MARAWI CITY — I was caught in the middle of a gunfight that lasted hours in Tugaya, Lanao del Sur while covering the country’s first-ever automated elections. I don’t know if being ‘caught in the middle’ is a correct description because I was there as a journalist and had prior knowledge that that town is a poll hotspot. But I use it nonetheless because I did not want the gunfight to happen, much less witness it up close.
It was an early start for us in the People’s International Observers’ Mission (PIOM) that had me as an imbedded journalist this election day. Our group was divided into three teams and our team was composed of Canadians Randall Garrison and Carol Crabtree, American Joyce Ann Mercer, Fr Joey Evangelista, Ipe Soco and I, as well as several local colleagues. We first visited Camalig Elementary School in Marantao town, which is right next to Lanao del Sur’s capital Marawi City. Polling centers were supposed to open at seven o’clock but voting has not started as of 7:30.
We then motored to Tugaya, about 30 or so kilometers farther south. We first visited the Comelec office where they were still distributing PCOS machines and ballots to election inspectors at past eight in the morning. Tugaya acting election officer Randawal Rasuman assured us there were no problems. “Well, everything is smooth. Smooth…We open at eight o’clock” he said.
He was way off the mark. In the only precinct that started voting as of 8:45 or so everyone was campaigning, vote-buying, vote-coaching and the election inspectors were not doing anything about the situation. Money changed hands inside the precinct while the so-called assistors for voters claiming illiteracy completely took over the voting process while the voter simply sat on one side clutching the monies from dirty candidates. Even the poll watchers were vote-buying inside the precinct. The election inspectors even surrendered the task of putting indelible ink on fingers of voters to a woman who was brazenly campaigning with a loud bag printed with the name of the provincial governor who is again a candidate. While all these were happening a fisticuff erupted right outside the precinct between guys who had a disagreement over a small pack of Zest-O fruit juice.
One positive note was that the PCOS machine in that precinct was working.We observed though that there was no effort by the BEI to let the voters reinsert rejected ballots, as provided for by Comelec procedures.
I was challenged by one poll watcher when I was taking a video of him coaching a voter and passing off money. He asked what was I doing with a camera inside the precinct. When I showed him my Comelec-accredited media ID he told me to take videos of the persons outside the windows giving monies to voters inside instead. Still another woman wearing a “Project Hope” ID asked me the same question. I again flashed my ID and that ended the episode.
Stepping out of the precinct I chanced upon a group of people being directed by a bossy woman. The woman was writing ballot numbers of candidates on the palms of the people gathered round her. When I tried to take pictures, she asked who I was and what business did I have taking their picture. I explained that I am a journalist which she resented. She verbally assaulted me and menacingly said “Baka ipa-ano kita diyan.” I flashed my best disarming smile this time and pretended I was just taking pictures of the papers they were distributing around. I even mumbled something like, “Sana ho manalo kayo.” But I felt threatened and beat a hasty retreat. I found out later that the woman is a daughter in law of the incumbent mayor of Tugaya and that her husband was reputed to have many guns.
A short while later violence erupted in one of the precincts 20 meters away from where our team was standing. I ran to take videos believing my assistant cameraman Ipe Soco was right behind me. It was pandemonium. I did not know where to point my camera as there was simultaneous fighting everywhere. Guns were then drawn, cocked and trained on the crowd. Several times, a semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol and an M-16 assault rifle were pointed in my direction as men were grappling for the guns. I was a meter-and-a-half away from the muzzles. One of the gunmen even looked at my big camera and then directly at my eyes. At that moment, I lowered my camera and held my palm outwards to indicate to him that I was no longer filming. He is the husband of the woman who verbally-assaulted and threatened me; the mayor’s son; the guy who owns many guns. I reached my quota of cuss words in those few seconds. I thought, “Is this it?”
(While all these were happening, I believed all along that Ipe was right behind me. It turned out that he entered an adjacent precinct and stuck out Kodao’s flip camera outside the window and filmed me with the gunmen. This was the video we first released to the national PIOM media center that was picked up by the networks. It’s interesting to note that it was Ipe’s first video coverage and what a baptism of fire it was for him.)
I followed the gunman, nicknamed Blackman. I again turned the camera on and started filming. Shortly after many shots were fired. Ipe and I both captured it on two different angles. I was soon pushed back by the wave of people scampering away. It was then I realized my assistant was nowhere near me. My fear level shot even higher as I now worry for my partner as well.
In the succeeding lull I started looking for Ipe and the rest of the team composed of two Canadians, one American, a Catholic priest and dozens of local volunteers. I asked people if they have seen white persons but no one was telling me anything. I was still filming throughout.
It was then that I was spotted by the father of one of our colleagues, a Healing Democracy-PIOM volunteer. (This colleague and other Tugaya residents who helped us won’t be named in this article for their safety.) He directed me to walk over to the stage where I could be easily spotted while he went off to look for his son and the rest of the team. I perched myself at the center of the stage and started taking pictures. Rapid gunfire then erupted behind me. I jumped off the stage like a bat from hell and flattened myself against a concrete fence nearby. People followed my example and started piling where I was. I turned my video camera on, pointed it towards a clump of trees where it sounded they were coming from and made sure that my head is out of the firing line. People dropped to the wet grass while women were screaming. I noticed that my colleague’s dad materialized beside me. He then told me to go with him so we can find a place a little bit safe.