ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Once there was a boy and a girl who fell in love. The girl was young when she met the boy, one day 11 years ago when she was a teenager in high school. She is not sure why she was drawn to him, only that he was kind. Perhaps they would have married, but it wasn’t very important, with money tight and jobs scarce.
This is their story, Michelle and Jeorge. They lived together and loved each other and decided to have a child. The story would have been a love story, but the howitzers began firing.
This is not a story about a war, or whether there was a war, or whether what happened in the coastal villages of Zamboanga City should be called an invasion or a siege or a failure of governance. It is, instead, the story about a small boy named Eithan, who loved television and lived in a house along Lustre Street in the village of Sta. Catalina with his mother and father.
This is his story.
Gunfire at dawn
One morning in September, the morning Eithan’s life would change, his father Jeorge stood outside their house, watching the road.
Jeorge Ando is 27, a sometime construction worker who takes on contracts when he can. It is gunfire that brings Jeorge out on the street at 6 in the morning. He had heard the shooting earlier in the night, but thought it would go away by morning. Eithan is inside, asleep with his mother Michelle.
Jeorge sees the rebels walk by. He goes inside, and the family decides to evacuate. The gunfire is closer. They leave together: Michelle Candido, Jeorge, Michelle’s brother, Jeorge’s uncle, his nephew, and two-year-old Eithan.
The rebels stop them near the KGK building. Michelle knows who the rebels are. The badges are on their sleeves, a sun and a dagger on a patch of red. They are soldiers of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and they demand to know where Jeorge is taking his family. They answer they are evacuating.
“Christian or Muslim?”
Jeorge wants to say Muslim, it seemed safer to claim it, but he is afraid they would be asked to pray.
They are told to go inside the Camacop Alliance, near the KGK building. Jeorge knows they are hostages, no matter if the MNLF says they’re only being held for their safety. He is afraid, he has seen the news of hostages taken in Jolo or Sulu who were held and never came back.
There are more people inside. Michelle and her family sit with them in a corner. They are told by the armed rebels not to speak . Michelle holds Eithan. He is playing, he does not understand. Jeorge tells his family to be quiet, not to look at the MNLF. They sit until 10 in the evening, when they are led outside, 10 at a time, to walk down to a daycare center.
They are told not to run. They don’t because people who run will be shot.
At the daycare center, the women are herded away from the men. It is dark. The children cry in the gloom. They are fed with stolen candy. Once in a while a rebel looks inside the room, counts heads, leaves.
The hostages sleep. It is the same the next day, Tuesday. The longer they sit, the less they are afraid, even with the sound of gunfire outside.
When the mortars fell
They are less afraid the morning of the third day, Wednesday, the 11th of September. They eat. They bathe. They talk. There is no gunfire. They are told the soldiers are coming, that they would be released if the government allows it.
Then they are made to go outside, 5 at a time. Their hands are tied. Michelle thinks this is the end, that this means they will be shot, on the road, 5 at a time.
Instead they are walked down the road, towards Sta. Barbara. They are told to stand at the center of the road. The MNLF take their places to the side, shoulders against the walls of houses.
Then the military starts shooting.
Jeorge is in the front line, clutching his brother-in-law’s hand. When the barrage of bullets gets too close, he throws himself to the ground, hugging the concrete. The MNLF howl for the hostages to stand. When they do, they wave white T-shirts and white towels and anything that could be considered a white flag.
Ceasefire, they scream. Civilians, ceasefire, civilians, ceasefire, ceasefire.
The bullets come from snipers, from helicopters. There are no rebels on the road, only hostages, crying. They drop to the ground, they stand, they drop again, over and over, a full hour.
Michelle holds on to Eithan. Eithan asks why she is crying. She does not answer.
There is a ceasefire. The MNLF move children and the elderly to the sidelines. Everyone rests, eats. Then the bombing starts. The mortars fall. The hostages run, hide behind piles of garbage. At maybe 7, maybe 8 in the evening, after they are fed, the hostages are led back to the daycare center.
The unluckiest day
They meet Habier Malik on Friday morning, Friday the 13th. Ustadz Malik, Sir Malik, the MNLF commander. Five foot five, maybe 6. Plump, with hairy arms and white in his beard. Soft-spoken. A checkered scarf in red and cream around his neck.
Michelle sees him talking on the phone, inside the house where he is hiding. He is negotiating with the government. He is asking for a ceasefire, at least two hours. If the guns go silent from 10 in the morning to high noon, he will march his hostages to Plaza Pershing, near the city hall. Then he will leave with his men, protected by his hostages and head for either the mountains or the sea. He promises that the hostages will be left in safety once the MNLF is granted safe passage.
