3rd of 5 parts
[This piece was first published in the book, “Transfiguring Mindanao: A Mindanao Reader” edited by Jose Jowel Canuday and Joselito Sescon (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022). The article opens Part V on “Mediating Truths, Contested Communities, Making Peace” of the book, which was launched on June 22 this year in Davao City. The Ateneo University Press granted MindaNews permission to share the article. Bobby Timonera is one of the editors of MindaNews.]
Read the previous parts – First, Second
I was 380 kilometers away from home when the MILF, led by Commander Bravo, attacked the municipality of Kauswagan, just 20 kilometers west of my hometown, on March 16, 2000. I left Surigao City early the next day and rushed home, arriving in the evening.
I proceeded to Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte’s usual hotspot, the next morning. By that time, the MILF rebels had already been flushed out from the municipal hall and the población area by Army and Marine troopers.
The “all-out war” declared by President Joseph Estrada, which spread to Lanao del Sur and all the way to Maguindanao, raged on for months, until government soldiers overran the MILF’s main camp, Camp Abubakar, in July.
It was my first experience of war so close to home, where I witnessed lots of soldiers passing through my hometown, I could feel the ground shake every time Air Force planes would drop bombs in rebel strongholds, and I saw a lot of soldiers gathered outside hospitals where they brought the wounded for treatment. It was also my first experience in covering a war, riding inside the Army’s armored carriers, opening my mouth wide as I took pictures of soldiers firing 105mm Howitzer cannons. I was told by the soldiers that this would protect my eardrums from bursting from the pressure of the shock waves. I saw houses totally obliterated by giant bombs that left giant crater-like holes on the ground.
But looking back, in the early 1970s, I remember my teacher in first grade, Mrs. Salvador, ordering us to duck under our desks because of reported rebel sightings nearby. When she thought the coast was clear, she told us to run home as fast as we could. Every now and then there would be blackouts in the town, and the word was that scores of dead soldiers were being transported aboard six- by-six trucks to the funeral parlor.
I never imagined that 30 years later, my own children would have to undergo the same nightmarish experience as they were ordered to get out of their classrooms and rush home.
It wasn’t the last of the shooting war near Iligan. It happened again in 2003 in nearby Maigo, and again in 2008 when MILF rebels again attacked Kauswagan and Kolambugan at dawn. I did not cover the 2003 war. But I was in the thick of things in 2008, taking cover along with policemen who were expecting sniper fire, racing with hearses to find fatalities. I am just grateful that a peace agreement between the government and the MILF was finally signed, and hopefully there will be no more skirmishes between the two parties in the years to come.
But an even bigger war erupted in Marawi, 36 kms away from home, almost a decade later. The military now faced a different, more menacing enemy. Although I didn’t cover the siege of Marawi, I felt its effects as I saw fighter planes and helicopters crisscrossing the skies, scores of soldiers being brought either to the hospital or the funeral parlors of Iligan, and thousands of Meranaw seeking refuge in my hometown.
It is in these war coverages when photojournalists from Manila and elsewhere would come, bringing their high-tech equipment that we could only dream about.
In the war in Kauswagan in 2000, we promdi photojournalists drooled over the laptops and film scanners of our colleagues from Manila. The only image scanners we had were the cheap flatbed versions. Searching the internet, our jaws dropped, as the well-known models cost a thousand dollars at that time. I so loved the technology that a few months later, I bought the cheapest I could find, a Chinese brand, of course, which gave me scans with colors that were way off.
But more than that, what really was mind boggling were the early iterations of the digital SLR. Your images, captured not by film but directly on digital image sensors, then saved into computer cards. They looked and performed just like the film SLRs photojournalists were using. But since they cost around USD10,000 at that time, I couldn’t even dream of getting one. It took three years for DSLRs to be affordable to the masses, and I got my first unit.
Camiguin Flash Flood Coverage Fiasco
Disaster struck Camiguin Island on November 7, 2001 when 80 people died in a flash flood. We Mindanawon journalists would cover it like any poor journalist would—go to Balingoan in Misamis Oriental by bus, pay maybe 60 pesos for the ferry ride to Benoni in Camiguin, arrive there well rested and dry to start the long hours of coverage for the rest of the day.
But then famous reporters from Manila’s big news agencies and networks called and asked if we could assist them. Um, okay, we could tag along, sure. That would be nice as we’d spend nothing on coverage since the Manileños would spend for everything: hotel, food, transportation. And we would earn a few bucks from the wires that use our stories and pictures. Answered prayers, as our newly organized news agency, MindaNews, didn’t have the funds.
