Schoolteacher Baicona Hassan wept openly on Thursday when she saw what remained of her two-story home in a ruined section of Marawi city in the southern Philippines.
Her house had been looted and left in disarray, and its bullet-riddled walls were barely standing in Basak Malotlot, a district that absorbed some of the heaviest fighting after Islamic State-linked gunmen went on a rampage in May. This week, the Philippine government declared the five-month siege by the militants over.
“I spent my entire life savings on this house,” Hassan sobbed. “Now it’s gone.”
Hassan went to the abandoned residential area, accompanied by some neighbors who were told by soldiers not to enter their homes and, instead, view them from the outside.
They disobeyed the orders and stormed into their own homes, hoping against hope at salvaging whatever they could as they began the long rebuilding process.
Officials who had earlier surveyed the damage here said that it could take at least a decade to fully reconstruct Marawi, a once picturesque lakeside Islamic city that was all but razed to the ground by five months of fighting that killed more than 1,000 people.
An elderly woman, Panggao Saduk, cried when she discovered that her home had been ransacked by people whom she believed were members of the military, an accusation that was earlier rejected by troops.
“We have cash inside the house, but it’s all gone now,” Saduk said as she shuffled away.
An old man, who declined to be identified for security reasons, told BenarNews that their village was not a stronghold of the enemy. He said the military had taken over the entire neighborhood as the fighting dragged on.
“People of the world, this shows how our government is bad. Our apartment was torched and everything was stolen,” said the man, who had saved up while working in the oil fields of the Middle East for three decades.
Reports of looting had emerged since the middle of the crisis, with some hostages who were earlier rescued or escaped telling the authorities that some of the abandoned homes had been looted by the gunmen.
Footage apparently shot by a military drone also showed armed men aboard a truck allegedly ransacking one of the homes located on the frontline. But some residents had been skeptical, and even accused troops of pillaging homes.
Jerome Succor Aba, national chairman of Suara Bangsamoro, a Muslim political group, claimed that the Marawi residents’ rights had been violated by both the enemy and the government.
“President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to bomb Moro (Muslim) communities that led to death and displacement of Moro people and destruction of our communities is in itself a violation of our human rights, and to use this as a form of collective punishment against the Moro people whom he accused of harboring terrorists,” Aba said.
He said the U.S. government should be held partly liable for the destruction of Marawi, because Washington backed Duterte’s alleged anti-Muslim stand.
"The U.S. government and Duterte’s incessant accusation against the Moro people as harboring terrorists gave a go-signal for the military and the police to openly attack Moro civilians and communities,” Aba said.
He warned that the U.S. involvement in the war through aerial surveillance provided to Philippine forces had “exacerbated terrorism and terrorist networks” in the southern region. He did not elaborate.
The Marawi siege began on May 23 when soldiers and policemen tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, who was on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, for his leadership of the Abu Sayyaf group, which has pledged allegiance to IS.
Hapilon, who was also recognized as the leader of the IS branch in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of the local militant leaders who helped plan the siege of Marawi, were killed last week. The military also reported that Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant who allegedly bankrolled the Marawi siege, had been slain.
On Monday, the Philippines declared an end to the battle and siege, after killing the last 42 militants during a final assault. Officials said residents would only be allowed to trickle back to Marawi in the coming weeks as the military conducted final mopping up operations.
The fighting that involved near-daily aerial bombing runs displaced more than 200,000 residents, flattened buildings and killed about 920 militants, 165 government forces and 47 civilians, officials said.
Richel V. Umel in Marawi contributed to this report.