Her story continues to haunt me, yet I am only able to imagine her tragedy from a distance.
The first day I saw her, our team was passing along on one of the main roads in Marawi City when we bumped into a convoy of police personnel.
"Where are you off to?" we asked them. They said they were to retrieve some bodies. They told us we could join.
Together, we all headed to another area.
"The street is already blocked. We just came here yesterday to clear the area," one police officer wondered out loud.
A man approached with an outstretched hand, speaking in Meranao, but the police offer refused to shake it.
"Take off this blockade," the police officer ordered instead.
The man complied, and we headed inside the area where we were greeted by the smell of rotting flesh.
Dead in an empty lot were the remains of a man. From a distance, he no longer looked human to me. His lower torso was gone, eaten by dogs, according to some villagers with whom we spoke.
All that is left of the dead man's lower extremities were two bones jutting out into the heat of the day. Flies covered what was left of him. He has clearly been dead for days.
He wore a green shirt and his face was unrecognisable. He had what looked like a machete tucked in his shirt. He held prayer beads on his left hand.
The police began taking his photos and measurements.
We headed into another street where I saw her for the first time. I saw her almost immediately, a little girl wearing a pair of red shoes, a pale pink jacket and striped coloured pants.
I met her in a way one never wants to meet a child.
She was lying face down in the mud, her body disfigured and bloated. Her arms were spread out, her right hand resting on the hip of a dead woman.
From where I was standing, the woman looked pregnant. But I wasn't sure because she was wearing a long, black garb.
I assumed the girl was the dead woman's daughter. She looked as though she had been hiding behind the woman before they were shot.
They were both unrecognisable too: their heads had been blown off.
But the girl's red shoes, somehow, remained clean and unstained. They somehow shone, despite the pool of blood and mud surrounding them.
The police started taking photos of the woman and the little girl, as well as those of four other female bodies lying twisted in that small, dark alley.
I asked a man if he knew the identities of these women.
"I have no idea, ma'am," he replied. "They just started renting an apartment here a few months ago."
"Identity unknown," the police officer wrote on his report card.
Police personnel pulled out white body bags and began putting the bodies in them, one by one. A total of 14 bodies were retrieved from this area.
I returned to my hotel room that night depleted. My shoes were stained with blood.
'What do we do?'
For days, I couldn't take my mind off that girl. I couldn't stop thinking of the dreadful things that may have happened to her.
Still, I pictured her singing nursery songs in a small voice, a child's voice. She was probably just learning to count with her cute, chubby fingers. The red shoes must have been a gift from her mother. Who was her father?
When scenes like these leave journalists with nothing to say, what do we do?
The embalmer told me the girl had been shot in the back, probably as she was running to her mother.
Like many stories I encountered, her story offers me more questions than answers.
The crisis committee of the local government said the process of trying to identify the dead is well under way.
They said retrieval protocols that consider religious and cultural practices are being considered, but identification is almost impossible.
Many of the human remains recovered being nothing but bones, with some flesh still attached.
Those looking for lost loved ones are told that life must go on. But how can they go on? What closure can they hope for?
Many of these survivors don't even have bodies they can bury.
'I recognised her red shoes immediately'
It was just nine in the morning in Iligan, the biggest city close to Marawi. Three weeks before, bodies were brought here, all for mass burial.
The bright green walls and polished floors of the morgue make a sharp contrast to the unpainted wooden coffins bathed in sunlight coming in through the open windows.
In the morgue, there were birds in cages. The embalmer told me they were messengers of those who have passed.
I was going over the coffins and I saw one labelled, "Female. Child. June 11, 2017." I asked the embalmer to open it.
I recognised her red shoes immediately.
|The conflict in Marawi has claimed more than 600 lives [Jeff Canoy/Al Jazeera]|
The shoes were wrapped in a see-through plastic bag, placed right on top of the white body bag holding her.
The shoes remained clean, a stark contrast to her ill fate.
I cannot help but appreciate the sensitivity the embalmers accorded her and, for some reason, like a long-lost relative, I felt grateful.
I saw some of her clothes when they unzipped the body bag. I asked the embalmer to zip it back up. I did not need to see more.
I reflected for a moment on how, by some twist of fate, I came across her again.
I went into another room and saw another body from Marawi. We were told he was killed the night before, but he would have to wait because there were not enough embalmers for the number of dead here.
Iligan is now faced with a growing humanitarian problem. Marawi is unable to process dead bodies due to the number who have been brought here for burial since the Marawi siege began more than two months ago.
Despite this, the local government of Iligan is doing its best. Even if religious traditions may not always be observed, local officials try to give a semblance of dignity to those who died in the war zone that is Marawi.
The caskets were brought to a public cemetery for mass burial. There is, at least, a place for them here. Some 50 people were in attendance, including several journalists and bystanders.
Yet, all of those who witnessed the burial were strangers to the fate that befell the little girl and her dead mother.
One by one, the dead were buried. Songs were hummed, fresh flowers were offered, and candles were lit.
A lady read Bible verses lifted from the book of Ecclesiastes, from a chapter devoted to life's seasons.
"A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance."
But nobody came to mourn for that little girl and her dead mother. Like so many others here, they have been reduced to numbers, laid to rest without anyone knowing their names.
Source: Al Jazeera News