It was a privilege a poor family would not pass up, especially if the offer came from such a respected clan. In the absence of formal schooling, it's common practice in communities here to organize Arabic and Islamic studies for children.
“Pangarap ng pamilya ko makapag-aral ako ng Koran (It is my family's dream to make me study the Koran),” said the boy, now in his teens. What is not clear is if his parents were also given monetary assistance.
The boy found himself relocating a few years back to the faraway town of Butig, some 50 road kilometers away from Marawi City, where he diligently learned the Koran.
But a month into the lessons, they gave him a rifle and taught him how to kill. "Lahat daw ng Christian sa buong mundo, patayin daw, 'te (They said all the Christians in the world must die)," he said.
The boy did not know about the Mautes' links to the international terrorist network Islamic State (ISIS) or anything about establishing a caliphate in Mindanao, which, according to the military, was the "grand plan" of the Maute Group.
He was told it was his specific duty to kill government soldiers.
"Tinuruan ako mag-patay ng tao. Kung di ko siya patayin, ako ang mamamatay. Ako naunahan ba (They taught me how to kill people. If I don't kill, I will die. They will kill me first)," he said.
He was once a child soldier fighting alongside the Maute brothers in his not so distant past. If he had stayed with the Mautes, he could be fighting in Marawi today, if not be dead already, he said.
When he was in Butig, he did not question the teachings. Not even in his mind. "Naniwala kami din, 'te, mga dalawang taon na 'te. Naniwala talaga 'te (I really did believe them for two years. I really believed)," he said.
His singular dream was to go to heaven and he was taught dying in battle was the way this could happen.
"Gusto ko talaga magpakamatay (I wanted to die for the cause)," he said.
Indeed, the boy recalled being happy in Butig, where he lived in a big house. He was especially fond of riding the horses when they were on a break from studying.
He mingled with the Maute children, including Omar and Abdullah, who would rise to international notoriety for the ongoing siege in Marawi City.
“Masaya ang Butig. Masaya buhay ko sa Butig (I was happy in Butig. I had a good life there),” he said.
To protect the boy, we agreed not to divulge his name and his personal details. We verified the boy's story about his stay in Butig – the hometown of Farhana Maute – by checking military reports too about the terrorist group's operations in Butig.
The boy agreed to talk because he doesn’t want more children to be brainwashed by the likes of the Mautes to support a cause that he now says is “very wrong.”
That the Maute Group used child soldiers is well reported. Rappler also obtained what appears to be propaganda videos of Filipino-looking children joining adult fighters carrying the ISIS black flag. A high-ranking military officer who operated in Butig confirmed the video was shot in the area.
The same officer provided an old photo of child soldiers recovered last year in one military operation in Butig, Farhana's hometown.
The boy said he was told it's what Allah wanted him to become.
"Sabihin nila, magka-edad ka na. Tapos ito gawin mo. 'Yan ang sinusundan natin dito sa Koran. Utos ng Allah (They say, you are growing up. This is what you should do. This is what we should follow, according to the Koran. It is what Allah wants us to do)," the boy recalled.
He was the perfect soldier. There's nothing like the misinformed courage of a child.
"Gusto ko talagang patayin ang mga sundalo. Nagtatatakbo ako sa mga puno para maghanap ng sundalo (I really wanted to kill soldiers. I was running among the trees to hunt for them)," he said.
He was talking about the clashes last year in Butig, where the Maute Group was able to raise the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS). Three military offensives were launched there to flush them out. (READ: PH flag replaces ISIS black banner at Butig town hall)
"Naubos ko pa mga bala ko sa unang giyera. Sobra. te. Sabi ko, mamatay ako sa giyera na ito at mapunta na ako sa langit. Kung mamatay sa giyera, kukunin ka ni Allah (I emptied my magazine in my first battle. It was intense. I told myself, 'I will die in this war and I will go to heaven.' If I die in the battlefield, Allah will welcome me to heaven)," he said.
"Ready talaga ako mamatay, 'te. Kapag pumutok ang kanyon at ang mga eroplano dumating, hindi talaga ako magtago (I was ready to die. If the cannons were fired and if the planes came, I really wouldn't hide)," he added.
The boy didn't die in the wars in Butig. He didn't kill any soldier either. He didn't get the chance to master his marksmanship. And then something happened that changed his life and made him realize the teachings were wrong. We are withholding these details to protect his identity.
Today the boy said he still reads the Koran on his own. "Magbasa ako ng Koran. Pakiramdam ko 'te parang magaan (I read the Koran and when I do, I feel much better)," he said.
He hears the clashes in Butig and he knows some of his friends are fighting to get to heaven. "Maling-mali talaga, 'te (It's really wrong)," he said.
The military was surprised by the Maute Group's resistance in Marawi City because bandits usually run to the mountains and escape when confronted with heavy artillery. The clash is now on its 4th week and the fighters are still holding out.
If they were trained like the young boy, it means they are all ready to kill and they are all ready to die. – Rappler.com