The hostages are joyful. Home, they tell each other. Soon.
About 30 minutes into Malik’s ceasefire, the shooting begins. The women and children are inside the building. The rest of the hostages are right outside the gate. Michelle sees the mortars fall beside Jeorge.
The MNLF make a decision. They call the hostages together, arrange them in a circle, bind their arms. The MNLF stand at the center. Michelle clutches at Eithan. Beside her, inside the circle, an MNLF rebel bends down, whispers for her to be quiet, to escape when she can, to run when she can run. Perhaps, says Michelle, he knows the military will shoot.
The shots are closer, faster. They turn the corner and run, flat out, down the road, MNLF and hostages pelting down the street. The bombs drop, the mortars fall, the bullets fly. Drops of blood spatter like rain.
The military does not care if they are civilians, says Michelle. They don’t seem to care who gets hit.
The hostages are told they are running to the hospital, but they only make it to the chapel when the MNLF pulls them back. They flee to the KGK building, where they are told to stand in lines at the center of the road. The MNLF leave them, and retreat inside.
A helicopter thunders overhead. There is a fall of white confetti. A white dove soars.
Peace, Michelle thinks. It is done. There is relief, weeping.
Then the bombs drop. The MNLF are surprised, shocked. Why are they shooting, why are there bombs? The hostages panic. (READ: Bungled chances in Zamboanga City)
Suddenly there are 3 tanks, charging down the street. The hostages scream.
Ceasefire, they shout. Ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire.
The tanks take aim. An old man falls, clutching his stomach, guts spilling over his hand. Another hostage is hit, a teenager, blood gushing like a faucet.
Michelle throws herself down, at the center of the road, taking her son with her. There is no letup in the assault. Shot after shot, and then a short pause.
It is Jeorge who sees the manhole. Safe, is all he thinks. He points, they roll, jump, man and woman and small crying boy. The MNLF do not stop them. It’s every man for himself. They plunge down to the sewers in water up to their chins, the father and mother propping up the toddler, the family sloshing further into the tunnel until they stop cowering, a slab of cement over their heads.
There is an explosion overhead. A sharp bang. Shrapnel, through concrete. They lose consciousness, a few seconds, slip down into the sewage.
When they surface, Michelle’s hand is bleeding, and Eithan’s head is pouring blood from a cut in the middle of his forehead.
They weep, Jeorge and Michelle, as they stand clutching their baby boy.
Then Eithan takes a breath.
The fighting stops, a full minute. Jeorge raises his head and hears his nephew shouting through the open doorway of KGK.
Get out, says the teenager, get out and come inside. They run, bloody and dripping. The nephew says the rebels had dragged him out of the crossfire and into safety.
They stay inside until nightfall. There is no cotton to clean Eithan’s face, so they use his diaper. They take him to one of the hostages, a nurse, but it is too dark to see. Jeorge tries to drain the crusted blood from under Eithan’s eyelids. They do what they can, then fall asleep, wake to gunfire, then fall asleep again.
Eithan wakes in the dark. He sings, his eyes closed.
Twinkle twinkle little star, he sings.
Then he begins on his favorite, the song his mother taught him to prepare her baby for the day he goes to school. Zamboanga hermosa, he sings.
Beautiful Zamboanga, precious pearl, pride of Mindanao.
It is a long night. A hostage dies from blood loss.
In the morning, Saturday, September 14, Jeorge speaks to Malik himself. He asks that his son be released with his wife, so that the boy could be taken to a hospital. Another commander speaks for Jeorge, recommends the release for the sake of the child.
Malik sees Eithan. At first there is no decision. Later they are told they can leave. Jeorge stays, and sends his nephew in his place. He will not leave the rest of his family, and only a small number are permitted to escape. He tells Michelle to go, to be safe, not to worry.
He watches as she steps out the door. He waits for the sound of gunfire, for screaming. There is none. He is relieved. His boy would live.
Michelle walks, slowly, out of Camacop Alliance, past KGK, past Fernandez store. They are warned not to run. Malik tells her to use his name when speaking to the guards in the outer perimeter. He promises they will not be shot.
They stagger to the other side, 4 hostages: the exhausted woman, the small bloodied boy, the teenager, and another injured hostage named Daniel.
The military sees them, tells them to run. They cannot. Daniel is asked to strip. They are told to drop their belongings, that they may be carrying a bomb. They are taken to an ambulance, driven to the Western Mindanao State University Hospital. Their wounds are bound. Eithan is intubated. They take him away from Michelle, to be transferred immediately to the Western Mindanao Medical Center for specialist attention.
