First, your throat dries up. You gulp and expel air by the boatloads as your heart races to pump more blood to your muscles. Your senses all become more acute and you are primed to fight or flee as a rocket is fired from a helicopter pod, tearing the air like paper in a distinct whump that sucks out all oxygen on its way to... to whom it may concern. But your hands are all over the place; you’re unable to focus the lens on the tiny thing that it had come from, dangling like a crib toy a mere few hundred metres above you.
I had never been that close to combat in my entire life -- I'm not that crazy to volunteer for these assignments -- but I'm pretty sure storied Marawi is as bad a place for those as any. Now I understand what people mean when they say (artillery or mortar) shell shock. A rocket or two -- the military spokesman would not give me the specs -- hitting a target has the same effect. Ditto seeing policemen dive for cover as they draw sniper fire. At least I had the wits to get out of the way as an armoured troop transport barrelled through. That left me no time to ask myself why the stray chicken down the road chose to cross at the same instant, a tiny blur that escaped within an inch of its life from the tank's huge tyres.
Bad and absurd things happen in war, turning the world on its head, that journalists get special instruction on how to comport themselves in order to have a chance at surviving them, charitably called hostile environment training: Things such as how to extricate yourself from a minefield, how to drop and roll to survive a mortar attack, how to dress for it (Flak vests are not a fashion accessory! You don't remove your helmet to show your newly done hair on camera), how not to drive into an ambush, why you have to sprint across an open road, and a long list of other bad situations. Extricating to report the news is the only objective. So much so that ordinary things become bizarre, such as when I discovered I had accidentally recorded on video an unseen coppersmith barbet, one of the Philippines' more colourful birds, launching into its signature "pok-pok-pok" call, like a smith pounding heated metal into shape, amid the firefight. The scrawny chickens of Marawi, scrabbing for food among the uncollected garbage, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem happening all around them after their owners fled, also stood out and actually found themselves in one of my stories. Come to think of it, what could be more normal in a Philippine setting than free-range chickens -- or feral dogs -- by the roadside? The latter have a special place of honour as mascots -- Azkals -- in our national football team (France already have the cockerel.)
It is too depressing to go into the origins of this conflict, and I won’t discuss the cultural factors that encouraged it to metastasise into a full-blown shooting war. Many of my colleagues have been here for a week to witness the gratuitous violence anyway, so that chance to end it swiftly has probably gone out the window. The Red Cross head honcho gave 50 clinically white body bags to the cadaver collection teams today.
However I quietly cheered for the locals when the government announced the scheduled visit of a prominent national politician. Viewed from the prism of the normal news cycle, it could only mean one thing: that we are finally nearing the end of this battle, if not the war.
A deadly skirmish or stand-off with national or international ramifications draws journalists like flies or carrion fowl to rotting carcass. Usually, the first images you see on your television screen are the anguished and suffering peoples displaced by the conflict, whose lives will never be the same. Maybe their houses had burned down or been burgled. I saw many homes or shops looted judging from the broken locks, front doors pried open -- one by way of gunfire apparently, and another via a car jack and hammer.
The next television images are of more fighting, which in turn draws more combatants, as well as more journalists. Then as one side gains ground the focus shifts to the collection of the dead, the rescue of those trapped in battle, the parading of those captured, and finally, when it’s safe to show up and the gore and rubble, the booby traps and the rotting corpses had all been removed (save for a few TV props), the visit of politicians for the obligatory flag-raising
as well as to claim the spoils. By that time the world press would have lost interest and turned its head to another war, another conflict, hopefully elsewhere.
Except the displaced will not get back their homes and their looted possessions. Their relatives will still be dead, and the survivors will still be poorer than church mice.