CNN Philippines journalists on what it is like to cover Marawi

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CNN Philippines journalists discuss their insights and reflections a year after the Marawi siege. From left: Gerg Cahilis, Ruth Cabal, Rex Remitio, and David Santos. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — During the stress debriefing in Marawi, children were encouraged to draw their experiences of the besieged city. An eight-year-old boy drew images of people evacuating.

“Tinanong ko siya, ‘Ba’t ang galing-galing mo mag-drawing? Gusto mo ba maging artist someday?’” recalls David Santos, CNN Philippines’ correspondent who covered the Marawi crisis. “Sabi niya, hindi. Sabi niya gusto niyang maging engineer … aayusin daw niya lahat ng bahay na nasira doon sa Marawi.”

Santos says when he was sharing this story to the news desk in Manila, he started welling up. “‘Di ko na-realize na naiiyak na ako kasi I was … parang I was heartbroken for that kid.”

Because journalists are meant to report news and stories as impartially as possible, emotions often take a back seat. Journalists, especially those in front of a camera, are expected to watch and listen impassively, as emotions are said to muddle information, show biases, and hence, curtail objectivity.

What we often forget is that journalists are human too — prone to the same fear, anxiety, and stress that anyone experiences. This is especially seen when journalists cover disasters and conflict. “‘Yung ganitong klase ng coverage hindi mo maiwasan na maantig ka talaga,” says Ruth Cabal, who also covered the plight of the Maranaos during the five-month siege, which started on May 23, 2017.

Cabal arrived the second day after the war broke out, and she recalls there weren’t too many people in the evacuation center then. “Hindi pa naka-setup so ang dami pang inaayos pero hindi natin alam na the crisis would drag on for months at aabutin ng mahigit 300,000 pala ang inilikas mula sa Marawi,” she says.

As of August 2017, the count for “bakwits” or internally displaced people in Lanao del Sur reached over 600,000. The battle between the Philippine government security forces and militants who allegedly were affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant became the longest urban battle in the history of the Philippines.

“Masarap siyang i-kwento pero ang hirap tanggapin ang pangyayaring ganon.” — Gerg Cahiles

Santos, who has covered similar conflicts in Basilan and Sulu, says that the war in Marawi was more precarious, especially because of how long it went on. “Mas mahaba siya, mas complicated, mas maraming taong involved.” But he also emphasises that in many ways the conflicts he’s seen are the same in that it’s the same threat of terrorism and threat of lawlessness borne out of groups who felt that the government do not listen to their pleas.

Gerg Cahiles, another CNN Philippines correspondent, spent four months in Marawi to follow the different stories in the war zone, from injured soldiers insisting to go back to the frontline to victims of stray bullets. “Masarap siyang i-kwento pero ang hirap tanggapin ang pangyayaring ganon,” he says.

Among the correspondents, Cahiles was the one who was in Marawi the longest, and so he has witnessed more suffering that has been difficult to come to terms with. “Meron pa rin akong mga memories ng mga tao na ang hirap tanggalin even after ng war,” he says.

“There's this specific na babae na nakuhanan ng video ... nakita mo ‘yung itsura niya talaga na takot na takot, nagmamadaling makalabas,” he adds. “Sa video na ‘yun na-capture niya ‘yung emosyon, ‘yung ano ba ang pakiramdam ng nasa loob ng war zone … Iisa lang siya sa mga nameless persons na nahirapan, nag-suffer dahil sa giyera doon sa Marawi.”

While Marawi has since been free from terror attacks, the story of the Maranaos doesn’t end in the city’s liberation.

Amid the volume of stories about loss and tragedy, there are also stories of courage and hope. Rex Remitio, a first-timer in conflict reporting, says that despite the chaos in the city, Paramisuli Aming, a 20-year-old woman from Marawi, topped the social worker board exams.

“Nasa complex siya tapos nung sumiklab yung giyera lumikas siya wala siyang tsinelas tapos dala-dala niya yung mga gamit niya,” Remitio shares, “and yet nag-top notcher siya sa social worker board exam.”

He says it was a clear display of the Maranao resilience. Cabal adds that the Maranaos have also exhibited the strength of their faith. She shares that even when they were in evacuation centers that didn’t even have decent comfort rooms, the Maranaos made sure they were clean before they prayed, a tradition they uphold and practice.

“[Kahit] isang maliit lang na corner doon talagang nilatag nila yung kanilang mga sapin sa floor tapos talagang nagdadasal sila, kahit walang tubig pinipilit nila na malinis ‘yung paa at kamay before the prayer,” Cabal shares.

On October 16, 2017, Cahiles received news that the leaders of pro-IS militants were killed. “Nung nakita ko ‘yung first images nung mga patay na lider ng Maute, doon ko naramdaman ang emosyon,” he says. “Finally, ‘yung pagod mo malapit nang matapos. At saka hindi lang for me kundi sa mga taong naghahanap doon ng katapusan doon sa giyera na na-experience ko.”

While Marawi has since been free from terror attacks, the story of the Maranaos doesn’t end in the city’s liberation. There has been ongoing talks of a ₱30-billion funding for the rehabilitation of the town, post-traumatic workshops have been carried out, private and public sectors have collaborated to help rebuild the town and its people. And even until after the city fully recovers, journalists will still be there, ready to bring information the public would always need.


Catch “Marawi Revisited” tonight at 8:30 p.m. on CNN Philippines.