MANILA, Philippines – "Why did you join the pageant?"
"I want to promote my advocacy: counterterrorism," Police Officer 1 Cris Pastores told Rappler on Thursday, April 12, during the media introduction of the Ganda Pulis: Miss Philippine National Police (PNP) pageant.
Standing at 5 feet and 4 inches, age 25 with short black hair, Pastores hails from Compostela Valley, representing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Ganda Pulis candidates get a chance of becoming an "ambassador" of the PNP for a year, flying to the country's islands to promote the PNP's campaigns. The winner also gets to campaign for her own advocacy within the 180,000-strong police force.
Counterterrorism is an advocacy Pastores just picked up recently, she admitted. It's a cause ingrained in her not by mere weekend hobbies, but by a turbulent personal experience: working in Marawi City.
Since 2016, Pastores has been assigned at Camp Pendutan, Maguindanao, the regional headquarters of the ARMM police. From June to August 2017, she was temporarily deployed to Marawi, the site of months-long clashes between government troops and terrorists linked to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Pastores worked as a clerk for the ARMM intelligence and investigating unit, sometimes going to the field herself to check the whereabouts of Muslim rebel-insurgents, she said.
Her Marawi experience
When Maute Group terrorists attacked Marawi, Pastores was among the first to be assigned there on June 4, 2017.
She screened civilians who needed admission to evacuation centers, making sure that no escaping terrorist slips into the displaced crowds. She worked irregular shifts as some civilians sought refuge between midnight and sunrise.
"Kinailangan na ng mga babae kasi 'yung evacuating civilians. Kailangan silang i-frisk at ma-interview bago sila makapasok. Kasi bawal sa Muslim na lalaki mag-frisk," she recalled.
(More women were needed because of evacuating civilians. We had to frisk and interview them before they were admitted. Because in Muslim culture, women cannot be frisked by men.)
Her decision to advocate for counterterrorism was forged by two sights: seeing the deserted ruins in the main battle area, and watching a bandaged soldier die before her own eyes. (READ: 165 soldiers and cops give life to 'liberate' Marawi)
She likened the scene at the main battle area as a shot straight out of post-apocalypse zombie movie, The Walking Dead – "walang tao, puro barilan" (there were no people, just gunfire).
Composed and collected during the pre-pageant round, Pastores failed to hold back tears when she recounted the story of how a comrade died beside her.
"You just get the picture of his family and 'yung feeling na parang last breath na niya and then tinitingnan lang niya 'yung photo ng family niya kasi hindi na siya makabalik. Grabe 'yung sakit," she said. (It was his last breath, and he was just looking at the photo of his family because he wouldn't be able to come back. It was so much pain.)
"Those individuals, they need to be given the honor and recognition because they risked their lives for the liberation of Marawi," she said.
These are the individuals she wants to be remembered if she gets named as the PNP's ambassador.
Ganda Pulis and beyond
But compared to dodging bullets in Marawi's main battle area, carrying herself backstage and in the runway is another battle all together.
She shared that despite enduring months in Marawi, she is still a person with her own self-doubts – aggravated by the pomp and spectacle of the Miss PNP pageant. (READ: Are beauty pageants sexist or a celebration of femininity?)
"Siyempre nakita mo naman ang mga kasama ko, magaganda sila. Hindi naman ako kagandahan (You saw my co-contestants, they are beautiful. I am not that beautiful)," Pastores shyly said in a phone interview with Rappler on Friday.
While they do wear heels occasionally, the contestants are used to only wearing one to two-inch black shoes for work. And despite the experience of talking to civilians who need help, it's not every day that they are asked grand show questions.
It helps, Pastores said, that her fellow contestants do not resort to being snobs in the competition.
This is what sets Ganda Pulis apart from other pageants: All the contestants are sworn public servants – policewomen who, at the end of the day, stand by the PNP's signature vow "to serve and protect the people."
"Will you ever go back to Marawi?"
"Kung ma-assign man ulit," Pastores said, acknowledging that as a cop, she doesn't really have the final say where she goes, but her commander.
"Pero counterorrism kasi is not just limited to Marawi. Meron ding risk sa ibang regions. Kaya ako sumali rin para makita at makatulong sa kanila."(Counterterrorism isn't just limited to Marawi, there is also risk in other regions. I joined so that I can see and help them, too.)