EXCLUSIVE: Rappler talks to a former Maute Group child soldier.

“Cayamora and Farhana Maute promise his parents he will study Koran, but they turn him into a fighter instead.”-Carmela Fonbuena |

MARAWI CITY, Philippines – A few years ago, a young boy overheard Cayamora and Farhana Maute talking to his parents about him. The parents of the notorious Maute brothers, responsible for the raging battles in Marawi City, were offering to make him study the Koran.

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 ngChristiansa 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.

TRAINING. Child soldiers are taught to kill early on. Rappler sourced photo  TRAINING. Child soldiers are taught to kill early on. Rappler sourced photo

 

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.

Brainwashed

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.

CHILD SOLDIERS. The Mautes train children for battle. Rappler sourced photo CHILD SOLDIERS. The Mautes train children for battle. Rappler sourced photo

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 ngAllah (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.

ASSAULT. Members of the police special forces maneuver as they assault Muslim militants' hide out near the city hall in Marawi City on May 28, 2017. File photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

 ASSAULT. Members of the police special forces maneuver as they assault Muslim militants’ hide out near the city hall in Marawi City on May 28, 2017. File photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

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.

ABLAZE. Fire rages in Marawi City on May 23 after an attack by the Maute Group. Photo from @attysamina  ABLAZE. Fire rages in Marawi City on May 23 after an attack by the Maute Group. Photo from @attysamina
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.

Who is Farhana Maute?

“According to those familiar with her, Farhana ‘is as notorious’ as her sons Omar and Abdullah”

MOTHER. Farhana Maute is arrested and in custody.

MOTHER. Farhana Maute is arrested and in custody.

 

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – The mother of the notorious Maute brothers responsible for the siege of Marawi City may have escaped the battle zone as early as Day 3 of the clashes, said a military officer involved in the operations in Marawi.

She had an important mission. Wounded Maute fighters were brought to her care, the officer said.

Ominta Romato Maute, better known to people and to authorities as Farhana Maute, was arrested by cops at 7:15 pm on Friday, June 9, along with two wounded fighters and several unidentified females in Masiu town’s barangay Koramatan.

Masiu is some 36 kilometers away from Marawi if one takes the highway. Authorities learned she was “buying vehicles and firearms in the area to be used for their escape outside Lanao del Sur province,” according to a report for police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa.

They were about to escape on a Gray Revo vehicle when cops found them. It is not clear if there was a firefight, but the report said high-powered firearms and improvised explosive devices were recovered from them.

According to those familiar with her, Farhana “is as notorious” as her sons Omar and Abdullah.

LOGISTICS. Photos of Maute Group members and their vehicles are displayed at checkpoints. Rappler photo LOGISTICS. Photos of Maute Group members and their vehicles are displayed at checkpoints. Rappler photo
 

Farhana’s arrest comes 3 days after the Maute patriarch Cayamora Maute was arrested at a checkpoint in Toril, Davao City.

Both parents are believed to be recruiting soldiers for their sons’ operations but Farhana has always been the bigger fish that authorities had long wanted to catch.

Farhana comes from the well-respected Romato clan in Central Mindanao. She has always been identified as the “funder” of her sons’ operations and has been known to provide logistical support.

Several arrest warrants have been issued against her.

“Most terrorists’ financing are handled by the wives. That is why when fighters are killed, the wives are remarried to another fighter so that the financial connections will still be active,” said another military officer watching the Maute Group.

Farhana, according to President Rodrigo Duterte, wanted to speak to him but he refused.

The President said he would wait until the next generation of Mautes before talking to any member of the notorious clan. –

MILF, Maute Group battle for legitimacy

The mountainous town of Butig is host to an MILF camp where its founding leader Hashim Salamat is buried. It’s also where the ISIS-linked Maute Group trained its fighters before they targeted Marawi. 

It took 17 years of negotiations before the government and Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed in 2014 a peace agreement that envisioned to address the roots of rebellion in Mindanao.

But it wasn’t the end of the MILF’s struggle, it turned out, as the previous Congress failed to pass a law that should have created a new Bangsamoro region that would allow Muslims in Mindanao more power and control over governance and resources on their land. (READ: Maranaos hit ‘traitor’ Aquino for failed BBL)

It’s not clear when the Maute family, practically royalty among MILF clans, gave up on the peace process. The sons of Cayaramora and Farhana Maute supported instead the radical ideology of international terrorist network Islamic State (ISIS) and sought to carve their own territory in Mindanao to establish a caliphate. (READ: Terror in Mindanao: The Mautes of Marawi)

The MILF was working to complete the peace process – counting on the promise of President Rodrigo Duterte that peace in Mindanao is the legacy he wants to leave behind – when the Maute Group attacked Marawi City on May 23.

