Yet these teens are very much different to 16-year-old Karim.
He was not given enough time to maximize his childhood to run across streets or fields to bruise himself to strength nor was he given the educational attention that he was supposed to have.
Karim learned ruggedness early in his life as he neither played nor leisured. His childhood had been mostly about sweat and hard work. He dealt with serious matters as early as 11. Serious matters that meant his survival.
"Yes, I was a recruit of the Maute group," Karim confessed in broken Tagalog.
|Photo from GMA News|
As he was speaking, sound of helicopter reverberated across the area of the interview, as it is happening in an area near the battle ground.
"I have friends inside Marawi still fighting. They are not afraid to die," Karim added.
Karim is just one of the dozens of children illegally hired by the Maute group to work for them. They were recruited at a young age to be trained, not in academics or sports, but in the field of weaponry and gunfight.
How it Started
Karim disclosed that it all started in 2009. He was just a kid accompanying his mother to worship at a local mosque in the nearby town of Piagapo.
After their worship, he met foreigners just outside the mosque who persuaded him to join a group of boys to be trained in the remote and mountainous areas of the town.
He was convinced and agreed to join.
A video recently recovered from one of the slain Maute members has publicized the kind of training these kids undergo under the Maute group. The video showed children in bonnets and masks, running alongside adults and practicing martial arts.
As soon as they arrived in their makeshift campsite to train, he was given P15, 000 a month! Quite an amount for a young boy to receive. This overwhelmed Karim that he never thought of asking the real nature of the training.
He stayed there with the group for three months, doing typical training procedures: push-ups, running through trails, and practicing martial arts.
In addition, they were taught how to shoot guns.
Trained to Fight at 16
Karim said he made quite a company during his stay in Piagapo but he refused to reveal his friends' names.
They were also not allowed to use their real names. The man training them has instructed them to refrain from using their real names during the training for precautionary measures, so those who will get caught and tortured by the military cannot betray his or her companions.
According to Karim, a group of foreigners dressed in black and whose faces were covered would arrive at their camp with bags or suitcases full of cold cash for the trainees' monthly stipend.
Not quite understanding English, Karim couldn't understand what their trainer and the foreigners were discussing, only hints from other boys that say that the foreigners were from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
He remembered that the most difficult part of the training was the late night mock abduction followed by torture of simulated tactical interrogation acted out as government troops.
Eventually, Karim completed his training. He was told to go home and to wait for Maute to call for him.
After the Training
The Maute group had several clashes against the government forces back in 2015 to 2016. Karim was not called to fight in these battles.
Not until early this year when the Maute group struck Piagapo. However, Karim did not heed the call.
He was again called for action. Last May 23, Karim was notified by his trainor to join the band of Maute fighters led by Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City.
Karim did not want to fight but the man who went to their house had a sword. By that time, he revealed that the Maute are already in Brgy. Basak Malutlut, roaming around the city.
"They told me some female mukahideen fighters were killed by soldiers for no reason, and this time I was convinced to join the fight to avenge our women," Karim said.
He was given an M16 rifle with an M203 grenade launcher by his commander who went by the name Abduljabbar Maute-Usman.
Tasks Under the Maute
Karim said he was told by this Abduljabbar to pick up the gun at the Ninoy Aquino Foundation Elementary School where majority of their companion fighters had decided to meet up.
Upon arrival, he was met with familiar faces of his friends during his training and some of those from Marawi city and nearby towns.
Female Maute members served as nurses and medics for the group. Karim said they were all covered in all-black traditional nikab, he wasn't able to see their faces.
The school had become a command center.
"Hapilon looked old. His head was covered by a shawl with only one eye showing," Karim said.
Karim confessed what he was tasked to do during their stay at the school: he delivered bullets and other supplies to the Maute group, from May 23 to May 30.
He said he picked up the ammunition in Barangay Marinaut and deliver them to the bandits already in battle in Barangay Basak Malutlut.
