But reality has its own way of unmasking itself right under your feet. It bites the moment you keep your eyes wide open listening to countless stories about conflict-stricken provinces in Mindanao.
Living in Mindanao, I am no stranger to conflict stories that grab people's attention and sympathy for the victims; the lives curtailed from battles after battles as well as its aftermath. Some stories are of triumphs, heroes and dreams.
Then there are other stories that are relayed out of context giving foreigners and locals a false impression of an otherwise beautiful land.
Provinces such as Sulu, Cotabato, Maguindanao and Tawi-Tawi are often portrayed negatively in media - a place where conflict is a way of life. It is where rebels lurk, government forces trod, and where civilians need to keep running away from their own homes. It is also where 'peace' has much greater value than a million-peso answer to a beauty pageant question.
The innocent children in these parts call it their home. Yet, they can only dream of a place where politics and clan wars don't threaten their future.
Only one thing is certain for them – the quest for their "happy ever after" will not be easy. There are no shortcuts; rather there will be long and tough roads to traverse.
But there is hope for them; and, in the most unlikely of places, these children caught in conflict have found hope through the game of football.
I was fortunate enough to get to know a handful of them while covering the Football for Peace festival organized by the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) as a Rappler intern.
All photos (with the exception of Harris' photo) by Haiko Magtrayo
One of them is Jean “Minnie” Tinaya Muamad from war-torn Cotabato, the only female football player from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Minnie is new to the sport of football and did not even know what it was until she saw uniformed men playing in her hometown. Her area is notorious for warring clans who fight over politics and ancestral domain claims.
As a child born into this socio-cultural dynamic, Minnie would never have made friends with other children from rival territories. But playing football somehow changed Minnie’s perspective. She now plays with kids from different clans.
However, the memories she had from the horrors of the past still haunt her. She talked to me about the days when her family had to constantly evacuate from their home to a safer place. There were times when they made do on meager rations of food. She would go to school hungry and exhausted.
These days, she has a vision for herself. She believes football can be the key to finishing her education and for her family to get out from the cycle of poverty. Minnie is one of the four scholars whose educational needs are supported by the Marines and private donors. Her nights are spent learning the multiplication table and studying English.
Her mother, a teacher, serves as her greatest inspiration. Minnie dreams of entering a different profession though. She wants to be a police woman. She thinks the job of capturing law violators will make her a good role model.
Photo by Nadine Pacis
Children have big dreams. Inspired by the Philippine Azkals football team, Harris Addin, an incoming third year high school student from Luuk, Sulu dreams of joining the national team one day.
On April 22, as part of the football festival, members of Meralco Sparks played with the children in a football clinic. Imagine how star-struck he was when some of his idols arrived at Fort Bonifacio.
One of the highlights of the festival for the children was meeting and training with their football idols
Just like Minnie, Harris is new to this sport. It all started when his friends in Sulu watched the Marines playing football. Intrigued at the game, they finally got the courage to ask the soldiers to teach them.
The Luuk team, which Harris plays for, is the festival's champion among the PMC-supported teams. He admits that he still needs to polish his football skills; but he doesn't want to compromise on his studies.
"Mahirap ang buhay sa Sulu [Life in Sulu is hard]," he said. His family scratches a living through street-vending, which is why he is determined to help his family get out of poverty.
In football, he is happy and his dreams are vivid. He hopes Sulu will one day be a tourism hotspot like Boracay and Palawan.
From all the towering buildings he saw in his first-time visit around Manila, Harris adds a new dream profession to his list: to be an architect.
Give peace a chance
Sarikit Dumamba, an elementary teacher and coach from ARMM, is a firm believer that football is giving peace a chance in Mindanao.
For her, football is not just a sport but a beacon of hope for the children in war-torn areas of Mindanao. It is a springboard that can give young students scholarship opportunities for higher education. This advocacy is also supported by different non-government organizations (NGOs) and private institutions.
Every day, she is inspired by their stories and dreams. It makes coaching the children under the scorching heat of the sun worthwhile.
There are ways to tell stories but children tell them with simplicity and candidness. They may be small voices but, together, they reverberate into a large cry for peace.
This is not a Disney flick. It is a fraction of reality we see, hear and feel.
I was inspired by their stories during the short time I spent with them and I am writing this for them - the young warriors wanting to take a detour from the trail plotted with murders and battles.
I am writing this because peace takes time. – Rappler.com
Stephen J. Pedroza, 20, is a Rappler intern and a student at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.
[Those interested in providing assistance to the "Balls for Peace" project may contact PMC Special Services Officer Major Stephen L. Cabanlet at the Philippine Marine Corps Headquarters, Marine Barracks Rudiardo Brown, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig. Call/text +63 906 564 2765 or email firstname.lastname@example.org]