Mohamad Asis frequently goes to the rooftop of a ruined four-story school building in this southern Philippine city, dreaming of the day he will be allowed to return to the home he abandoned two years ago as he and his family escaped marauding IS-linked militants.
Asis, who along with his wife and two children are staying with relatives, said they could not do anything but wait for the government’s greenlight. But politics surrounding certain aspects of rebuilding Marawi has added to their collective frustration.
“I am disappointed (because) until now we cannot return,” Asis, once a small-time trader, told BenarNews in Filipino. “How many months do we have to wait?”
Making things worse for Asis is a recent finding by the Commission on Audit, which reported that the millions of dollars donated to the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has remained untouched, either in a bank or used to finance officials’ religious pilgrimage to the Middle East.
Asis, who is in his 30s, and his family are among the estimated 100,000 people who remain displaced, either staying with relatives or at transnational sites. They could not go back to their homes in Marawi because the government has barred them from returning.
While some parts of the city have been reopened, the military has said some areas are littered with unexploded ordnance, making it dangerous for residents to return and rebuild their lives.
Asis’ family has been displaced since Islamic State-linked militants took the predominantly Muslim city by storm, beheading an undetermined number of Christians, destroying a Catholic church and engaging security forces in urban guerrilla warfare.
The siege began May 23, 2017, and lasted for five months, the toughest security challenge to face the government in recent memory. The battle included aerial bombings killing as many as 1,200 people, most of them militants, officials said.
Money in the bank
Duterte, during a trip to Japan last week, assured donor countries that their financial contributions to the rebuilding of Marawi remain intact in the bank.
But just days later, government auditors released their 2018 report that flagged the government’s housing development council for transferring about 5 million pesos (U.S. $96,000) to the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), purportedly for expenses of a few Marawi evacuees during their travel to the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Those evacuees have not been identified.
The Department of Finance reported aid pledges from China, Japan, Australia, Germany, Thailand and the United States, among others, has reached U.S. $670 million as of November 2018. Demolition of blast-riddled buildings began in February, but officials said rebuilding would not be completed within two years.
Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group of Marawi, slammed the government for the slow disbursement of the funds even as he urged the government to distribute the money to direct beneficiaries.
“It is so frustrating to learn that two years after the Marawi siege, about 100,000 IDPs are still struggling for their everyday survival,” said Lininding, using the local acronym for internally displaced persons.
“What’s worse, only one person had benefited from the donations supposedly intended to help survivors,” he said. He did not name that person.
Lininding said funds could have been released to be used for the medical and health needs of displaced residents – or for documenting the missing and the dead.
“While the government assured that the money was still intact, unspent and not pocketed, as these were kept in banks, it deprived thousands of displaced people whose conditions last year could have been alleviated had the donation been used for their basic needs,” Lininding said.
Housing chief defended
But Duterte on Thursday defended the head of the agency tasked to rehabilitate Marawi, as he asked state auditors to reconsider the diverted funds for rehabilitation.
“It’s not about financing a religious journey. Do not take it in that sense. Take it as a pacification campaign,” Duterte said during Eid al-Fitr celebration in his hometown of Davao City. “After all, natives and, we, were subjugated,” he said, referring to the historical sufferings of Muslim minorities in the south.
He said putting the agency’s chief, Eduardo Del Rosario, behind bars could trigger a fresh round of revolt in the south, explaining that a “simple token of generosity” such as funding the Hajj pilgrimage went a long way in ensuring peace in the south.
“We are helping our own people whose religion is Islam,” he said. “Let us invest in peace.”
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, visited Marawi earlier this week and later met with Duterte, during which he urged the president to speed up rehabilitation efforts.
“It is painfully slow for the victims and painfully slow for those who have expectations to go back,” Maurer said. “But it is also the pace we have seen in other places around the world.”
During his visit to Marawi, he said he saw a ruined community dealing with the “physical and psychological impact of conflict,” as well as relatives of missing people who refused to give up hope.
“I observed firsthand a people who will not let the conflict of 2017 defeat their spirit,” he told reporters in Manila before flying out Tuesday.
“I see indicators of hope, fortitude, and of shared determination to rise from the ravages of the conflict in Marawi,” he said. “Nevertheless, in talking to victims, responders and authorities, I can see that the work is not yet done.”
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.