The coronavirus pandemic ravaging many parts of the Philippines has complicated homecoming efforts for thousands of Filipino Muslims who were uprooted when Islamic State-linked militants ransacked the southern Marawi city three years ago, officials said Friday.
Many of Marawi’s displaced residents have long been frustrated in their efforts to return and rebuild their homes, but now they also have to contend with being locked out during the outbreak of the potentially deadly virus, politicians and local leaders said.
“This crisis has affected everyone. But we could say that IDPs are doubly affected,” said Abdullah Macapaar, a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel leader, referring to the city’s internally displaced people.
“Many of them still haven’t recovered from the Marawi siege, and now they have to face COVID-19,” said Macapaar, who serves as a politician who helps house displaced people, in a statement.
On May 23, 2017, hundreds of Filipino, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern militants laid siege to Marawi, a scenic lakeshore city, provoking a battle with government forces that raged for five months and left the city in ruins by the time the pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters were flushed out.
Three years on, residents are clamoring to be allowed to return to their homes despite the pandemic that broke out in recent months.
Drieza Lininding, who heads the Moro Consensus Group composed of displaced Marawi residents, said the government must act to end three years of suffering for many of its people.
“We must be allowed to return unconditionally, and everyone must be given free mass testing,” Lininding, whose family home was destroyed in the heavy fighting, told BenarNews. “More importantly, returning IDPs must be given free transportation. Three years is too much already.”
He said people were willing to rebuild even on their own, using indigenous materials such as bamboo and wood, and not necessarily wait for government aid which, he said, may never come.
The people “should be allowed to repair their temporary homes,” he said, adding, “It may not be perfect, but at the end of the day, it would be their homes, in their own properties.”
On Thursday, Philippine Rep. Mujiv Hataman called for an overhaul of Task Force Bangon Marawi, the agency created to carry out the reconstruction of city, where large areas still are uninhabitable.
“While the country fights the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Marawi suffer twice in this crisis as they continue to be plagued by an outbreak of government delay and inefficiency in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of their homes three years after the 2017 siege,” Hataman said in a statement.
“A destroyed Marawi should not be the new normal. COVID-19 or not, the rehabilitation must go on,” he said.
Statistics provided by his office showed that there were 17,000 families – or roughly more than 95,000 people – still displaced three years after the fighting, he said.
“Rehabilitation should move faster than the virus. Long before this plan to flatten the curve, Marawi was already flattened by bombs. No other city has suffered these three in succession: war, virus and now hunger. Just imagine being in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and you cannot even stay under the protection of your own home,” Hataman said.
Marawi’s displaced population lives on its outskirts in tightly packed evacuation camps. As of May 17, nine cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed with four deaths in Marawi City and Lanao del Sur, the surrounding province, according to Save The Children, which cited statistics from the regional health office.
At the national level, the Philippine health department has confirmed 13,597 coronavirus cases and 857 deaths, according to figures updated on Friday.
Macapaar’s former insurgent group, MILF, through a peace deal with the government, has controlled an expanded autonomous region in the south since last year. The region includes Marawi city, the only Muslim city in the mostly Catholic Philippines.
As a consequence of problems that have been reported with gathering complete data on the city’s displaced population and adding their names to a master list, Abdullah Macapaar said, “many Marawi IDPs are being left behind in relief and government assistance.”
“In some areas, assistance has completely stopped already, or has been unavailable to begin with,” said the ex-guerrilla who was known by a nom-de-guerre, Commander Bravo.
Mohammad Agakhan Sharief, a religious leader in Marawi, is among the people who remain displaced three years after the siege, which marked the first time that militant groups aligned with Islamic State had taken over a city in Southeast Asia by force.
He said he and his family were anxious to return to their home.
“The temporary shelters are too small for the evacuees,” he told BenarNews.
Sharief said he had been allowed to visit ground zero of the battle of Marawi, and he believed “there is no more danger for us.”
The Philippine military had earlier cited the presence of unexploded bombs as the reason for why his family and others had not been allowed to return home.
“Let us go home. We have been suffering too much already,” Sharief said.