Philippines: Marawi future uncertain as troops battle jihadists
For more than two weeks the Philippines army has been battling Islamist militants in Marawi, the capital of the country's second largest island, Mindanao. So far, the conflict has killed at least 175 people, including civilians, and more than 220,000 residents have fled.
The noise of helicopter blades is deafening at times, especially when they whiz by close overhead in convoy. Invariably you halt whatever you're doing and watch, mesmerized. Your eyes follow the flight path until you can no longer see them. The noise of whirring blades takes longer to die out. Finally, you're left with what feels like silence before the sounds of daily life become noticeable again. It's just about then that you hear guns being fired; then the blasts, as bombs hit the ground and thick, charcoal gray plumes of smoke escape into the air.
On May 23, 2017, militants linked to ISIS, made a play for Marawi. The government says it was attempting to create an Islamic Caliphate and it wasn't long before ISIS captured large swathes of the city. The government responded by calling for an immediate evacuation of civilians, while President Duterte imposed martial law on the island and the troops rolled in. On the ground snipers took root in homes, firing at the army below or anyone considered an enemy. Locals were caught in the crossfire too and lives lost. Homes were set on fire, others destroyed by the bombing raids.
One woman told me her house was now gone. "We lost everything," she said. "Our house was burned. Everything was lost." She said this with barely any emotion showing like it was just matter of fact. At first I thought she and many of the others were perhaps made of sterner stuff than me, but in reality many are still in shock and the full force of what's happened hasn't hit yet.
Haj Aliyah Disoma Maman had lived in her house with seven other families for decades. Now home is a two-meter square thin mat on the floor of an evacuation center. She is one of hundreds of thousands of people who had to flee Marawi. Stacked around her are the few things she managed to grab as she fled for her life from the militants.
She doesn't know when she can return home to Marawi with her family, but she does know there is nothing to return to. She will have to start again. Others will be more fortunate, including Alima Pangandaman, though right now she doesn't feel lucky.
Alima's house is on the edge of the city. It was captured by the militants at the start of the conflict and was the scene of some intense fighting. But the army has now been able to recapture most of the streets around her home. After negotiations, they allowed us in, but only at our own risk of course. Walking around the evidence of that battle is clear. Bullet holes perforate the walls of most buildings. Some, where the snipers hid are scarred more than others. Broken glass and empty shells scatter the floor.
Under military escort Alima is allowed to enter her home for a few minutes, just to retrieve some clothes and food. As she goes in, she realizes her home is still standing, but it's been targeted by looters. Her belongings are strewn across the floor, boxes emptied, furniture tipped over. She holds her hands to her head; her eyes water up, and she sniffles trying to hold back the tears. Her voice cracks as she reacts to the scene. "It's very painful ma'am, very sad. I am only human, this is terrible."
While she's in her home, her phone keeps ringing. Afterward she told me it was a family member who knew she was heading home and was concerned for her safety. Though the army says the area is clear, there is no guarantee. Indeed the street next to hers is still closed off as it's not yet been fully checked and there are plenty of places for the militants to hide. But Alima is too upset about her house to be worried about any immediate danger, telling me the looters are 'heartless.' "You saw how they trashed our things," she told me. "It's inhuman what they did to our house." She thanks us for helping move out a few hurriedly packed boxes before leaving.
In the intense, sweaty heat of the Philippines, we dare to move a little further toward the action. Gunfire still pings in the air. The soldiers point down a street motioning to us where it's coming from. They tell us to stay to the side of the road, rather than offering ourselves up as easy targets. There's a commotion and sounds of shouting. Suddenly from what appears to be an empty street, swarms of soldiers spill out and fill it. Foot soldiers march past us and make their way deeper into Marawi, their aim, to flush out any remaining militants. Then comes the convoy of trucks. They move swiftly and soon are flecks in the distance.
We head to the provincial capitol building. It's become an impromptu processing center for evacuees and those who are still being rescued. It is hard to know how many people are still left inside, but each day a new plea for help is made. That plea is being answered by a group of Marawi residents who initially banded together to help stricken family members. With no security or safety equipment more solid than a construction worker's helmet, they are risking their lives every time they answer a call for help. They've been shot at and close to accidentally becoming victims of bomb blasts. Their blatant heroics in the face of such danger have earned them the moniker 'suicide squad'.
Saripada Pacasum leads this rag-tag band of brothers. He told me they wouldn't stop until everyone who wants to be rescued is, but he's very aware of the risks they are taking. "Every time we step out of the provincial capital to engage in saving people, we are also scared that we might not make it," he says. Other suicide squad members told me they worry for their safety, but all are determined to continue these heroic missions as long as necessary. So far they have come to the aid of more than 500 people.
At their base in the complex the pace of life feels slow. For the most part, people sit in the shade and wait. Some are waiting for news of loved ones, some pondering what they will do next and when this will be over. Others are waiting until they can break fast, as it's the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and this is a predominantly Muslim area of the Philippines. Each day the faces become more familiar, and there's a sense of Groundhog Day. But the one thing I notice is how despite all that's going on around, people still smile and say hello. It seems ISIS can destroy homes, possessions and take the lives of loved ones, but they haven't yet been able to break the hope people have that the militants will all be captured and then their lives can return to some sense of normality.
Charlotte Dubenskij, RT
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.