(UPDATED) I can clearly remember. I walked into muffled gunfires. A little boy cowered behind an overturned wooden chair, avoiding the blows. I heard the other boy’s loud breathing as his small feet dashed. With his frail hands, he fired back. The other boy got shot, fell down, and played dead. I raised my hand, pointed my index finger, pulled the invisible trigger in my thumb, then aimlessly fired everywhere. Everyone laughed. Perhaps, those kids thought, “who’s this ridiculous grown up man spoiling our baril-barilan?”
I dearly treasure this fun encounter with kids in one of the evacuation centers that I documented during our Zamboanga City crisis coverage in 2013. Covering disaster and humanitarian response beats for 24 Oras , I was sent there shortly after ceasefire was declared in September 2013.
This, and a couple more encounter with kids in conflict-torn Zamboanga City changed my life forever. I never looked at children the same way again.
A Child’s Promise
It has been raining for days in Zamboanga City. Mud splattered my cargo pants as we tiptoed across the muddy entrance of Talon-Talon National High School evacuation center. Families were sprawled across the flooded floor of the school’s gymnasium. Flooded, crowded, and extremely humid amidst the gloomy weather—difficult is an understatement to describe the evacuees’ condition. One resident told me that most of them were sleepless as bursts of the heavy downpour last night entered their sleeping quarters.
Cecil Tigo, a Christian, was among the parents I talked to. Her face was so gentle. The dark circles under her eyes looked swollen, perhaps because of crying. She walked us through the classroom where her entire family has been living for three weeks. We set up, rolled the camera and started the interview. She smiled in between tears as she told me about her eldest child, nine year-old, Lea Grace. In that evacuation center alone, there were 1,057 children, Lea Grace, among them.
Matalino po ‘yon. Lagi po yung section one. Lagi siya may award.” Lea Grace promised Cecil that she would study hard. She would be a scientist. She would build her a glass house so they won’t be bugged by mosquitoes at night.
“Malapit po kasi ang pagsabog sa amin eh.” Cecil audibly gasped as she tried hard to keep her body from trembling. “Naririnig niyo po?” I asked. “Opo, parang yumayanig pa nga po ang building. Okay pa ang katawan ng anak ko noong galing kami sa bahay. Dito na po siya, nagluya siya tapos nanghina. Siguro dinibdib nya ang takot niya kasi hindi rin siya nagsasabi.”
A week earlier, Lea Grace who was born with congenital heart disease, spit blood, fell unconscious inside that very classroom we were in, and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Cecil wailed as she showed us what was left of Lea Grace’s memories, her school ribbons and certificates.
I was also shaking. I was honestly keeping myself from sobbing. I looked back to Kuya Dani, my cameraman, then pretended to check if we were still recording. He looked emotional as well. That was the only time when I realized that everyone around us inside that room was crying. After our shoot, back in the van, no one dared talk. It was until we reached our hotel room that I told Kuya Dani how heavy I felt that time. He told me that he felt the same.
Writing this, I thought, maybe when Lea Grace reached heaven, she was the first to ask Jesus Christ what that little girl in University of Sto. Tomas dared ask Pope Francis. “Bakit po pumapayag ang Diyos na may ganitong nangyayari dahil walang kasalanan ang mga bata?”
Today, more than a year after the standoff, 1063 displaced families are still living in shanty bunk houses—made of tarpaulin, plywood, and nipa—and in the bleachers of Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex. Grandstand as popularly referred to. Locals already dubbed the place “Brgy. Grandtstand”.
Most of the families stuck inside the grandstand are residents of Brgy. Mariki and Brgy. Rio Hondo, both muslim communities on stilts. When we were allowed access to the area back in December 2013, the majestic archway was the only living proof of a once vibrant community. Most houses were burnt during the standoff.
During my last visit in 2013, my team was bombarded by complaints from the evacuees that the government’s ration of relief goods was already stopped.They were told that the government did so because all humanitarian efforts were centered to Yolanda victims that time. They were completely horrified when told that even the water facility was to be pulled out. Thankfully it was not, but I did not know for how long.
Walking around, the grandstand looked more like a slum community from the inside. Roads were flooded and muddy. Invisible embers of fire seemingly filled the inside of the tarpaulin shacks. It was that hot. Naked children were walking around. Residents complained that a lot of their children and elderly get sick. Many were suffering Diarrhea.
According to the latest data of Zamboanga City Social Welfare and Development Office, a total of 226 people have already died in the evacuation centers. Eighteen of these deaths were newborns. The number one killer is pneumonia.
I have been keeping in touch with one of my previous case studies in the grandstand, who refused to be named. He told me over the phone that every day they are counting deaths inside. “Hindi naman na bago sa amin Sir, pag may nagsabi na may namatay ulit. Noong una, galit kami. Pero naging parang wala na lang. Sa sobrang dami, immune na ba,” he said in his squeaky regional accent.
Wisdom in innocence
After visiting the grandstand, we proceeded to the next evacuation center. Displaced children, both Muslims and Christians, happily chanted Jingle Bells as they ecstatically marched after the military truck entering Zamboanga National High School-West evacuation center. The truck was loaded with green and red bags that I fondly call kapusong aguinaldo, which was part of Kapuso Foundation’s Give-A-Gift Christmas project. That was such a happy time. For a moment, children forgot about their situation.
As a producer primarily doing stories on children, my production will not be complete without candid, undirected shots of smiling kids. During this shoot, I asked my cameraman to set up and just let children play in front of the lens. Let them smile, make faces, get crazy. Children did as expected.
I got my phone, joined the fun, and snapped some photos. But when every child started flashing this two-finger pose—sign of peace—in front of me, I got goosebumps all over my body. Yes, perhaps not one of them know the exact meaning of that gesture, but these children left me in awe. I was actually witnessing a subtle delivery of a herculean message. I thought, it is true. In a child’s innocent implication is where we find the world’s greatest wisdom.
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So to help you answer the most popular question on social media today , “All-out war?” Consider these children, who suffered the cost of the conflict, as they take their stand. They might have the most sensible answer after all.