Karim sat before me with quick, nervous eyes, darting but never settling on the faces around him.
He couldn't be more than 16 years old; lanky in the way boys are during puberty, Adam's apple prominent on his wiry neck, and a headful of unkempt hair.
The face was gaunt and marked. His hands bore the scars of a hard life somewhere in the rolling hills and mist-veiled lake of Lanao del Sur.
"Yes, I was a recruit of the Maute Group", Karim told me in halting Tagalog just as the sound of the Agusta helicopter cannons reverberated across the lake.
He glanced at the sky and shook his head.
"I have friends inside Marawi still fighting. They are not afraid to die," Karim said.
He is one of the dozens of child bandits conscripted by the Maute group. Some of them were as young as 11 years old.
Karim's life with the Maute began sometime in 2009, when his mother took him to the nearby municipality of Piagapo to pray at one of the local mosques.
After worship, he met some foreigners outside the mosque who convinced him to join a group of boys for training in the hinterlands.
Upon reaching the makeshift campsite in the hills, he was given P15,000 a month for joining what he thought was military training for a local militia.
For three months, he stayed with the group, doing push-ups, running through the trails and practicing martial arts. They were also taught how to shoot guns.
A video recently recovered by the military from slain Maute members showed children in bonnets and masks, running alongside adults and practicing martial arts.
If Karim was one of the children in the video, he would have only been 11 years old when he started training with the group.
He said he made friends during his stay in Piagapo but refused to reveal their names.
No one was allowed to use their real names. Their trainer explained that it was better this way. If one got caught by the military and was tortured, he wouldn't be in a position to betray his fellow bandits.
On payday, a group of foreigners, dressed in black whose faces are covered, would arrive at their training camp bearing suitcases or bags full of cash.
Karim knew very little English, and could not quite understand what the foreigners and his trainer were talking about.
But word among the boys was that these were people from Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
Karim eventually completed his training.
He recalled the most difficult part was the late night mock abduction followed by the torture of simulated tactical interrogation as if by government forces.
When he had completed his training, Karim was told to go home and wait for the call when the Maute would need him.
In the first three clashes between the government troops and the Maute group in the town of Butig from 2015 to 2016, Karim was never called to fight.
Earlier this year when the Maute struck again in the town of Piagapo, Karim got the call but never went.
On May 23, Karim was told 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 came to his house had a sword in hand.
By then, the Maute fighters were already in Barangay Basak Malutlut and were roaming around parts of the city.
"They told me some female mujahideen 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 remembered being given an M16 rifle with an M203 grenade launcher by his commander who went by the name Abduljabbar Maute-Usman.
Karim said he was told by Abduljabbar to pick up the gun at the Ninoy Aquino Foundation Elementary School where most of the fighters had converged.
He recalled seeing familiar faces among the fighters, some of them companions from his Piagapo training days. Others were residents of Marawi and nearby towns.
A group of female Maute members acted as nurses and medics for the group. He could not see their faces as they were covered from head to foot in the all black traditional nikab.
At the time, Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, along with Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, were using the school as a command center.
"Hapilon looked old. His head was covered by a shawl with only one eye showing," Karim said.
Between May 23 and May 30, Karim delivered bullets and other supplies to the Maute group.
He would pick up the ammunition in Barangay Marinaut and shuttled them to the bandits already fighting in Barangay Basak Malutlut.
"I just drove my motorbike, past the Maute checkpoints and into the heart of the city" Karim said, a smile breaking on his face as we touched on the subject of motorcycles.
I pointed to an injury somewhere in his body and asked what caused it.
"Motorcycle accident " he grinned.
Deceived by the Maute
Karim would later find out from his fellow fighters that there had been no female mujahideen killed by the military.
"They told me it was a lie. The real purpose was to wage jihad and occupy Marawi City," Karim said.
But it was not easy to leave his companions. He also felt quitting was no longer an option.
As the Maute were rampaging through the streets, Karim found himself assigned in the area around the Islamic Center in Bangolo District.
Knowing the people in the area, he placed 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 one of the governor's nephews told him to help guard the house as there were women inside along with a group of Christians that they were secretly harboring.
"They were our neighbors. I did not want them to be killed," Karim said of his change of heart.
Other people the Maute found on the streets were not as fortunate.
"I saw Abdullah Maute hunting for military spies among the civilians fleeing the city," Karim said.
"On May 30, I saw him behead our neighbor from Central (District) believing he was a military spy," he added.
Banogolo Bridge had been the the nearest conduit out of Central Marawi but at this point, it had already been closed by the Maute who were bracing themselves for the advance of government soldiers.
A week into the crisis, the military airstrikes began with people still trapped in the heart of the city.
As the fighting went near Bangolo, Karim was asked by the house owners to 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 local leader and member of the clan that currently dominates Lanao del Sur politics.
Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong said the Maute fighters knew and respected his uncle Noordin enough not to harm the people seeking his protection.
If Karim could bring his wards to Lucman's house, they had a chance to come out of the city alive.
Karim led around 18 people outside the Alonto house, past the excited Maute fighters and but not knowing where the airstrike would fall.
Most of the people he was trying to help escape were Christians, disguised as local Maranaos.
"I told them not to speak and let me do all the talking," Karim said.
Most of the Maute fighters manning the checkpoints accepted Karim's explanation that the group he was leading were Marawi City residents.
The guards told them to leave the city posthaste as the fighting was expected to reach the heart of the city.
At the last checkpoint, however, a suspicious guard stopped the group and accosted Karim.
"Who are these people? " Karim remembered the guard asking, his gun pointed at him.
The other guards were also alerted and sauntered over the cowering group.
"These are my relatives. I want to bring them out of the city and away from the fighting," Karim said.
The lead guard had looked over the group, apparently unconvinced by the wiry boy before him. The tension mounted.
Karim refused to back down and fingered his rifle impatiently.
Fortunately, most of the Maute fighters were already preparing to fortify their positions along the three major bridges leading into the central city districts.
The guards eventually let them through.
As appeals for a halt in airstrikes fell on deaf ears, Lucman decided to lead the people under his protection towards Bangolo Bridge.
Assemblyman Adiong said the original group was just around 71 people who had managed to reach Lucman's house.
But as the group passed through the streets leading to the bridge, civilians who were hiding inside their houses and other businesses establishments emerged to join the group.
Among those who emerged from hiding were 33 Christian teachers and professors from Dansalan College.
Lucman had earlier told the group to not speak to any of the Maute fighters and just repeat whatever he told or shouted at the Maute fighters.
At one of the checkpoints before Bangolo Bridge, some fighters stopped the group and asked Lucman who were the people he was leading out of the city.
"He told the Maute they were all local Maranaos and a few relatives. " Adiong recalled repeating the story told by his uncle.
The guards then asked the group to speak the name of their god to prove their identities.
"Allahu Akbar (God is great) !" Lucman shouted.
"Allahu Akbar!" the group, comprised mostly of Christians disguised as Maranaos shouted at the top of their voice.
"Allahu Akbar," the guards answered, and let them through.
Lucman had previously coordinated with the military that he would be bringing civilians across the bridge, and the soldiers were already waiting on the other side when the civilians started crossing.
But some of the Maute fighters had followed the group until the bridge and a firefight erupted, forcing the civilians to run the gauntlet of flying bullets as government and Maute fighters engaged each other from across the river.
In the end, Lucman led around 167 civilians, mostly Christians from what many believe would have been certain death within the heart of the smoldering city.
The next generation
Sometime around May 30, the Maute leaders and Hapilon gathered their commanders and ordered them to send the new recruits like Karim back home.
"They told me we had to go home and continue the Jihad should they all perish in Marawi City," Karim said.
Motorized bancas were already at the lakeshore in Raya Madaya District and facilitated the escape of around 96 recruits, bringing them home to the different towns surrounding the smoldering city.
Over the last few weeks of the crisis, the military had fortified its positions in the towns surrounding Marawi, to seal off anyone fleeing the city and to constrict the movements of Maute sympathizers.
Joint Task Force Marawi spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo Ar Herrera said the Maute-ISIS leaders found out-of-school youth and orphans easy targets for their recruitment.
Herrera said such minors were easily swayed by promises of money, mobile phones and acceptance.
But Karim said not all the recruits came from poor families.
He believed the most determined fighters were the educated recruits coming from well-to-do families.
"Those who stayed behind in Marawi were the recruits who were fluent in Arabic and religion," Karim said.
Capture and remorse
Policemen eventually found Karim holed up in his parents' house somewhere in Marawi City.
Unlike most of the civilians, he stayed behind to guard their house against looters.
He would be later picked up by the police and brought to a police station for questioning.
"A bag was placed over my head and they punched me all over my body, asking the same questions over and over again. I told them all I knew," Karim said.
Paraffin tests on Karim's hands would later turn up negative for gunpowder burns - meaning he most likely never shot at anyone.
The Agustas had gone from the skies, but the screams of the FA50 jets had come to replace the din over the city.
Karim unwrapped the shawl he had used for the interview and asked for a cigarette.
He feared his life will never be the same after the Marawi crisis.
If the military or police won't come after him, the people who lost relatives or whose houses got destroyed in the fighting will surely kill him if they found 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.
The planes streaked overhead towards the city, followed by a sound like nearby thunder.
Bombs and rockets once again hammered the city.
Karim sat in silence for a few moments, watching a new plume of black smoke clawing itself up the sky.
"I regret everything," Karim whispered as he shook his head and took a long drag at his cigarette.
"I regret ever joining Maute," he said. —NB/JST/RSJ, GMA News