They came early the next day, their big and expensive cameras and satellite phones in hand. We went with them to Balingoan aboard rented vans. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard temporarily put the ferries on hold as they were monitoring the weather. I saw passengers boarding the ferry anyway, but it couldn’t leave until the Coast Guard gave the go signal.
Can we get a fast boat?
My colleague Froilan Gallardo obliged and called his contacts to get in touch with the owner of an upscale resort in town. They had a speed boat, yes. For 5,000 pesos, they could bring maybe a dozen journalists to Camiguin, and back. But, unlike the ferry that can dock at the pier, we would have to board the speed boat maybe 50 meters from shore. Our efforts to roll up our pants were in vain as we still got wet.
Off we went aboard the luxurious speed boat, joyous that soon we’d be seeing the devastation on the island first-hand, ahead of other journalists, at the same time feeling pity for the hapless passengers on the ferry that could not yet leave.
But our happiness was short-lived. Somewhere between Balingoan and Benoni (location of the port in Camiguin), the boat’s engine stalled. When a boat stops moving amidst big waves, the rocking is felt by the passengers. The women in the group screamed in fear as the boat swayed continuously for maybe an hour. We felt really downhearted when we saw the ferry, which was finally allowed to leave, pass our dead speed boat in the middle of the sea. If we only had the patience to wait, we could have been on that ferry.
Meanwhile, a broadcaster in Cagayan de Oro City announced that a boat loaded with journalists on their way to Camiguin was missing. Our editor, Carol Arguillas, said later that she didn’t know what to tell our relatives.
The boat started running again, eventually. But when we reached Benoni, we again could not dock at the pier as the small boat wasn’t equipped to do so. Like before, we got wet as we disembarked in waist-high water. Froilan accidentally dropped his phone in sea water. It died, never to be resuscitated again. What was worse, we saw the last remaining passengers alighting from the ferry, dry down to their shoes, walking ever so slowly as if everything was well with the world.
The same torture was repeated on our trip back, save for the stalled engine.
That coverage was gut-wrenching. The devastation was widespread, with rescuers pulling out bodies from the debris one after the other, the bodies laid out on the basketball court of the gym, the coffin maker working overtime, and the succession of funeral marches to the mass grave at the cemetery.
The upside of this coverage, at least for us promdis, was our introduction to the potentials of wireless transmission of photographs right from the field to the head office.
During lunch, Erik de Castro of Reuters pulled out his laptop, edited his pictures, and plugged a PCMCIA device with a small antenna. In it was a SIM card. He then ran a software that would connect his laptop to the network and Voila! He could now email his pictures. But with the slow 2G technology available at that time, I wonder how small the pictures were that he was sending, and how long the process took.
Around that time, I was using a Palm Pilot with an external foldable keyboard to write stories that I emailed to the office from the field, using my Nokia candy bar phone as modem. Documents are small files to send, so no problem there. But seeing Erik send pictures with a more advanced setup was, wow, amazing!
In 2004, I got an assignment from Newsbreak magazine to do a photo essay on ridó, the never-ending vendetta between clans common among the Moro peoples, usually with deadly weapons.
I consulted a few friends if it would be wise to accept the assignment. Among those I asked was Froilan, being among the more senior journalists I knew who had enough experience covering dangerous assignments. He embedded himself with the Marines in the frontlines during the assault on Camp Bushra in the last battle of the 2000 all-out war and joined the team of reporters who stayed in Basilan during the kidnapping of the Burnham couple by the Abu Sayyaf.
His reply: “It’s easier to cover the AFP-MILF war than ridó.” Because when you cover a war from the military’s side, the soldiers will usually make sure you are safe. In a ridó, you do not know what will happen, especially when you are with the underdogs.
But it was such a tempting assignment, and I grabbed it, believing that when it’s your time to go, there’s nothing you can do about it. I travelled to Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur for this project, sometimes with a Newsbreak writer, sometimes accompanied by a friend or two.
One of the towns with intense ridós was Bayang in Lanao del Sur. On our first visit, Samira Gutoc, who was to write the story, joined us. Having a Meranaw friend with me, I felt safe. From Marawi, we drove along the Narciso Ramos Highway, which was now fully paved, then turned left as we reached the junction in the municipality of Ganassi. There was an entire village of abandoned houses, some of them burned, others peppered with bullet holes on their concrete walls.
There were Marines guarding the place to keep the peace. On one section of the paved road considered as the boundary between the warring clans, the Marines rolled out concertina wire to help prevent one camp from crossing into the other’s territory.
It was, however, an uneventful visit, except on our way back when my car got stuck in the muddy road during a strong rain. We were saved by Meranaw passersby who got out of their vehicle and helped push the car out of the quagmire.
