A coronavirus lockdown has hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid for thousands of residents of Marawi who remain displaced nearly three years after fighting between government security forces and pro-Islamic State militants left their southern Philippine city in ruins, relief agencies, uprooted people, and community leaders say.
The lockdown, which authorities in surrounding Lanao del Sur province imposed in mid-March amid a nationwide viral outbreak, barred non-residents including aid workers from entering Marawi, disrupting and complicating efforts to deliver basic services such as water and electricity for months, according to a range of sources interviewed for this report.
“Our COVID-19 lockdown is stricter than during the five-month siege in Marawi City,” Zia Alonto Adiong, a member of parliament in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM), which governs an area including Marawi, told BenarNews.
“We are both trying to heal the wounds of the siege and also trying to keep our people from infection,” he said.
More than 125,000 people remain displaced and are waiting for the government to rebuild the city, according to the United Nations. Marawi was bombed during the fighting in 2017, when IS-linked militants seized the city for five months before government forces chased them away and killed the top leaders of the siege.
Nearly three years on from the end of the battle, thousands who were uprooted by it live in cramped, squalid temporary shelters that dot areas outside the city.
“One hundred fifty-three of us IDPs share one faucet for water,” Bai Mikmik Pumbaya, who lives in a temporary shelter in Saguiaran town outside the ruined city, told BenarNews. She was referring to “internally displaced persons” – a term that was once unknown to her but is how she refers to herself and her neighbors nowadays.
“We do not even have enough water to wash our hands, and for our kids to take a bath,” said Pumbaya, 48, a mother of five.
While she and her husband, a tricycle driver, worried about the coronavirus, she said there was little else they could do.
“We can’t even afford face masks,” she said.
On Thursday, the Philippines overtook Indonesia as the country in East Asia with the most number of confirmed COVID-19 cases – 119,460 and counting.
“We are now facing a bigger problem because of COVID-19, which has compounded the situation of the displaced,” Drieza Liningding, a community leader from Marawi, told BenarNews.
“We are faced with a bigger problems every day,” said Lininding, who heads the Moro Consensus Group. He was among residents of Marawi who lost their homes during the fighting in 2017.
In Marawi last month, locals rejoiced as the lights came back on in Tolali, one of the 22 villages in Marawi, when power was restored there and in another village, after authorities in June eased the COVID-19 movement restrictions on relief workers.
Relief has started to trickle in since then.
It has been slow because of several factors, including that personnel with aid agencies are required to show documents authorizing their travel inside and around the former war zone, and many of the agencies are based in places elsewhere in the southern region, where local COVID-19 lockdowns restrict their movements as well, leaders of aid groups and officials said.
“Our assessment is that we were only able to serve 8,000 IDPs after the lockdown was eased in June,” Rey Barnido, executive director of Duyog Marawi (Help Marawi) of the Catholic Relief Services, told BenarNews.
Because of the lockdown, he said the group had fallen far short of its target of delivering food and medicine to 35,000 displaced people in the area.
Mobile phone costs have doubled during the pandemic and internet service is patchy in the Marawi area, further complicating the logistics of communicating with staff and sending aid to people in the city, he said.
“Online apps like Zoom are next to impossible because of the poor internet signal in Marawi,” Barnido said.
Jasper Llanderal, executive director of the Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian organization, said most of its staff were working from their homes instead of going into the field during the lockdown.
“This [pandemic] is entirely new for us. We are crawling along the way because we have to address the safety of our staff,” Llanderal told BenarNews.
In June, he said, his group was able to resume operations to deliver aid to Marawi after the movement restrictions were loosened. Action against Hunger was able to supply 15,000 kits of soap and alcohol to displaced families and was looking to distribute another 150,000 kits.
In nearby Iligan city, Zahabudin Guro, who heads the local office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told BenarNews that the COVID-19 lockdown had caused delays in the construction of water pump stations vital for supplying potable water to temporary camps in Marawi.
Empty streets, highways
An official from Task Force Bangon Marawi (Rise up Marawi), an inter-agency group created to supervise the city’s post-war recovery, acknowledged that the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, which lasted from mid-March to the end of May, had negatively affected humanitarian relief operations there.
“The streets and highways were empty of vehicles during that period. The entire Marawi City and Lanao del Sur were deserted,” said Felix Castro Jr., the task force’s assistant secretary, confirming that humanitarian agencies were also restricted at the time by the travel ban in Marawi.
Only a few humanitarian agencies were able to resume their development work among the Marawi IDPs after the task force eased the travel restrictions on them in June, he said.
Castro said aid agencies that resumed their operations have had to rely on frontline workers who are residents of Marawi and Lanao del Sur.
Almost all the humanitarian agencies are based in Iligan City – an hour’s drove from Marawi – but which also strictly limits travel outside the city limits, he said.
“These humanitarian agencies, especially the international agencies have very strict standards on health protocols. Many have opted to work from their homes instead of coming into Marawi and Lanao del Sur,” Castro told BenarNews.
Aie Balagtas See, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Manila, Cotabato City and Iligan City, Philippines.