We joined throngs of people leaving the school premises. All the while, gunshots did not abate. I remembered Onin Tagaro’s advice to just keep the camera rolling in such situations in the hope of at least getting a good audio recording.
Without noticing it I dropped my DSLR. People started shouting and pointing at me. Because I could not understand Maranao I thought they wanted something from me. It was my colleague’s dad who again came to my rescue and told me about the camera. I turned around and I saw my beloved camera on the ground. My colleague’s dad then fetched and carried it for me.
I was breathing heavily at this point. My savior kept urging me to walk faster. He then led me to a short cut and across a stream on a rotten coconut trunk bridge. We emerged at someone’s backyard and then he told me to take a rest. He ran to a nearby store and bought for me a bottle of cold water.
While resting, I tried calling Ipe. But the phone signal was bad. I texted him and my Kodao colleagues to inform them of the situation we were in. Karl Ramirez back in Manila called me but had to disconnect because he could not hear me.
When I caught my breath, my savior again told me to go with him to his house where the rest of the team may be holed up. We again took shortcuts among clumps of trees and reached his house a few minutes later. There, I was offered cold water by my colleague’s pretty sister who appeared to be welcoming a guest under normal circumstances. But, in fact, gunfire was heavier followed every so often by grenade explosions.
My savior went off again, despite pleas by his wife, to look for the rest of the team. After a few minutes, local team members collected me from his house and took us to the house where some team members were holed up. The foreign delegates were seated on the floor of just about the safest room in the house while the local volunteers hid under the table in the dining area. Our two police escorts placed themselves in strategic positions around the house. I think I was safer at my savior’s house as the place we were in was in the middle of the warring camps and gunfire was very loud. In one of the rooms a baby was sleeping, seemingly unwilling to be disturbed from her slumber by the loud gunfire. By this time, a military helicopter was already circling above.
All the while, Ipe and Fr Joey were trapped inside one of the precincts inside the school. Our police escorts wanted to get them but they were advised not to proceed as they were carrying assault rifles themselves and might be mistaken as enemies and shot at.
The gunfire has been going for hours already and it seemed I could already predict when the opposing camps would fire in response to the other camp’s gun bursts. I tried to record all these with my video camera. I was even asked not to poke it out the window as my microphone might be mistaken for a gun and we would be shot at.
It was then that we learned that two of our keeper’s cousins, a Healing Democracy Project volunteer, were injured by a grenade explosion. Nineteen-year old Aslea Panda had her brains blown out of her skull and her body was riddled with shrapnel wounds. She died four hours later in a hospital in Marawi City just as my other colleague reached the hospital. Her remains were immediately brought home to Tugaya and buried at seven o’clock in the evening. Aslea’s brother Sobair Panda had a big abdomen wound.
It was already twelve noon by this time. The big and beautiful Mosque overlooking the town and the lovely Lake Lanao started broadcasting prayers. Gunfire immediately ceased. We took this opportunity to slip away and dash back to Marawi City. On the highway, we saw three police armored personnel carriers full of troopers in full battle gear rushing towards Tugaya.
Watch the video:
After reporting to the national PIOM secretariat it was decided that I go with the foreign observers on the trip back to Cagayan de Oro for safety considerations. The warring political clans know of these foreign delegates and are already being blamed for whatever news that may come out of this incident. They told me that Ipe and I should go with the foreign observers because I was already verbally threatened by a member of one of the warring clans. There were no other journalists at Tugaya, much less a fat guy with fatter-looking video and still cameras.
The last time I was in Mindanao, to cover a mission at the neighboring Maguindanao province (where 58 persons were killed in the period for the filing of candidacies for this election) I was maligned by narrow-minded journalists from several cities. I lost my Reuters hat on that trip. Previous to that, my first DSLR was stolen in Surigao del Sur, also in Mindanao. This firefight wasn’t my first as a journalist either. I was in the Manila Peninsula in 2008 when elite PNP forces rammed an armored vehicle into the lobby of the swank hotel and smothered the rebel soldiers and covering journalists with so much gunfire until the rebels surrendered without firing back a single shot. I lost my golfing umbrella then. On this coverage, I lost my Dubai cap (a cousin’s gift). I liked that cap a lot because it allows my scalp to breathe while its double layers make it waterproof. I would be happy if I would receive word later that my savior is the one using it.