Philippine President Blames Unexploded Ordnance for Slow Rebuilding of Marawi

Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel
Marawi and Iligan, Philippines
2020-10-20
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DSC_8565 copy 2.jpg A construction crew bars entry to the destroyed section of Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines where in 2017 government forces battled Islamic State-linked militants for five months, Oct. 17, 2020.
Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews

Difficulties with clearing unexploded ordnance are hampering the reconstruction of Marawi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the nation this week as it marks the third anniversary of the end of a battle with pro-Islamic State militants that left the southern city in ruins.

The Philippine leader said it also was necessary to destroy the lakefront city in order to defeat hundreds of IS-linked gunmen who took over the lakeside town for five months in 2017.

“In Marawi people are complaining. You know, Marawi is not easy. We started it and we are at it already. But the clearing of explosives is taking a while,” Duterte said during a televised address late Monday, alluding to reconstruction efforts.

While the 75-year-old president appealed for the Philippine public to be patient, he insisted that government forces had liberated the predominantly Muslim city from “Maute terrorists and ISIS.” He was referring to IS by its other acronym.

“We are doing our best. We did not ask for this fight. We had to destroy it because it was the only way to put down the enemy,” Duterte said.

When Filipino and foreign militants seized downtown Marawi on May 23, 2017, they provoked a battle with government forces that lasted till Oct. 17 that year.

During the battle where street-to-street fighting was widespread, the military – with aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering help from the United States and Australia – bombed the city heavily and killed the leaders of the groups that spearheaded the siege. Some 1,200 people were slain, most of them militants.

Despite the government’s ultimate victory in Marawi, at least 125,000 of its residents remain displaced and members of Philippine militant organizations that carried out the siege have regrouped under new leaders, officials have acknowledged. The siege of Marawi marked the first takeover of a city in Southeast Asia by IS-linked militants.

The militants had intended to transform the once-picturesque city into Islamic State’s regional caliphate. During the early days of the siege, they took dozens of people as hostages and used them as human shields. The militants also beheaded members of Marawi’s small Christian community.

In his speech, Duterte said Manila was prepared to spend billions of Philippine pesos on rebuilding the war-torn city located in the country’s largely Muslim south. The president also rejected criticism that cash destined for Marawi’s reconstruction could have ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

“Do not worry. And we will continue to spend until such a time that Marawi is rebuilt to its former glory,” Duterte told the people of Marawi, although he added “it might take some time before we can really reach the ideal place that you’d call home.”

Task Force Bangon Marawi, an inter-agency body appointed by the Duterte administration to facilitate the city’s rebuilding, was having difficulty too in determining how to parcel out different properties to their rightful owners because many of the homes that were destroyed did not have proper titles, the president added.

“Individual titles overlap and there are so many things to solve locally. The problem is about the Marawi community itself, not on the part of the government,” Duterte said.

Military officials declined to tell BenarNews how many bombs and other ammunition are still scattered throughout the city. In the meantime, bomb disposal teams have been working over the past three years to defuse explosives and clear Marawi of unexploded ordnance so that reconstruction can happen.

In 2018, the Marawi task force estimated that it would cost 80 billion Philippine pesos (U.S. $1.6 billion) to rebuild the city. Government officials since then have presented no other estimated costs for public discussion.

Workers pour cement along Quezon Avenue as part of efforts to rebuild streets and other infrastructure in war-torn Marawi, Oct. 17, 2020. [Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]
Workers pour cement along Quezon Avenue as part of efforts to rebuild streets and other infrastructure in war-torn Marawi, Oct. 17, 2020. [Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]

‘Nothing to commemorate’

During a trip to Marawi last weekend in which a BenarNews reporter tagged along, the task force announced that it was planning to finish the construction of public buildings by December 2021, about six months before Duterte’s six-year term ends

But Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group, which includes displaced Marawi residents, said that the task force’s efforts would amount to nil if it failed to construct homes for people who remain displaced.

“Marawi is made up of its residents, not public buildings,” said Lininding, a resident of the city who himself was uprooted by the fighting in 2017.

“There is nothing to commemorate, only pain and our suffering that continue till today,” he told BenarNews. “What are barangay [village] halls, museums, guest houses, police stations, parks for us who are still living in temporary shelters for the past three years?”

Eduardo del Rosario, who heads the task force, said all public infrastructure in Marawi was due to be completed by the end of next year.

“We can finish 80 percent of the construction of all public infrastructure in nine months,” he told BenarNews.

Residents would be allowed to return to the most affected areas to rebuild their homes, but only if they secured a permits from the local government, and provided that they had their own funds to finance the construction of their houses, he said.

Currently, a bill called the Marawi Compensation Act is pending in Congress. The bill, which details government help in funding reconstruction for home owners, has been endorsed to the plenary for debates but has not yet been introduced for discussion among lawmakers.

“Actual rehabilitation has just commenced but reconstruction remains gradual. Problems also arise in the temporary housing arrangements for the internally displaced persons,” according to a recently published report prepared by Ann Tarhata Basman, a member of the regional parliament.

“Housing units in some temporary shelters remain unfinished, while some of those that have been completed are only partially occupied,” the report said, adding that water, sanitation and hygiene facilities “is a perennial issue in transitory sites.”

Officials with the National Bureau of Investigation announce the arrests of two suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, identified as Jamar Ibi, also known as Bas, and Raden Jamil, also known as Tamiya, (standing and wearing orange shirts), at a press conference in Manila, Oct. 20, 2020. [Stringer/BenarNews]
Officials with the National Bureau of Investigation announce the arrests of two suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, identified as Jamar Ibi, also known as Bas, and Raden Jamil, also known as Tamiya, (standing and wearing orange shirts), at a press conference in Manila, Oct. 20, 2020. [Stringer/BenarNews]

A lingering threat

Philippine troops celebrated the liberation of Marawi from militant control on Oct. 17. The government officially declared the battle over six days later.

Among the enemy fighters killed toward the end of the battle were Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group who also headed the Philippine branch of Islamic State, as well as Abdullah and Omarkhayyam Maute, brothers who led the pro-IS Maute band, which took part in the siege.

However, new leaders are now commanding those groups, military officials have conceded.

After Hapilon was killed, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, another Abu Sayyaf militant, was named as the new head of IS in the Philippines. Since early 2019 and under the direction of Sawadjaan, Abu Sayyaf has carried out suicide bomb attacks on Jolo, the main island in southern Sulu province, according to Philippine authorities.

Meanwhile in Manila on Tuesday, the National Bureau of Investigation announced the arrests of Jamar Ibi and Raden Jamil, both suspected Abu Sayyaf members who were allegedly involved in mass abductions of members of a Christian sect in the Sulu Islands in 2002.

Ibi and Jamil, who served as perimeter guards during the abduction, were captured in the same location in the Philippine capital on Monday, NBI officials said.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Rinoza contributed to this report from Cotabato City and Dagupan, Philippines.

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