Humanitarian agencies have warned of a deepening crisis at evacuation camps for thousands of people uprooted by months of fighting in Marawi, with nearly all shut out from immediate job prospects and disabled ones appearing to have been neglected.
BenarNews reporters visited some of these camps on the outskirts of the besieged southern Philippine city recently and found that while many evacuees said they felt safe, they were looking toward the future with fear.
“I don’t know what to do. My legs are constantly aching and my eye sight is fading,” said Ali Haji Ibrahim, a 67-year-old grandfather of eight. “We have been here for more than three months. We want to go home. But where? Our house has been bombed out.”
Ibrahim described a daring escape a day after Islamic State-linked Filipino militants attacked Marawi city on May 23, turning the once prosperous area of more than 200,000 people into a wasteland.
As the patriarch of the clan, he described how he led his seven adult children and their families out of the area, as the gunmen went house-to-house in lower Dansalan district where he lived, questioning everyone about Islam and shooting those who failed to give a satisfactory answer.
A young man, clad in black and armed with an assault rifle, stopped them but let them go after seeing the old man, Ibrahim recalled. As they left, bursts of gunfire could be heard in the distance, he said. Neighbors also were desperately trying to escape.
“We used to have a small merchandise store. Now we have nothing,” he told BenarNews. “Now, food is scarce. Can you eat the air you breathe?”
The family now lives at a cramped evacuation center inside a covered gymnasium called “people’s plaza” in the town of Saguiaran, about 10 km (6.2 miles) northwest of Marawi, where about 200 other families are staying.
‘Always not enough’
Camp leaders have tried to put some semblance of order, but desperation among the evacuees is palpable.
There are no jobs for the menfolk. Many of the women appear to be in shock. They just stare into the distance.
Housewife Sapia Iriot, 34, said she was afraid for her seven children, the youngest of whom is only three years old. Food, she said, was lacking at the camp, and the older ones try to grab whatever they can every time a relief supply delivery arrives.
“But it is always not enough,” she told BenarNews, sobbing. On the cold concrete floor, her children jostled for space on a small mat. “At least before, we had beds in Marawi.”
Nearby, a man limped to a chair. He was visibly in pain, and stumbled. Two young women come to his aid, but many of the other evacuees stared. Pain and suffering is a common sight here.
According to the latest humanitarian bulletin issued by United Nations’ agencies represented in the Philippines, the three-month-old conflict has displaced nearly 360,000 people in and around Marawi, with many scattered about and staying with relatives in various towns and provinces.
That figure is more than the registered population of Marawi city, according to the census. But it’s common in many far-flung areas of the Philippines to have bigger populations than are on record. This likely includes those who were working in Marawi but did not actually live there.
“Especially vulnerable are those seeking shelter in evacuation centers, three months in,” according to the bulletin sent out by the local U.N. office.
It said that while many had “voiced their wish to return home,” they could not because the military was still battling to push out remnants of the militants from Marawi, where many areas remained littered with mines and unexploded ordnance.
The military has cleared some areas on the city’s outskirts, and has been accompanying residents there after they obtained safe-conduct passes.
But getting clearance isn’t that easy, because it requires one to travel back to Marawi to secure a permit. For many who have lost everything, traveling back is an option beyond their reach.
“You can’t go back because you don’t have the means to do so,” said 22-year-old nursing graduate Asnimah Tago. “We have nothing to do here. Except wait.”
People with disabilities ‘overlooked’
And as the conflict drag on, access to basic health services has become urgent to many, according to the U.N.
“Especially vulnerable are those with disabilities who are staying at evacuation centers, where there are significant barriers to basic health services, and the availability of specialized care and rehabilitation for the disabled are limited,” the United Nations said.
While Philippine law mandates that buildings and facilities construct infrastructure to allow mobility for displaced people, in reality this often is not the case. Many structures have been built simply without such accommodations in mind, like in impoverished Saguiaran town.
“The overall needs assessment revealed that there are a number of persons with disabilities who have not been properly identified and have been overlooked during the registration of IDPs [Internally Displaced People],” the U.N. said.
“No government or humanitarian agency is collecting information on the needs of persons with disabilities, and vulnerable persons, including those with disabilities, have difficulty accessing basic needs,” it said.
A tank rolls into an area of Marawi recently re-taken by government forces, as troops move farther in to dislodge Islamic State-linked militants from the city, Aug. 30, 2017. [Felipe Villamor/BenarNews]