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Photographer gets first taste of war coverage


What a difference a day makes. One day you shoot photos of people fleeing from war, the next day, you’re the one getting shot at.

While following a column of four armored vehicles yesterday, we heard a whistling sound that could only come from a mortar. We ran for our lives. I was pushed and lost my balance and landed on the ground ala-Superman.

My camera lens became the first casualty. It was cut into two.

I thought I was ready for war coverage after having exposed to violent protest rallies and dispersal of informal settlers. I was wrong and it nearly cost me my life.

I received a call from my editor at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, telling me to get ready for the first flight to Iligan City, the next day.

A story was developing in Marawi City about the occupation of Maute Group militants and I texted my superior and asked if I could be assigned to cover it.

My heart leapt the moment I received the order. I started packing my clothes, prepared to stay there for 10 days if warranted.

I couldn’t sleep because of the excitement. I left the house early to catch the 4:45 a.m. flight to Cagayan de Oro. I had R12,000 in my pocket and two backpacks.

At the airport, I was stunned to learn that the air fare was R7,500 plus an additional amount for excess baggage.

I decided to bring only one backpack and brought only two pairs of pants, three shirts, a short pants and a towel. I forgot my toiletries.

I also left the bullet-proof vest assigned to me – a decision I would regret later.

Luckily, there was still one seat available on the plane.

I still couldn’t sleep during the flight. After arriving at the airport, I took a van going to Iligan and met our guide at around 7:30 a.m.

We drove to Marawi, but were slowed down by the influx of people and vehicles coming from the strife-torn city.

I took my first photos of the mass exodus and sent them to the office. We were determined to reach our destination, but heavy rains prevented us. It was 4 p.m. but the daylight was already fading.

Before returning to our hotel, we went to one of the evacuation centers to shoot some photos.
Worn out and tired, I had my first full sleep.

We were out of the hotel at 4 a.m. yesterday and made it to the Army mini-camp that was about two blocks from the main camp.

There were about eight makeshift quarters in the camp protected by bamboos.

About seven soldiers stood guard inside. They told us that some of their companions were about a block away, engaging the militants in sporadic shooting.

Our first experience of mortar came after joining the soldiers’ advance at 7:30 a.m. along with reporters and cameramen of three television stations.

It ruffled us, no doubt, but we still had a job to perform. We lingered on for about an hour before we decided to leave the scene to be able to send our work back home.

The television crews went back to the main camp while the rest of us stayed in the mini-camp.

While waiting for the go-signal to rejoin the soldiers, I was having an animated conversation with our guide near his vehicle parked in what we thought was a safe place.

A shot was fired and we immediately ducked. We would later learn after driving the car inside the mini-camp that the bullet pierced through the trunk and ended up in my bag.

It came from a .45 caliber pistol and someone told us that it was meant for us.

I kept the slug to serve as a reminder of the dangers of our profession. (MARK BALMORES)