MARAWI, Philippines: Unlike other kids who learnt their ABCs from teachers or parents, Norhussein Benito was taught to read by soldiers.
The six-year-old boy with wide, wondering eyes spent last year not inside a kindergarten classroom as he was supposed to, but in an evacuation centre in the provincial capital of Marawi city in southern Philippines.
Benito and his family had to flee their home on May 23, 2017, after the Islamic State (IS)-allied Maute group attacked Marawi, embroiling it in a heart-breaking siege which lead to the deaths of 47 civilians and displaced around 360,000 people.
The conflict also prevented around 62,000 children like Benito from going to school.
One of whom, Abdillah Masid, will now never have the chance to do so. Masid, 15, was killed when a stray bullet struck him as he prayed in a mosque in Camp Ranao, a Philippine army base.
It is stories like this which make it more difficult for kids like Benito to go back to school. But it is also one of the reasons why they should, a year after the tragedy which changed Marawi.
ROOM 6: WHEN ISLAMIC STATE TARGETED SCHOOLS
The fighting in Marawi led to the cancellation of classes in 69 schools, according to the Philippine Department of Education. In the ensuing conflict, 20 schools were totally wiped out.
The damage to the schools went beyond the destruction of physical infrastructure, however.
The schools, which should have served as a safe sanctuary for children, also served as a refuge for the militants.
“According to the military, IS militants stayed here in the school. This is where they gathered as they went in and out of the roads,” said Noraida Arobinto, principal of Basak Malutlut elementary school.
“In fact, when I came back here, I saw their clothes.”
The members of the Maute group stayed in what is now known as Room 6, a classroom for 6th graders.
Arobinto showed us the classroom: There was a bare blackboard and an empty floor, while chairs of different colours were stacked up at the back.
Arobito pointed to us the wooden window sills, where she saw the black clothes hanging. One of them, she said, has “ISIS” printed on it.
Holding classes in the same room, in the same school, where the members of the Maute group hid and plotted is a challenge for Arobinto. The parents are scared; the children, traumatised.
“I was worried on the first day of classes, wondering if students would return,” said the 52-year-old.
“On the first day when school resumed, I saw parents were still afraid. Even until now, they don’t let their kids go alone to school; they accompany them and fetch them after class. But every now and then I remind them that we’re okay.”
Arobinto said the children had to undergo psychosocial services and so did the teachers.
Different non-government organisations conducted psychosocial services for the children, while education department required teachers to undergo the same.
BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE
Resuming classes and bringing children back to school was one of the main ways to help them cope with what happened to them in the siege.
But this will be a challenging task, as those like Benito who should have started kindergarten in 2017 failed to do so when the clashes broke out.
Without intervention, they would not be able to start as first graders when the new school year begins in June 2018.
This creates a feeling of insecurity among children, adding more distress to their already turbulent lives.
“There are kids aged seven, eight and even nine years who weren’t able to finish kindergarten, because they thought they were too old for it would not fit in if they returned to school,” Norhana Radia, a teacher, said.
To address this, the education department introduced the Kindergarten Catch-up Education programme, or KCEP.
Under KCEP, children will take transition classes for eight weeks so they can be qualified to enter the first grade when classes start in June.
“This the first of its kind in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao, wherein we anticipated that the kids couldn’t go back [to school because of the conflict],” said Anna Zenaida Unte, assistant schools division superintendent in Marawi.
“Right now we have about 1,600 pupils doing an 8-week term for kindergarten.”
Since 20 schools have been destroyed in Marawi’s so-called Ground Zero, some KCEP classes are being held in temporary learning spaces, such as those set up by non-government organisation World Vision in the village of Sagonsong.
Between 30 and 35 children attend the classes in makeshift learning areas, where from 7 am to 1pm they get to learn how to write, read and draw through different activities.
The curriculum is “play-based,” as Radia explained.
“We hold activities like playing ‘clay-doh’, where letters are moulded using clay,” she said.
"In their tripod fingers activity, we really target to develop their counting skills because they don’t know how to write yet. At least there’s familiarisation first through playing.”
In terms of facilities, the temporary learning spaces still need improvement. There are no chairs, the children sit on mats and floodwater comes in when there is heavy rain.
But the life, song and spirit inside are enough to help restore a sense of normalcy for the kids.
Learning new things and playing with other children have helped Benito forget the sound of explosions, which occurred on an almost daily basis during the conflict.
“He told us he’s already forgotten the sound of bombings because the only thing he thinks about now are the songs we teach him,” said Radia.
The remaining 47 public schools are now being prepared for the opening of classes in June.
Aside from these schools, the education department is now also looking into regulating madrasahs, or religious schools, in Marawi, following reports that some of them have been used to recruit members for the Maute group.
“The department doesn’t have supervision over them now,” Unte said. “The madrasah is mushrooming in the city because we don’t have a hold on it.”
The education department is now studying how it can lay out rules and mechanisms for monitoring the madrasahs, which teach the Quran, Islamic subjects, Arabic, among other subjects like literature and mathematics.
The local government unit of Marawi is also poised to enact an ordinance that will place Islamic schools under the supervision of the department of education.
Marawi City’s mayor Majul Usman Gandamra said this as early as November last year, as the Maute group allegedly recruited boys as young as 10 through some of these schools.
The proposed regulation comes hand-in-hand with the introduction of peace education in the classrooms.
Unte explained that the peace education aims to instil a mindset of respect and obedience among children, using cultural tools such as songs and dances.
It will take teaching a whole generation of young Maranaos about peace and how it can effectively dispel violent extremism to help prevent another Marawi siege.
This generation will involve Benito, who wants to be an imam, or religious leader, one day.
“I want to be an imam so I can teach others what the Quran is all about, how they can go to heaven,” he said.
The Maute group also said the same thing when they were trying to recruit young people.
But this time around, the teachers here in the southern Philippines have learnt that if you want to teach peace, start with the young.
“It’s so easy to influence young people in these schools,” Unte said.
“We would like to intensify the delivery of education and align our classes by promoting peace, respect, equality and loving our community.”