Rappler sat down last May 27 with Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of the MILF peace implementing panel. He said the Marawi crisis underscores the need create the new Bangsamoro region and make the terrorist groups irrelevant.

“One of the reasons why these groups are cropping up is because of the frustration of the people [with the peace process]. I think it’s time for the government, especially Congress, to be serious about the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL),” said Iqbal.

Slow peace process eroded MILF moral ascendancy

THE MAUTES. From left to right: Cayamora, Farhana, Omar, Abdullah Maute.
THE MAUTES. From left to right: Cayamora, Farhana, Omar, Abdullah Maute.

The Maute Group operates in Lanao del Sur, a province inside MILF stronghold central Mindanao. Iqbal said there are 3 beliefs that differentiate the MILF from the Maute Group.

  • The MILF believes in the political resolution of the conflict through a peace process. The Maute Group does not.
  • The said MILF would have seen to it that its military operations did not put civilians in the crossfire. The Maute Group, in contrast, brought the war to densely populated areas and used civilians as human shields.
  • Half of the MILF leadership are ulama or religious leaders. The MILF would never agree with the Maute Group’s radical interpretation of the Koran.

Iqbal said they worked to remind the MILF base that the Maute Group and the ISIS ideology it is promoting goes against MILF principles. But he acknowledged that frustrations over the peace process that the MILF pushed has somehow eroded its moral ascendancy – particularly among young Muslims. They have become doubtful about the leadership’s ability to address the political issues.

The Maute Group exploited this and was able to recruit among MILF clans.

“The Maute leadership is very young, a second generation [MILF]. Young people, the youth, are bold and daring. Young people are attracted to idealism,” said Iqbal.

In a sense, the MILF found itself in a battle with the Maute Group for legitimacy in Central Mindanao.

“Right now, modesty aside, the greater majority of our people are still listening to the MILF. We still have that popularity among our people,” Iqbal said.

“To a very good extent, I think only the factor of MILF is preventing the Maute Group from recruiting so many people to their side,” Iqbal said.

 

Blood is thicker than water

Marawi is yet another war that puts to the test the sincerity of the MILF in abandoning its history of violence and links with terrorism.

“The MILF has proven time and again that we are a consistent and reliable partner in the search for peace in Mindanao. Without a reliable partner in the search for peace in Mindanao, I don’t think peace can be achieved in due time,” said Iqbal.

The truth is MILF leaders – some more vocal than others – are frustrated with the delay in pushing for the law that will create the new Bangsamoro region. But the actions of the leadership showed commitment to peace. (READ: Duterte discusses Marawi Crisis with MILF leaders)

In Marawi, the MILF partnered with the government to create peace corridors that helped rescue hundreds of civilians trapped inside the battle zone. But the bigger contribution of the MILF is perhaps securing the highways from Marawi City to Malabang – the towns where the war could spill over – and make sure that they are not cut off.

Still, there are those who feel the rebel group could have done more to stop the Maute Group. In hushed talks, there are those who can’t help but ask if some MILF leaders had also aided the Maute Group in Marawi.

The blood ties between the MILF and the Maute Group are thick. Both groups can trace roots to the mountainous town of Butig located some 50 road kilometers away from Marawi City.

The war-torn town that hosts one of the MILF’s biggest camps, Camp Bushra, is the hometown of Maute matriarch Farhana. It is where MILF founder Hashim Salamat is buried and where the Maute Group training camp is located.

This means it’s not only the leaders of the MILF and the Maute Group who are related by blood or by marriage. It is the same among their supporters.

“As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. You can hardly separate those people from each other,” said Iqbal.

“I think that is the real basis of the suspicion that the MILF is one way or another linked to the Maute Group. But the reality is, the divide is so deep. It is so deep that the two groups cannot go together,” said Iqbal.

This is the reality that complicates wars and peace processes in these parts of the country. While families are divided in their ideologies – MILF, MNLF or the Moro National Liberation Front, BIFF, Maute Group, and Abu Sayyaf among others – blood ties often prevail when fighting erupts in their villages.

Suspicions vs MILF

DEAD. Philippine police commandos unload body bags containing the remains of their comrades killed in a clash with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano.     DEAD. Philippine police commandos unload body bags containing the remains of their comrades killed in a clash with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano.

Suspicions are hard to shake off whenever the government launches offensive in central Mindanao. In Butig last year, MILF fighters stepped aside to let the military run after the Maute Group. But there are allegations coming from residents themselves that some MILF members may have tipped off the targets and allowed them to escape.