On my second visit more than a month later, to another part of Bayang, Samira did not join me anymore because she already had everything she needed to write her story. But Edimar, a friend who had been assisting me in commercial shoots, came on this trip. It was when I experienced the scariest moment of my life.
From Marawi, we crossed the vast Lake Lanao on a pump boat to get to Bayang. Despite the searing sun, the water was calm that morning, the scenery beautiful, the forest green. There was no indication at all of the dangers that awaited us.
Our destination was a small cove, its opening facing east. Our contacts were on the northern part of the shore; their enemies were on the south, hidden in the forest a few hundred feet high. Our contacts were the underdogs, who were armed with nothing but a few Armalites and M14 rifles. The other camp, on the other hand, reportedly had machine guns, even a caliber .50, which they fired at our contacts anytime they felt like it, which meant any time of the day or night. That caliber .50 machine gun had literally torn a woman’s heart. The husband of the late woman showed us the still blood-soaked bullet that hit her while she was preparing breakfast.
The walls of the houses and the abandoned mosque by the shore were peppered with bullet marks.
We were told that the enemy again fired their machine guns at dawn, and so virtually all the people in the village had not slept well that day. That was probably the reason why tempers were high and people were edgy that morning.
Right when we sat down on a bench outside a house, we heard the first volley of gunshots. It was from an M14 fired single shot in succession, not the burst of a machine gun, and obviously from somewhere near because the sound was so close.
Then we got really scared as we anticipated the return fire of machine guns from the other side. Fortunately, none came.
Our boat pilot, who was in his early twenties, was trembling. “I’m not used to this. Had I known we were going to this place, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
As it turned out, the leader of the warriors in the clan, a man in his 40s, was not happy about our visit. He was worried that if something happened to us, they could be answerable. While his face showed his anger as he expressed this in the Maranao dialect which I did not understand, I fully grasped the extent of his rage when he fired his M14 again, twice, toward the sky only about two meters from where I was sitting.
Someone with a cooler head immediately approached the leader, wrestled the M14 from him, and was fast enough to remove the magazine as they were grappling with the rifle. The man with the cooler head prevailed and brought the leader away from us.
The message was loud and clear: we were not welcome. I immediately placed my camera back in its bag.
Ansar, the man with the cooler head, joined the leader for a walk, and later, both entered the mosque for the noontime prayer.
In the meantime, we were brought inside a bedroom with concrete walls to be safe from enemy fire, just in case. Inside was a mother tickling her smiling baby on the bed, as if everything was okay. After making our introductions, the woman confided to us their dangerous life of not knowing when the enemy would fire their machine guns again. We took our lunch of coffee leaves in soup and sardines in this same room.
About three hours after he fired the shots, we finally saw the leader again, who was now smiling. He said I could take my pictures, particularly the bullet holes everywhere, but not the firearms. I was not in the mood to take pictures anymore, but I obliged. I snapped a few, then immediately took cover where I thought the machine gun fire could not penetrate.
I was ready to bolt out of the place. But our worry was, how were we going to get to the pump boat when it was docked in the makeshift pier which was right in the line of fire? We would be like sitting ducks if and when the enemy decided to fire at us.
In the end, we decided to take the gamble and go to the boat. The minute or so of walking to the pier, boarding the boat and easing our way out of the reach of sniper fire, were the scariest in my entire life. I prayed, vowing never to return to this godforsaken place.
The waves were stronger in the late afternoon, and we got wet sometimes. But it was the least of my worries. If our boat capsized, I still would have a fighting chance. There were no life jackets in the small boat, but I know how to swim, and I was sure there were no sharks in the waters of Lake Lanao.
Part 4: Governor Ampatuan, Gene Boyd Lumawag, Sendong
(“Transfiguring Mindanao: A Mindanao Reader” has 34 chapters with 44 authors mostly coming from Mindanao and highlighting broad topics covering the historical, social, economic, political, and cultural features of the island and its people. The book is divided into six parts: Part I is History, Historical Detours, Historic Memories; Part II is Divergent Religions, Shared Faiths, Consequential Ministries; Part III is Colonized Landscapes, Agricultural Transitions, Economic Disjunctions; Part IV is Disjointed Development, Uneven Progress, Disfigured Ecology; Part V is Mediating Truths, Contested Communities, Making Peace; and Part VI is Exclusionary Symbols, Celebrated Values, Multilingual Future. Edited by Jose Jowel Canuday and Joselito Sescon, this book is a landmark in studies on Mindanao.)
Get your copy from the Ateneo University Press, Shopee, or Lazada.
Watch the book launch here.