new schools, get them into a different environment where no one knew that they were the sons of a missing man.
She sat in the courtroom every day, watched the light ripple on the green drapes while Nasser Hassan’s lawyers argued that the MILF had massacred all those people, not Nasser.
The lawyers filed motion after motion to delay the trial.
“I was hired by Nasser’s right-hand man, Ybrahim Manug, to join the group of hired assassins, but I backed out at the last minute because my conscience couldn’t take it,” said Oscar Cañosa, a lean, twitchy man with a mustache, when he took the stand one year into the trial. He said that he was among the group of men who had gathered at the Hassan mansion to plan the massacre. The judge in front of him, Sophie Edralin, a no-nonsense woman who doted on her grandchildren, did her best to give him her full attention, although she had been receiving anonymous death threats ever since the Hassan case had been raffled to her court. Oscar refused to enter the witness protection program, saying that he still wouldn’t be safe. Three weeks after he testified, he was killed in an eskinita in Quiapo, near the Golden Mosque.
More witnesses were killed as the trial went on. But the people of Hassan and the whole country, took the words of the tarpaulin to heart. Never forget. Every year, on the anniversary of the Hassan massacre, newspapers called for justice. The families gathered. Some, like the Ramirezes, visited the field, where sixty graves had sprouted. Others, like Fred Chavez’s wife and daughter, couldn’t bear to return. But they all attended the trial in Manila, where evidence was gradually being heard. Maggie Ramirez made friends with Trina Chavez. They sat next to each other and held hands during the trial, went to each other’s houses for dinner. David and Samuel got to know Trina’s daughter Raquel, who was fifteen and plump, with an open, trusting face. When Raquel turned sixteen, she started to date Samuel. Both mothers approved and began to hope for a future marriage.
It was only after three years had passed that Ria and her family returned to their home by the field. There were many holes in the roof that needed to be patched. The corn was almost dead and needed to be fertilized. One by one, they did these things.
Ria is now thirteen. She no longer plays in her field. She’s too old to be running around. She’s more interested in Abu, from next door, than in frogs and snakes. Abu has unruly hair as black as a crow’s wing that sometimes flops over his right eyebrow. Ria’s fingers itch to brush it back, but she hasn’t dared to yet. Someday she will. Sometimes Abu walks with her to the hill overlooking her field, but more often she goes alone.
She likes to hike up here whenever she needs to think. Tita Josing thinks it’s morbid, to look out over sixty graves, but Ria doesn’t mind. It helps her remember.
How do you get over a massacre?
You don’t. You never will.
You just live one day at a time and do the best you can.