Michelle and her nephew are brought to Camp Batalla for processing and investigation. There are interviews, photos, investigators, then she is taken back to the hospital to see her son.
The doctor tells her it is not shrapnel that exploded outside the sewers. It was a bullet, piercing through the cement. The bullet is inside Eithan’s brain.
Michelle absorbs this. She is tired. She is numb. She signs the papers for immediate surgery.
She is called into the operating room, is asked to put on a scrub suit. They tell her to pray. She steps out.
At 10:28, Eithan’s heartbeat stops.
The flight of Jeorge Ando
The hostages are placed inside a house along Sebastian Drive on Lustre St. Jeorge’s house, although the MNLF are not aware.
The fighting is intense. There are no more small ceasefires, just bombardment, from night to morning to night again. Jeorge does not know if the explosions are from mortars or bombs or howitzers. He is inside what used to be their bathroom, crowded with other hostages. There is black smoke. A fire burns two houses away and creeps closer.
Jeorge decides to escape. He plans it, along with his uncle and brother-in-law. If they are shot, if they are wounded, it is a risk he is willing to take. All he wants is to see his son.
They open the door, step out, peer into the street. The MNLF are gone, they are in the thick of the fighting. Jeorge runs, at the rear of the small group, crosses the street. There are snipers, bullets shooting past his head. He does not know if they are government or MNLF. They crawl when they can, lie still when they can, until finally they reach an abandoned house, far away from MNLF territory.
They hide, until dawn.
At 5:30 in the morning of September 16, eight days since he told a rebel he was a Christian, Jeorge Ando finds himself free.
The lost boy
When they are rescued by the military, Jeorge asks them about his son.
Have you seen my son, he asks. He describes Eithan. The boy who was hit on the forehead. The one who came out Saturday. Have you seen him, my son?
Yes, they answer. Don’t worry, we’ll take you to him.
In Camp Batalla, Jeorge is excited, happy. He sees his wife, across the room, answering questions from investigators.
He mouths the word. “Eithan?”
She shakes her head. “Gone.”
Very little is left of Sta. Catalina, and the house where Eithan lived. Where the rebels made a last stand, a single wall is defaced with spray paint, the rebels misspelling a warning to avoid the “MNLF ERIA.” (READ: Zamboanga crisis: The fog of war)
Michelle and Jeorge now live with an aunt in a village called Lunzuran. They do not know if they will have a child again. Maybe someday, not now.
They are poor, poorer than they were before. There are no jobs to be had in a city where words like mortar and shrapnel and collateral damage have made it into the local lingo, just as much a part of daily conversation as the weather. The streets are empty. Soldiers man the sidewalks. The city hall flies a tattered flag. Marines stand watch on the top floors of abandoned shopping malls, surrounded by plastic-wrapped mattresses and store mascots whose cheeks are pockmarked with 5-inch bullet holes. When the smoke clears, Jeorge will look for a job, any job.
He calls what happened a war. Sometimes, he says, when they were held hostage, the MNLF would talk to them, tell them why the siege took place. Jeorge would ask questions. He was curious, and they would answer.
They want Mindanao, they told Jeorge. They want recognition of their Bangsamoro Republic. They want the income to go to them and to their own government, they want the military and police and politicians ejected, thrown back to Luzon or the Visayas. They told Michelle she should convert back to Islam, the religion of her grandfather.
Michelle says they were kind. They never touched us, she says. They never shot at us.
She is not thinking of conversion. To her, religions are all the same.
Neither will take sides. They do not know what to believe, and in the end it does not matter. They think, instead, of Eithan.
Michelle blames herself. Maybe they should have run through the houses that Friday, instead of the center of the road. Jeorge says he tried to defend his boy, tried hard, his very best, but the bullets have their way of choosing, and only God knows why. He wishes the bullet chose him.
Once there was a boy and a girl who fell in love. They had a child, a boy who sang to his mother and giggled at his father, who wore big blue sunglasses and watched television and thought Vice Ganda the funniest creature on earth. They lived in a small house along Lustre Street in Sta. Catalina, along the edges of the city of Zamboanga.
One day they heard gunfire. Bombs fell from the sky. Blood spattered like rain. A small boy was killed with a bullet in his head.
His name was Eithan Ando. This was his story.- Rappler
Video directed and edited by Paolo Villaluna, written and produced by Patricia Evangelista, with cinematography by Raymund Amonoy and additional footage by Adrian Portugal. Research by Joseph Suarez. Score by Pike and Veena Ramirez. For offers of assistance to the Ando family, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.