Almost 1,000 displaced Filipino families have been allowed back into battle-scarred Marawi city to check their homes under tight military security over the past few days, but unexploded bombs strewn amid the rubble have limited their movements.
On Wednesday, BenarNews reporters and journalists from other media outlets accompanied some of the families that have been trickling into the former war zone in batches since April 1.
The Philippine government gave them permission to venture back inside so they could pick through the debris for whatever was left of their previous lives, five months after a siege by Islamic State-linked militants and an ensuing battle with government forces destroyed the scenic southern city.
The families and reporters were packed into private vehicles that snaked through the city’s “main battle area.”
No one was permitted to stray. Reporters who joined the first batch on Wednesday were allowed to observe, but were told to respect the grieving returnees.
A woman in a traditional Muslim garb was visibly upset as she gathered tattered copies of the Quran from her home in Tulali, a village in Marawi. Around her was a wall that had been painted a vibrant pink. Now, bullet holes pockmarked it.
“This is too painful,” the grieving woman told BenarNews. She was too distraught to say her name.
Troops armed with assault rifles patrolled nearby streets, while others stationed themselves inside the ruined homes, their outlines framed by gaping holes in the walls.
Troops recover human remains
Apart from Tulali, the military allowed the 979 families to enter two other villages, said Maj. Gen. Roseller Guanzon Murillo, who is with the Army’s 1st Infantry Tabak Division and commands Joint Task Force Ranao.
But the military explosive ordnance and disposal team and the engineering brigade were also on constant lookout after finding many unexploded bombs in the debris.
“To date, these include eight unexploded ordnance, one 60-millimeter mortar, one hand grenade and six 40-millimeter rounds of ammunition,” Murillo said.
Since the fighting ended in late October, the military so far had recovered 1,178 unexploded bombs and 323 improvised explosive devices, he said. Only 17 of the more than 70 bombs dropped by the military, but which did not explode, have been recovered.
And troops were still recovering human bodies, with eight skeletal remains retrieved this week alone, he said.
Ordnance-clearing teams were slowly combing through the rubble, and hoped to finish it by the end of June, “although it does not mean 100-percent clear,” Murillo said.
Meanwhile, the military was continuing to ask civilian residents of nearby areas to turn over unregistered firearms to the army, as a precaution against violence breaking out, he added.
Fighting broke out in May 2017 when the military moved to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, who spotted hiding out in Marawi, a lakeshore community considered the center of Islam in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
But Hapilon, backed by local militants from the Maute group and Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters, repulsed the troops, provoking a battle that dragged on for five months and saw the militants engage the Philippine military in vicious urban warfare.
The siege ended in October after troops killed Hapilon and the rebellion’s other leaders. Officials said 1,200 people, most of them militants, died in the fighting.
The battle, however, forced Marawi’s 200,000 residents to flee into overcrowded evacuation camps, where sanitation became a major challenge.
Col. Generoso Ponio, the local army brigade commander, said the military was continuing to monitor fresh recruitment efforts by those militants who had escaped from Marawi.
“We are calling the civilians and other organizations not to allow themselves to be infiltrated and recruited by the terrorists,” Ponio said.