Whether allegations of leaks are true or not, concerns prompted the police to keep their notorious January 2015 Mamasapano operation a secret from the MILF and the military. This is because the military would have pressed to inform the MILF out of respect for ceasefire mechanisms with the rebel group.

The police Special Action Force (SAF) succeeded in killing their longtime target, Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Marwan, but it cost the lives of 44 elite cops who fought in a day-long battle in the province adjacent to Lanao del Sur. They fought both the BIFF and the MILF.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) declared the clashes with the MILF a “misencounter” that should have been prevented if the police respected the ceasefire mechanisms with the MILF.

Public outrage over the deaths of the cops turned national sentiment against the MILF, however, and derailed support for the peace process. Lawmakers withdrew support for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

This was when Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte took the national stage to warn of war erupting in Mindanao if the government breaks its promise to the MILF. It was against this backdrop that Duterte first declared his plans to run in the May 2016 presidential elections.

“Remember that if there is a breakdown in the peace negotiations, we in Mindanao will be the first ones to suffer and it is sad that nobody in Manila seems to realize this,” Duterte was quoted saying.

This is where Commander Bravo and his role in the Marawi crisis comes in to show the bigger value of the MILF and the peace process despite the complications they bring.

Commander Bravo’s Facebook video

Abduhrahman Macapaar or Commander Bravo is the popular but belligerent chief of the MILF Northwestern Mindanao Front. He commands up to 1,500 fighters in the Lanao provinces, based on estimates of a military officer who served there.

Bravo is notorious for going into a rampage in 2008, along with the late former MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato, when the Supreme Court junked a peace agreement between the Arroyo government and the MILF.

COMMANDER BRAVO. The belligerent MILF commander leads about 1,500 fighters. Screenshot of his Facebook video

COMMANDER BRAVO. The belligerent MILF commander leads about 1,500 fighters. Screenshot of his Facebook video

 

Kato would form the breakaway group BIFF, which would coddle foreign terrorists. Bravo stayed with the MILF, which chose to restart the talks with the succeeding Aquino administration.

Bravo has always been a cause of concern for the security sector because of his reported activities in his lairs. Last year, Duterte aligned him with the Maute Group and accused him of taking his own territory in Mindanao.

But Bravo denied all these and declared his commitment to the peace process.

On the 3rd week of clashes in Marawi, he proved this. In a video message that went viral on Facebook pages of Maranao residents, he distanced himself from the Maute Group and declared their jihad to be wrong.

“Commander Bravo has been known for making so many statements and making so many decisions. But putting all things together, I don’t think we will doubt the loyalty of Commander Bravo to the MILF,” said Iqbal.

“That statement in the midst of the fighting in Marawi has settled everything. After all, Commader Bravo is with the MILF and he has said correctly the ideological and political lines of the MILF in terms of his statements in the video,” said Iqbal.

A reliable source confirmed that Macapaar met with the Maute brothers several times. Many shuddered imagining what could have happened if Macapaar and hundreds of his fighters joined the Maute Group.

“If Commander Bravo made a statement to the effect that he would at least sympathize with the Mautes, that makes a difference. But we never doubted Commander Bravo. He was through and through with the MILF,” said Iqbal.

Peace process

The new Bangsamoro region will replace the current ARMM – the result of the peace agreement with Nur Misuari’s MNLF in 1996.

The MILF was the breakaway faction of the MNLF that represented dissatisfaction with the peace process that Misuari led. Years later the MILF would eclipse the MNLF to become the country’s dominant Muslim rebel group.

This was the big lesson that the government learned from the MNLF peace process. For the peace efforts with the MILF to succeed, a new breakaway group cannot be allowed to grow and challenge the dominance of the MILF.

The military believes the BIFF has been diminished after it lost its leaders Kato and Usman, although the group remains a concern especially in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat.

There have been many other spoilers to the MILF peace process that the military also dealt with one by one. The Maute Group is the latest incarnation of violent armed groups that claim to represent the Muslims in Mindanao.

In February 2013, followers of late Sultan Jamalul Kiram III attacked in Sabah to protest the MILF peace process for failing to include the country’s claim to Sabah. In September 2013, Misuari’s followers also besieged Zamboanga City to protest the abolition of ARMM.

Iqbal said the creation of a Bangsamoro region as envisioned by the MILF will end the cycle of violence.

“When the historical injustices are addressed by the government, then new armed groups that would crop up in the future would have no more reason to fight government. All the issues are addressed by government and that would make them (armed groups) illegitimate,” said Iqbal.

Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, is expected to throw his support behind the proposed law when he delivers his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) before Congress this July.

Duterte said peace in Mindanao is the legacy he wants to leave behind. Indeed, it would mean everything for the people in his homeland – if only he could deliver.

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