Lifelong struggle for Philippine massacre widows

In this photo taken on November 21, 2014, Gloria Teodoro, widow of local newspaper reporter Andres Teodoro, touches the marker whose names of victims of the Maguindanao massacre are engraved at the site in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province, in southern island of Mindanao.

MANILA - For Gloria Teodoro and other women widowed by the Philippines' worst political massacre, the struggle to move on with their lives is as long and painful as their fight for justice.

Five years since the carnage in the impoverished farming province of Maguindanao left 58 people dead, including 32 journalists, women thrust into single parenthood juggle odd jobs as they nurse deep emotional scars.

"The tragedy is that we lost our breadwinner. We are often out of money but we manage to survive," Teodoro, 45, widow of local newspaper reporter Andres Teodoro, told AFP.

"I always tell my kids to toughen up and just hold on." Teodoro said she gave manicures and helped people secure land titles and other government documents for a fee, just to see her two teenaged children through high school.

"I take on any job as long as it's legal... it's extremely difficult being a single mother and we've been struggling for five years," Teodoro said.

She said her eldest son dropped out of college at the age of 19, three years after the murders, to work at his father's newspaper and help her pay the bills.

Around 80 schoolchildren lost their fathers after the massacre and their mothers are mostly unemployed, said Jaime Espina, Director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

"Most of the victims were sole breadwinners who left their families struggling to survive," Espina told AFP.

Merly Perante, widow of newspaper reporter Ronnie Perante, said she pooled 70,000 pesos (S$2,024) in donations from journalists' groups to build an apartment house to support her three children.

But she now has to work as a cashier at a cockfighting arena in her hometown of General Santos City just to survive.

"I won't be joining other widows at the massacre site this year because I have to work. I know my husband will understand," Perante, 41, told AFP.

Every year, the victims' families light candles, offer flowers and say prayers on a hill in Maguindanao province, where the 58 victims were buried using a backhoe after a brazen daytime ambush.

The journalists' convoy was on its way to cover the election candidacy filing of an local politician when they were allegedly waylaid by a private militia led by Andal Ampatuan Jnr on November 23, 2009.

His father, Andal Ampatuan Snr, had ruled Maguindanao as governor for about a decade under the patronage of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who had funded the clan's private army as a buffer against Muslim separatist rebels.

Ampatuan Jnr is accused of leading the militia of more than 100 gunmen in stopping the convoy, which was carrying his political foe's wife, relatives, lawyers and the journalists, then gunning them down.

The Ampatuans deny all charges against them.

With no one yet convicted and the clan continuing to wield huge influence in Maguindanao, anger is rising among victims' families.

The widows are represented in the murder trial by a handful of private prosecutors who are helping government lawyers to lay out the evidence - but in the Philippines, even a simple trial involving one accused person typically takes many years to complete.

Anniversary opens old wounds

Perante said her eldest son, who wanted to become an accountant before his father died, is now studying to be a policeman.

"That's how his father's death affected him. He wants justice for his father," she said.

Perante was two months pregnant when her husband was killed. Her youngest son knows of his father only through pictures and clippings of his articles, she said.

"My sons tell our youngest: 'Here is our father. He is a journalist, and these are the Ampatuans who killed him'," she said.

Perante and Teodoro said that, ahead of Sunday's anniversary, their husbands had been appearing in their dreams.

"In those dreams, we are bonding as a family, like we did when he was alive. It's his way of telling us that he's still there for us," Perante said.

For Teodoro, the yearly commemoration reopens old wounds.

"It's an indescribable mix of feelings - pain, despair, helplessness," she said.

"I imagine how my husband and the others must have felt when they were murdered, begging for their lives." Teodoro consoles herself with the fact that her husband's death was not in vain as bombings and shootings in the region appeared to have been reduced.

Ampatuan Snr had gained a reputation as a fearsome warlord during his time in power, ruling as many politicians do in the impoverished and violence-plagued southern Philippines.

"Their deaths sparked change in that hell of a place. They did not die for nothing," Teodoro said.

"This is an extraordinary case but we are not losing hope."