“Every day is heartbreaking” – when Marawi City fell to pro-Isis militants

Smoke billows from Marawi City in the Philippines on 28th June, over a month into the conflict between Islamist militants and government forces. Photo: Yangke / Xinhua News Agency / PA Images

“When Islamist militants took Marawi City in the Philippines, it came as something of a surprise. The clashes between [radical Islamist group] the Maute and the military have been happening for a long time, but it was thought the terrorists wouldn’t touch Marawi City because it’s where their leaders grew up: they fight in the mountains, not their own home. But on that day they burned buildings to the ground, took around 100 hostages and raised the black flag of Isis.

Marawi City is the commercial centre of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It’s a mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people and it’s affluent compared to the rest of the region. The ARMM is on the island of Mindanao, the second largest in the Philippines, which has historically seen lots of fighting.

In 2000, there was a conflict on Mindanao between the government and [Muslim secessionist group] the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and there have been numerous clashes between armed Islamist groups and government forces in recent years. It comes down to independence – the Muslims in the Philippines have long wanted to carve out their own territory because the country is predominantly Christian and they feel sidelined by the government in Manila. A lot of Muslims are unsatisfied with the ARMM because they feel it doesn’t offer enough autonomy.

There are 600,000 internally displaced people, mostly from nearby towns. It’s a humanitarian crisis”

The Maute, which ultimately wants its own caliphate, isn’t the only armed Islamist group fighting in Marawi City. Abu Sayyaf, another Isis-affiliated group which has taken hostages and plotted terror attacks in the past, is fighting alongside them. At the start of the conflict the Philippine military believed that around 100 militants were involved. Now, three months on, they’re saying that over 500 militants have been killed. They admit they underestimated the enemy, who are heavily armed.

The extent of Isis involvement in the conflict is disputed. The army tends to deny direct links because they don’t see movements of Isis operatives travelling to and from the Philippines, and they won’t acknowledge that there are Filipinos fighting in Syria. However, it’s believed that Isis made Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon its emir and direct contact in southeast Asia, and there have been fears that Isis is seeking territory in the Philippines.

 

On my first day reporting on the conflict the enemy fired upon the military headquarters, located around two kilometres northwest of the city, while I was inside. It was really scary. Most of the fighting in Marawi City took place in the financial district at the heart of town, but initially there were clashes taking place everywhere.

When the fighting started, many Marawi City residents didn’t want to evacuate. The area is notorious for rido – clan wars between families – so when they heard the gunfire they thought it was rido. Eventually almost everybody evacuated. In total there are 600,000 internally displaced people, mostly from nearby towns who were scared the war would spill over. It’s a humanitarian crisis.

Photo: NurPhoto / SIPA USA / PA Images

I met many civilians fleeing the violence. One evacuee had previously fled to Marawi City from Butig, a nearby town occupied by the Maute in November 2016. Now she had to flee for a second time. She thought the conflict wouldn’t last long; she carried only a small bag.

In many cases the men stayed behind to defend their homes after the women and children left, but they fled when they realised it was more than a clan war. I visited the two largest evacuee centres in the region and it was so sad seeing families of five sharing a small mat on a cement floor. It was so cold at night and they were eating almost nothing but tinned sardines for weeks on end.

It’s been hard to get accurate information on the hostage situation. An estimated 100 people were taken by the militants in May and by the end of August around half remained captive. It’s believed that Father Chito Suganob [a priest abducted when militants burned down Marawi City’s cathedral] has been forced to help make improvised explosive devices and that other hostages have been forced or coerced to fight.

Reporting on this story has been emotionally draining”

President Rodrigo Duterte tries to link his war on drugs [which has seen thousands of extrajudicial killings of accused drug dealers and users across the country since June 2016] to the conflict in Marawi, saying the militants are being partly funded by ‘narcopoliticians’ [politicians he claims are involved in the drug trade]. While it’s possible that some politicians are involved in drugs, it’s far too simplistic to say this conflict is about drugs, because there’s always been rebellion in Mindanao. In the war on drugs we’ve seen human rights violations perpetuated by the police. Marawi is different because the military is in charge and it’s arguably more conscious of its human rights record. Still, it’s hard to know what’s really happening inside the battle zone because of restrictions imposed on the media.

I believe the terrorists will soon be defeated in Marawi but it won’t end the crisis. It will take a long time to rebuild the parts of the city destroyed; so many people have lost their homes. And there are groups apart from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf who are sympathetic towards Isis. How do you stop this ideology from spreading? Much depends on the ongoing peace process involving MILF, and the touted replacement of ARMM with a new region that gives Muslims more autonomy. The longer this peace process takes, the easier it becomes for the Maute to recruit.

Reporting on this story has been emotionally draining. There’s always breaking news, something else happening. You never run out of stories and it’s difficult to choose which ones to tell. The escapees have amazing tales of survival, how they dodged bullets, how they were so afraid of the fighting but remained strong – and they break down when they tell you their story and cry for the first time. And you cry with them. You get to know the soldiers and about how brave they’ve been, and when [on 31st May] a friendly-fire incident kills 11 of them it’s heartbreaking. Every day is heartbreaking.”

 

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