ayeesha dicali
With the young MILF fighters in Camp Pokta, Lanao del Sur.
When I signed up for CNN Philippines as news stringer for the Lanao Provinces, I was expecting that I will be writing mostly elections-related stories. Work was slow on the first few weeks as I was still struggling with learning the tricks of my craft. Before I ventured to broadcasting, I was writing news for a local newspaper that publishes weekly. Writing for a weekly newspaper does not require me to submit materials asap and taking many good photographs, videos and sound bites.

On the days that I couldn't find stories of national interest, I spend my time reading journalism books. I studied Biology in college and although I was an editor for the university paper, Mindanao Varsitarian, journalism in the real world is a hundred-fold more complex than campus journalism. I am aware that I am a glass with a few drops of water. But I believe that I am a big glass, I can be filled with an ocean of knowledge. I need to learn, learn as fast as I can.



I am deeply grateful for some colleagues who in some way mentored me. Erwin, thank you for the sermon and for the ability to see beyond the walls I fortified myself with. Your guidance proved helpful. Sir Richel, thank you for the support and good recommendation. I will always remember the photography tutorial you given me as we were coming home from the Mamasapano Media Summit.

On the night of February 20, 2016, armed clash broke out in Butig between the AFP and the extremist group of Maute brothers. And it changed my life. From going to presidential campaign sorties, I transitioned to reporting casualties, evacuees, and relief operations.

I need not say that I wasn't ready. I was like a baby thrown into the sea to learn how to swim on her own. I learned how to stay afloat, nevertheless.

The first few days of the firefight was exciting for me as a reporter. I have to admit that I was high with adrenaline as I went to dangerous locations. I remember that morning when the news that an army convoy was ambushed in Balindong, I was itching to go to the ambush site. Luckily, Kuya Pogs and Kaka Drieza had the same idea. And so we went to the ambush site.

For the first time in my life, I saw blood splatters and pools of blood on the highway.

ambush

The ambush site is just a few kilometers away from Camp Pokta, one of the camps of Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Lanao del Sur. Right away, we decided to go up in the mountains, to the camp itself, and ask Commander Abdullah "Bravo" Macapaar whether he has anything to do with the ambush.
ayeesha dicali commdr bravo 
With MILF Commander Bravo in Camp Pokta taken after his interview with us.
One thing that I found unbelievable was how easy it was to talk to Cammander Bravo. He was accommodating to us and treated us with hospitality and respect, especially me as a woman, when we were in his camp. Perhaps he felt secure that he can talk to me in our dialect--Meranao--without fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted.

He denied participation in the ambush. He denied allegiance with the extremists. He insisted that he remains loyal to the leadership of MILF.

Right away, news spread about the commander's statement. It was relayed over the radio forums about my interview with him. To some, they believed that the early denial of the MILF curbed the conflict from spreading. Right away, people understood that it was only a small group of extremists that the AFP is fighting with.

That was the moment I understood that I somehow played a role. I fell in love with my job.

Despite the love for my job, the next days as the firefight intensified tested me not only as a journalist but as a person. I didn't realize it at first but eventually I felt the effects of the trauma I sustained. Entering Butig while the firefight was going on was scary, I have to admit. Images of blood on the high way in Balindong kept popping in my mind. I was threatened that our convoy may be a target. I wake at night hearing choppers overhead when there was actually none. There were nights when I couldn't sleep and I just cried over the stories of the evacuees. As I went deeper into the stories, the extremists suddenly have a face. They are young men. Some of them are friends of some people I have interviewed. And as I watch videos of the AFP airstrikes, I saw carnage.Young boys, many are not still of legal age are dying on the battlefield for their ideals. Soldiers who could be stationed somewhere more peaceful are being pulled in to fight. It was a nightmare.

But I had to do my job, a job that is difficult considering my working conditions. But every morning that I have to wake up early, pack my back, prepare my camera, I know I am serving a purpose not only for my country but for the Ummah.

I will tell them our story.