Marawi, we weep for thee Philippine Star

Marawi, we weep for thee Featured

ON May 21, 2017, I had the privilege of hosting a family dinner for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at my residence in Davao. It was the eve of President Duterte's departure for Russia. Unbeknownst to the upper echelon of government, Marawi was to erupt in bloody violence between the forces of the Abu Sayyaf led by Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State-affiliated Maute-Islamist, and government forces. This would last for five months.

Researching on this incident, referred to as the "Marawi siege," four published source books are cited: 1) The Challenges of Reporting Violent Extremism: Lessons from Mindanao, Mindanao Institute of Journalism, Carolyn O. Arguilas ed. (2021); 2) The Battle of Marawi, Criselda Yabes (2020); 3) Marawi Siege: Stories from the Frontlines, Carmela S. Fonbuena (2020); and 4) No Man Left Behind, Phil Fortuno, PhD.

This column is written on the fourth anniversary of the siege, but to add flavor to these books, I sought another angle with the contribution of two individuals who had a stake in Marawi at different times of their lives: one describing Marawi long before the incident, and the other four years after. "Dinky" Munda, a Christian and a classmate at the AdeD in the 1960s and Samira Gutoc, a Maranao Marawi resident and former student leader in the 1990s whom I met during my NGO days and is now immersed in civil society.

Jose Paulino 'Dinky' Amado Santos Munda Jr.'s narrative

"Marawi, formerly known as 'Dansalan' has a special place in our family's history. In 1920, my grandfather, Gen. Paulino T. Santos, then a captain, was ordered back to the province of Lanao to become the first Filipino provincial commander and concurrent provincial governor, relieving Major M. L. Stephens.

"[The year] 1917 marked a defining moment in the young Paulino's career as an officer in an event which propelled him into the pantheon of Philippine heroes. This incident happened in the Lake Lanao-Bayang area.

"The tall slim, brown-skinned constabulary officer, a newly promoted lieutenant, stared unflinchingly at the heavily fortified Moro cotta, then confidently spoke to his American commanding officer: 'Colonel Waloe, Sir, this is a Filipino fight so let me have the honor of leading the attack.'

"When his leader consented, he took a bamboo ladder, leaned it against the ramparts, climbed it and led his American and Filipino men. He personally killed many Moro rebels and his troops finally overpowered and conquered the Moro stronghold. This despite his receiving a near-fatal wound in the neck.

"...Paulino Santos - private in 1909, lieutenant in 1914, and major-general commanding the Philippine Army in 1936. For his act of bravery on this bloody day in 1917, on this fort called Bayang Cotta by the placid waters of Lake Lanao, Lt. Santos would later be awarded his country's highest honor for bravery - the Medal for Valor.

"To date, there have been only three AFP chiefs of staff who have been awarded the Medal of Valor -- my lolo, Gen. Castañeda and Gen. Sobejana, the current chief of staff.

The siege

"On May 23, 2017, eight AFP troopers attempted to capture the Emir Isnilon Hapilon in an apartment in Marawi City. It turned out that the AFP's intelligence report was faulty which led to an unsuccessful operation - a 'botched' job.

"To get a better understanding of the Battle of Marawi and its aftermath, I sought answers to the following questions:

"First, there was no military strategy. AFP just stumbled into this battle – almost accidentally. The eight AFP troopers were shot at by Islamists killing two, wounding four and trapping the group. Thus began a series of unsuccessful 'rescue' attempts – escalating into a full-fledged battle.

"Second, the prolonged urban siege had taken the lives of 168 soldiers and 974 terrorists, 13 of them foreigners...87 civilians who died, 40 due to illness, and hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced...

"Perhaps, we'll never know how many of the 974 were really terrorists. Some were hostages forced by the Islamists to shoot at the AFP forces, or else...

"On the third and fourth questions (about the five-month battle costs and rehabilitation), there are no answers found in the four books...cost estimates...run into hundreds of billions. Was this a 'Pyrrhic victory'?

"On the fifth question (when will reconstruction be finished?) ...[at] the 4th anniversary of the battle...the reconstruction is far from complete. Did our AFP have to destroy the whole city of Marawi?"

Aftermath

Government reports an estimated 11,400 displaced families are currently housed at their relatives' and friends' homes mostly outside of Marawi while thousands more wait in temporary shelters. The Marawi Rehabilitation Task Force (MRTF) averred the displaced population could begin returning home at the end of July 2019 (two years ago). Furthermore, "the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) Secretary and Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM) head Eduardo del Rosario said in a report that the master development plan for the rehabilitation was already 60 percent completed."

This is disputed by Maranao leaders and other civil society organizations from Mindanao under the Marawi Advocacy Accompaniment (MAA) who asked President Duterte to speed up reconstruction of war-torn Marawi city - four years after the siege. The Deegong's promise that Marawi will rise as a prosperous city again continues to remain hollow.

It may be recalled that in government official reports during the siege, the terrorists went on a killing spree carrying out extrajudicial executions on Christian civilian populations "...because they were not Muslim. Militants often gave civilians a de facto religious test prior to killing them; they were asked to recite the Shahada, which is an expression of Muslim faith, or to respond to Muslim greetings. Civilians who did not recite the Shahada or failed to respond appropriately were often summarily executed." Amnesty International after interviewing several witnesses reported accounts of just 25 such executions.

A collateral problem is the unidentified bodies recovered and buried in the Maqbara public cemetery. The police crime laboratory has processed 470 bodies but only four were matched and identified through DNA testing. The rest are unknown victims, terrorists, hostages or simply bystanders.

Samira Gutoc's view

Today Marawi is a desolate place. Initiatives to rebuild homes both by the private sector and government are bereft with problems. This is further complicated by the pandemic, which hit the "bakwits" (the displaced ones) the hardest. As Samira Gutoc wrote, "At the end of each day, as I take a few moments to reflect, one of the questions that comes to mind most often is this: How can we protect an entire country from Covid-19 when we cannot even protect and return home mere thousands of Marawi evacuees, who have been displaced since 2017 and are now subjected to the world's longest lockdown?

"For us, the delays coupled with the neglect of the voices of communities in the city's 'ground zero' contribute further not only to the trauma still being endured by the 'bakwits' of the siege but also to the century-old narrative of marginalization, discrimination and exclusion and social deprivation in Mindanao."

On the fourth anniversary of the siege, Marawi is a powder keg. It can erupt anytime and when it does, Allah/God help us!

 

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