"I just drove my motorbike, past the Maute checkpoints and into the heart of the city," he said, smiling.
When he was asked about a certain injury, he answered while grinning that it was from a motorcycle incident.
The boy turned out to have some fascination with motorcycles.
Karim would later find out that no female mujahideen fighters were killed by the military. He realized he was deceived by the Maute group to convince him to fight.
"They (friends) told me it was a lie. The real purpose was to wage jihad and occupy Marawi City," Karim said.
He wanted to quit. But it was too late. He cannot abandon his companions and he realized quitting wasn't an option anymore. He had to continue fighting. He was then assigned in the area around the Islamic Center in Bangolo District.
He knows people from the area. He positioned himself outside the ancestral house of the Alonto clan where relatives of the Lanao Del Sur Governor Mamintal Alonto Adiong, Jr. were trapped. Karim said he was told by the governor's nephew to help guard the house as there are women and Christians inside, some of them were secretly placed there.
"They were our neighbors. I did not want them to be killed," Karim said in sympathy. He said that other civilians were not as fortunate as those inside the house. They were killed.
"I saw Abdullah Maute hunting for military spies among the civilians fleeing the city. On May 30, I saw him behead our neighbor from Central (District) believing he was a military spy," Karim confessed.
A week after the fighting began, airstrikes were mandated.
As the fighting worsened, the house owners asked Karim to safely bring them to Moncado Kadingilan District where civilians were seeking shelter in the house of former ARMM Deputy Governor Noordin Alonto Lucman, a well-known political leader and part of the clan that dominates Lanao del Sure politics. Assemblyman Zia Adiong said the Maute fighters respected Noordin to spare those who were then seeking his protection.
Karim knew if he can bring the people he was guarding at the house to Lucman's house, they can come out of the city alive.
The Escape, Thanks to Karim
Karim led around 18 people, mostly Christians disguised as local Maranaos, outside the Alonte house. They started their daring escape, taking the risk of not knowing where the airstrikes would fall.
"I told them not to speak and let me do all the talking," Karim said.
They were allowed to pass the first few checkpoints as Karim did all the talking until a suspicious guard from a certain checkpoint halted them. Karim was asked who were the people he was leading to which he answered his relatives that he wanted to lead out of the city and to safety. The guard seemed unconvinced and the tension increased. Karim was already at the verge of using his rifle.
Fortunately for Karim and his companions, the military was distracted by the attacks of the Maute. Karim and his companions were allowed to pass through the checkpoint.
Lucman received the people led by Karim and then led them to Bangolo Bridge where it was safer. The group, now led by Lucman, increased in number as other civilians went with them along the way. Lucman instructed them not to speak and just follow what he says.
Lucman was able to lead 167 civilians, mostly Christians, out of the city.
Questions and Remorse
After the incident, Maute leaders sent the new recruits, such as Karim, to their respective homes. Karim went home to guard their house. He was later invited by the police for questioning.
He confessed being physically harassed by police men during the interrogation. By then, the airstrikes had already ceased.
He thought his life will never be the same after the Marawi crisis. He was afraid for his life. People who lost relatives and properties might kill him when they find out he was a Maute recruit.
"It is not the true Jihad they are fighting. The real Jihad does not allow innocent people like civilians to be killed," Karim said in remorse.
Karim fell silent for a moment as he diverted his gaze to the haze of black smoke coming from the nearby battleground, oblivious of the gray smoke coming from his own cigarette.
"I regret everything," Karim whispered.
"I regret ever joining Maute," he added.
Karim was never the culprit here. He was also a victim -- one of the hundred victims of cruel adults who wanted to wage war against what they deem an unjust system.
Karim was robbed of his childhood for years of training and roughness. He was robbed of better life opportunities and while teens of his age take selfies, he has learned to shoot a gun. And as young as sixteen, he was questioned at gunpoint. He fought for his life. He was beaten for information.
It is indeed an unfortunate reality. His life will never be the same again.
Source: GMA News