The girl in the sky-blue hoody and rainbow hoops pyjamas clutched a pencil and tried to write her name on a piece of paper. She looked stumped by the effort; then suddenly, seemingly without any provocation, the five-year-old started bawling.
As journos covering the Marawi war, we sometimes found ourselves shut out from the frontline, turned away by the many checkpoints crawling with police and military units who were ready and willing to use their guns. On my first day police let loose volleys with their rifles to reel back in a convoy of rescuers who had driven through a checkpoint. So we had to figure out other ways of reporting the developing story: like heading the other way, to areas where you cannot hear the explosions but see their impact first-hand.
"She doesn't talk. She is easily startled by sounds she mistakes for gunfire. At night she cries," said Sairah Pangcoga, mother of another five-year-old who wore yellow Hello Kitty pyjamas. It was the first day of the schoolyear at the Pantar Central Elementary School, but for the displaced children of Marawi, some of them having walked eight hours across the provincial boundary to reach Pantar, their classroom was an outdoor stage without tables and chairs, sat on the floor covered by mats and tarpaulin. After the flag-raising, the substitute teachers handed out pencils and bond paper to the 238 kids, with instructions to draw what they had just gone through.
The frontline was very much in the minds of the children displaced by the conflict. You cannot possibly begin to imagine what must be going on in their heads as they try to process and understand the life-changing disruption inflicted on their being. The last war in Marawi was in 1972, when their own parents weren't even born yet.
"At times like these, you need to engage them in activities that would help them forget their traumatic experience," said Salima Gubut, a local education department official. "At the same time, you need adults to explain and help them make sense of what had happened. Otherwise they would be haunted by it through adulthood."
As a rule children don't lie; they have no political agenda, and the drawings coaxed from them were haunting in their simplicity. The first thing that takes shape is a house, apart from their parents and playmates the one constant in their brief existence. Some drew an entire neighbourhood, with stick peoples walking away from them. One drew a burning house. They drew helicopters overhead, and ogres blocking the way of the stick people. There was gunfire, rendered as diagonal lines coming down from the aircraft and the ground, whizzing atop the heads of the stick people.
An eyewitness account! Hundreds of them! This was the view of the frontlines that was being withheld from us by the checkpoints. But taking notes was difficult because my eyeglasses had fogged over.