Travel By Heart: Lamitan, Basilan – Part 03

To show as if I have no fear I looked at the man as he walked towards me. I stared at him, watching his movements. As he came closer I observed that he looks very clean and presentable with an upright walk. He held out his hand and introduced himself, “I’m an aide of the city counselor of Lamitan”, the guard told me that you were from the media?”. I quickly answered “No!” and explained who I am and what I’m doing there. But my explanation this time is much more thorough as I’m in a very different position now. The last thing I want right now is for people to mistake me as someone else.  “So you’re alone?” he asked.

While I was researching about Basilan I read from a blog that when asked if you are alone, always answer that you are with someone. This would give them the idea that you are always accompanied by someone or you belong with a group. But clearly, I’m not in the position to say that, no one in their right mind would join me here. I have been told that as far as they can recall no one has traveled as far as Basilan even worse Lamitan, not even a group more so alone.

That was not the only question that he asked, he asked a lot. It felt like a polite interrogation, but it all pointed out to one  thing, then he said: “What you are doing is not safe.” After hearing that my heart started to race,  I was not sure it was a precaution, a warning or a threat. At this point the boat has already departed the port, the RORO is now closed and I’m on a boat heading to Lamitan. He then left me as our conversation was becoming lengthy. Before he left he said that he will inform the city counselor of my presence.

I didn’t even leave my bike, I pretended to be working on something just to keep my head preoccupied. I kept repeating myself of the plan, get in, get out, don’t stop, don’t entertain, just ride. Quite ironic since I have given a lot of information about myself already, I have to admit that there’s some fear in me at that moment. Fear is good, once you acknowledge it you will find a way to overcome it. The only time you are really in danger is when you let fear take over.

I don’t know how long it was, but the man came back in a hurried pace. He said “She wants to meet you”, I was puzzled so I asked “Who wants to meet me?”, he replied “The Doctor”.  He asked me to follow him to the bridge of the boat, while we were on our way he explained that the captain of the boat is a dear friend of the doctor. So when she is on the boat she always stays at the bridge and that the boat never leaves without her onboard.

We finally got to the bridge. I felt like it was because I saw the huge steering wheel something that I often see in the movies. There were a couple of people inside and just a few feet from the person steering the boat was the doctor. The man introduced me to her and she gave me a really big smile as she held my hand. I can tell that she is around 50 or more but she looks very youthful and gives off this positive vibe. Before she can even ask, I quickly clarified that I don’t work for any media outlet and told her that I don’t want people on this boat getting the impression that I’m using that to get some perks or attention.

She told me to sit beside her, then she asked if I know how to take photos or if I’m a photographer. I told her that I do take photos but I’m in no means a professional. She then asked if I could teach her because she has a DSLR back at home that she hasn’t used for a while and she is looking for someone to teach her. I told her very bluntly “You are a doctor, knowing how to shoot a DSLR would be very easy for you.” Then I asked, “What do you intend to shoot?”.

She took out her phone and started showing me photos of children. “Since I’m not that good with the DSLR, I just took this using my phone. This is one of my projects called “Children of War in Basilan”. She was still looking at her phone but I was already looking at her eyes, it was starting to get watery. She said that the children in the photo are sons and daughters of rebels, while others are victims of war. The projects aim is to show the children that there is an alternative to fighting, and that hope and joy can still prevail, as I listen to her I felt my eyes getting watery as well.

I tried to hide it, I don’t want to cry in front of a stranger. She continued her story, “Most of these children grew up hating our armed forces. When their convoys pass by the would often point their hands or makeshift toy guns at it, as if they want to ambush it. Some children hide when they hear the sound of helicopters in fear that they will be bombed. That is their perception because of the war here”. I didn’t bother to answer, no words came out of my mouth. Often times when I meet someone interesting I would take a photo of them, I can’t bring myself to do it right now. Not because she is not interesting, but the moment that we have as she shared all of this is much more than a photo than I can take.

“I do not choose sides, I help those in need. Some rebels do ask for my help when their son or daughter is sick. I don’t turn them away. I help them in any way that I can. At one of our events, we knew that some of the children that will attend will be the sons and daughters of rebels and there’s a possibility that their parents would accompany them. So I asked our armed forces if they have some form of truce for a day just for the children. The rebels won’t bring any weapons and our armed forces won’t take their parents away. To foster a bond with these children our soldiers facilitate the event, they give them balloons and toys and entertain them. We once asked a helicopter to drop balloons! It has been very positive as we now see children looking up to helicopters instead of hiding from them, some of them even think it will drop some balloons again”.

I was speechless if I can give her the Nobel Peace Prize, I would. Then she looked me, I sheepishly wiped my tears away.  Then she said “Do you think you can take a photo of the kids? They usually hang out the shore in the afternoon. Some of them wait for me because sometimes I would give them toys.” even before I can say yes. She said “And one more thing! Can you take a photo of the mooring station that the Special Forces built? The worked hard at it and looks like something that you would see on Maldives”. And just like that, I had my first ever photography assignment.

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