As the muezzin’s call to prayer reverberated across Marawi’s ruined cityscape, Fatima Lumabao was resigned to never again seeing four of her children who vanished during a 2017 siege of this southern Philippine town by Islamic State-linked militants.
Lumabao’s children – Norhuda, 22, Rasida, 21, Parhana, 13, and Mohammad, 11 – were among citizens of Marawi who went missing and were presumed killed during the five-month siege and ensuing battle with government forces that began two years ago on Thursday.
“I can still feel the pain. I miss my children. In a blink of an eye, they were gone. I am praying that someday I will see them. Maybe in the next life,” Lumabao, 48, told BenarNews, her voice choking with emotion. Her three other children – all teenagers – crowded around their mother as she spoke inside a tattered tent next to Marawi’s old city hall.
On the second anniversary of the takeover by armed Muslim extremists, Lumabao and her children were among thousands of families living in tents in Marawi, despite pledges from the Philippine government to reconstruct the city.
Two years on, the frustration of displaced residents is palpable because the Philippine government has not yet started to rebuild the picturesque lakeside city, which was reduced to rubble during the fighting. Marawi also still is littered with unexploded ordnance that prevent people from moving back to their old homes.
As many as 1,200 people – most of them militants – died during the siege and battle, but the bodies of many of the civilians who were killed remain unidentified. On Thursday, a group of residents erected a simple marker on a mass grave holding the bodies of 281 people, on the outskirts of the city.
The words “We remember, we never forget!” were written on the memorial plaque unveiled here on Thursday.
International humanitarian agencies say the fighting here also left psychological scars on a population that has grown tired of waiting for Manila to make good on its promises of reconstruction.
“Despite the numerous aid efforts that have truly helped those in need over the two years, the people of Marawi have grown tired and frustrated. They want to stand on their own feet again and stop depending on assistance,” Martin Thalmann, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in the Philippines, said as he visited Marawi on Thursday.
Whether they have been living with relatives or at evacuation centers and transition sites, Marawi’s displaced people, according to Thalmann, continue to struggle for access to potable water, viable job opportunities and – most important of all – permanent shelter.
“They need sustained support to recover mentally from the trauma caused by the conflict that has affected their overall well-being,” Thalmann said. The ICRC has been helping the displaced by restoring sources of income and improving access to water and sanitation at various sites, as well working with families, like Lumibao’s, whose loved ones disappeared during the urban warfare in Marawi.
“We have been filling the gaps in the recovery response in coordination with the authorities and other aid organizations. But we can only do so much. The authorities still have the primary responsibility of providing sustainable solutions to help the people of Marawi,” Thalmann said.
Militant threat lingers
While the Philippine armed forces in October 2017 defeated pro-Islamic State (IS) Filipino militants who joined foreign fighters in attacking Marawi, those who survived and escaped have spread out to join other extremist groups across the country’s south, said army Col. Gerry Besana, the military’s regional spokesman.
The siege was spearheaded by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS in Southeast Asia, who was killed in the last days of the battle. The rebel force under his command took the city by storm, destroyed Marawi’s only Catholic Church, beheaded members of the Christian minority and held dozens of people hostage, including students and instructors at the local university.
Until they were finally defeated amid heavy and constant air strikes by government warplanes, the militants’ mastery of the urban terrain helped them stay a step ahead of Filipino forces who were more accustomed to jungle fighting.
The United States and Australia provided key intelligence that helped Filipino forces target rebel positions. But many of the bombs dropped from Philippine military aircraft missed their targets, killing soldiers and civilians during the battle’s early stages.
According to Besana, around 40 foreign Islamic extremists are reportedly hiding in Mindanao, the country’s southern third where Muslim guerrilla groups have been fighting Philippine troops for years.
While the largest of these groups recently forged a peace agreement with Manila, breakaway factions are carrying on with the rebellion. These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which is believed to have hundreds of fighters allied with the IS.
“We are monitoring their movements. If we come to the point we will get them, we assure the public these militants will get arrested or die if they resist,” Besana said.
Aside from military action, Besana said troops were also working with schools and local governments to dissuade local youths from joining militant organizations in the south.
“The fight against terror is not just with the security sectors. It’s everybody’s concern, so we are involving the people. In schools, our campaign to educate the students about the effects of terrorism continues. Local officials need also to report to us personalities they suspect of working with militants,” Besana said.
Meanwhile, residents of the city’s former main battle area could start returning to their homes in July to undertake repairs, and operations to clear debris and ordnance are ongoing, said Secretary Eduardo del Rosario, who chairs the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, which leads the government’s efforts to rehabilitate Marawi.
The return of residents who had obtained repair permits from the city government would be done in phases, del Rosario said.
“We can say that the debris management is going on smoothly and we are on target. In fact, starting July of the year, they will be allowed to come in to repair their destroyed buildings,” he said.
The central government promised to help the people affected by the conflict as well as speed up the rehabilitation of ruined city. Last month, however, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not spend any more money for rebuilding the damaged city, potentially opening a window that could be exploited by jihadists seeking new recruits to replenish their ranks.
“I don't think that I should be spending for their buildings. I will not spend money. The people there have plenty of money. Every Maranao there is a businessman. The debate there is whether I would be also building the same kind that they lost. I don’t think I am ready for that,” Duterte said in April.
“The Marawi crisis was a man-made calamity. It was bound to happen because of what they were doing there,” he added.
Froilan Gallardo contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines.