MARAWI - "Saan yung putok?" five-year old Nisrin would ask her mother every time she hears the loud bang as bombs fall on Marawi City on the other side of the hill from Saguiaran, the next town after the besieged city.
Nisrin, her three other siblings, together with her father and mother left Marawi on May 24 in haste, a day after elements of the Maute Group took over the city.
"Nakasalubong namin sila," Nisrin's mother Sahira Rasid Ariraya said, recalling how they were let off by the terrorists as they were leaving their house near the Mayor's house in Barangay Sangkay, probably because they were identified as Maranaos.
"Umalis na kayo, baka madamay pa kayo sa gulo," Ariraya recalled what the Maute members told them.
And so they left hurriedly, bringing with them nothing except the clothes they were wearing.
Fast forward a month later, the family is still in Saguiaran, with 4,000 other families. The exodus from Marawi has been so massive it has almost doubled this town's population of 24,000.
Estimates of the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) vary from 230,000 of Marawi's residents that have all left the city, to more than 300,000 total displaced from all over the province of Lanao del Sur.
The number of schoolchildren now stuck in evacuation centers in Saguiaran consequently has multiplied. At the town's central elementary school, for example, the number of school age children has more than doubled from 400 to 900.
The Department of Education (Deped) said there are more than 15,000 displaced school age children, ages 6 to 14, from Marawi.
"That puts a strain on the public school system," said Jerome Balinton of Save the Children, an international non-government organization (NGO) working on development and humanitarian programs in the Philippines.
The organization has set up temporary learning spaces (TLS) in the form of walled, large tents made of tarpaulin, in three of the barangays where there are a large concentration of evacuees. The spaces are 7 x 9 meters to conform with the Deped classroom size for 40 to 45 students.
All in all, Save the Children erected 20 TLS spread in Saguiaran, Balo-i, Pantar and Balindon.
But here in Saguiaran, the TLS have to accommodate two sections while in the initial emergency phase.
"The priority is to bring the children back to school and provide a semblance of normalcy because of the conflict," explained Balinton.
"We want to show that even with the crisis ongoing they can still access education."
Aside from the TLS, Save the Children distributed 3,000 back-to-school kits and an equal number of hygiene kits to the students.
"Ang dahilan bakit binigay namin ito sa kanila, siyempre displaced sila from Marawi. They brought nothing with them when they were forced to flee Marawi. Karamihan, lalo na yung mga batang galing sa mahihirap na pamilya, ayaw nilang mag-enroll. Bakit? Dahil wala silang gamit sa eskuwela." Balinton explained.
The DepEd on has given a deployment order to all public school teachers coming from Marawi to continue with their mandate to provide education to the children, after they have been given psychological debriefing.
In a memorandum issued by Education Secretary Leonor Briones, she said that “even in the face of emergencies, DepEd is committed to reach out to our learners wherever they may be and to ensure that their education proceeds.”
The challenge for Save the Children, and indeed the government itself, is for the conflict to end quickly so that the lives of Marawi residents can quickly be restored.
"Natatakot sa bomba," Naorai Minu described how her daughter reacts to the constant barrage of shelling in the distance.
"Sana mawala na giyera para makauwi na kami," Minu mused as she does her daily chores despite the challenging living conditions in the evacuation center. Minu sent her three other children to different relatives in Iligan except her 8-year old daughter who is now in Grade 1.
"The challenge is, as the conflict drags on in Marawi, 'di rin matatapos yung problema ng mga bata at saka ng mga pamilya nila. This is not a normal situation for them, kasi they were forced to flee home, their normal lives. And now ganito yung situation nila, siksikan sa evacuation center, nakikitira," Balinton said.
As the children hear the bombs falling and the guns firing in the distance, different sectors are making sure that the lives of the children displaced by the Marawi conflict can continue right now, even under the direst of conditions.