More than 100,000 people are still living in evacuation centres following the Daesh siege of the Philippines’ city of Marawi, but as they await reconstruction, the president has announced a new military base to be completed this year.
Marawi City, Philippines - President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to build a new military base in the heart of the country’s only predominantly Muslim city has stirred up resistance among displaced residents. They were already angered by the repeated delays in the reconstruction of their destroyed communities, following the 2017 attack by the Daesh-inspired Maute terrorist group and Abu Sayyaf fighters.
Abdul Hamidullah Atar, the Sultan of Marawi and community leader, warned that the army base under construction in the Kapantaran district, which is within the worst-ravaged part of the city, would provoke more resentment among his people and cause “extremism to multiply”.
“If they want to establish a military camp in order to win the psychology of the Moro people, the Meranaws, against the militant groups, I do believe that it will not happen,” Atar said in an exclusive interview with TRT World. Meranaws, or “people of the lake”, refers to the dominant Muslim tribe living by the coast of Marawi’s Lake Lanao.
“We want a guarantee of non-occurrence of violence, not the establishment of more military facilities,” he said, adding that further militarisation reinforces the view among Muslim residents that they are seen as suspects, rather than victims, with ties to the terrorists who carried out the deadly siege.
The president’s office said the new camp “would help secure a stronghold and establish a strategic base...as a pre-emptive measure for the re-entry” of armed fighters and was “to protect the region from any security threats”.
Located on top of a hill overlooking the now-crumbling city centre, the new base will rise from the site of the old city hall, and is set to be completed later this year with an initial budget of US$7.8 million. It is the second base within the city, and is three kilometres from the original, Camp Ranao, which currently holds at least 1,500 soldiers, many of whom fought in the siege.
Battle against Daesh
It was on May 23, 2017, when a band of armed men, who pledged allegiance to Daesh, took control of Marawi.
The siege lasted five months - the longest battle Filipino soldiers had fought since World War II - leaving at least 1,000 soldiers and civilians dead, and more than 200,000 mostly Muslim residents, displaced. Locals say the death toll among civilians trapped in the fighting is much higher.
The attack prompted Duterte to declare martial law in the entire southern island of Mindanao. Martial law is still in effect until the end of 2019.
Almost 20 months after Duterte declared victory over the armed fighters, Atar said the Meranaws continue to bear the brunt of the war, as more than 100,000 of them remain in evacuation centres and other shelters, with no assurances about when they will be able to return and rebuild their bombed out homes.
“Every day that passes that people are still living in the slums is tantamount to the violation of human rights of the people of Marawi,” Atar said, his voice cracking in anger. “And we are not talking here about days, but years.”
Other Marawi-based organisations, such as the Moro Consensus Group and Tindeg Ranao, have also denounced Duterte’s plan to build the new army base when thousands of Meranaws are still without homes, calling the president’s move “the highest form of suppression”.
They complained that Duterte’s 10-hectare project has taken over homes and businesses, displacing the civilians twice over.
Criticism of Duterte
The president brushed off the criticism, saying, whatever the military takes, “we will pay to avoid trouble”. He also insisted that the site of the base is part of a military reservation declared by the government in 1953 -- an assertion locals have questioned.
Duterte further angered Meranaws when he commented in April that he should not be spending for their destroyed buildings, because many of them “have money...including from the drug trade”. He also said that the siege was “bound to happen because of what they were doing there”.
Atar said that if that is the mentality of the government officials and the military towards the Meranaws, then the relationship “will continue to be strained”.
He also said that Meranaws are largely left out of the decision-making process on how to rebuild their own city, a function “dictated by consultants from Manila”. The long delays in rehabilitation are proof of that miscalculation, he explained, but many are too afraid to speak out, because of martial law.
At a makeshift evacuation camp in the outskirts of the city, refugees like Jaslia, an unemployed housewife, told TRT World that Duterte “betrayed” the locals in Marawi, when he ordered the military “carpet bombing”, which left the city in ruins and many civilians trapped in their homes.
“He claims to be part Meranaw, through his grandmother. Look at what he did to us,” she said, her voice drowned out by the incessant rain that threatens to flood the tattered tent she shares with her husband and their six children.
For the first 10 months after the fighting began, Jaslia and her family stayed at an overcrowded evacuation centre in the neighbouring city of Iligan. Then in April 2018, they were transferred to a ‘tent city’ built by the government, with the promise that they would be relocated to a temporary housing facility.
Since then, her family has received $1,400 in cash assistance from the government and food packs from private donors. However, the prospect of relocation is slipping away, with no word about when they can rebuild their former homes.
In her area, there are more than 200 households living in 175 tents, which means some families have to share a tent the size of nine metres squared.
“This tent is really meant as an emergency shelter for up to six months. We are still here until now,” Jaslia said, as she sat outside the ripped plastic canvas her family had called home for the last 14 months.
“During the summer season, it gets unbearably hot and humid. So we stay outside, or else we would suffocate from the heat. Now that it is the monsoon season, the water is leaking all over, so we put some tape. The floor also gets flooded and muddy during heavy rain. But where are we supposed to go?”
Naim, a 31-year-old education graduate, told TRT World that he lost everything when his printing shop was destroyed in the bombing of Marawi. His family is still renting an apartment in Iligan, and are desperate to go back.
“If they will allow us back, so that we can start rebuilding our destroyed home that would give us some level of comfort, even if the government will not give us any financial help,” he said.
In an interview with TRT World during her visit in Marawi, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo said “the quicker the rehabilitation, the better it is for people” in the shelters.
“The more than two years that people are staying in evacuation centres is too much for them,” she said. “I hope that it the rehabilitation will be done as soon as possible, so that they can have some normalcy with their lives.”
The Philippine department of finance estimates that the government needs at least US$1.39 billion to complete the rehabilitation.
Felix Castro, Field Manager of the rehabilitation agency Task Force Bangon Marawi, pleaded for more patience, adding that the return of the residents will happen soon in phases.
“We are already talking to the residents. We are trying to fix the process of obtaining the permits, before they could rebuild their homes, or repair their house, to ensure that the legal owners will return,” he said.
Castro told TRT World that as many as 15,000 households have already received the $1,400 cash assistance, and more will be given this month.
“This will continue until all residents are resettled by November for the rest of the sectors,” he said referring to the districts within the 250-hectare zone most affected by the fighting, known locally as ‘Ground Zero’.
“While they are still waiting, we are providing people livelihood. There are temporary shelters, transitory shelters,” he said.
“All projects, when it starts, it takes time to prepare. You have to get permits and talk to the landowners.”
Also complicating the return of civilians are the unexploded munitions, which endanger the lives of residents. The rehabilitation agency has set an August 30 deadline to clear the ordnance.
With 30 mosques destroyed, 44 schools levelled and seven to 10,000 buildings razed to the ground, Atar said that it would take years to rebuild “the social fabric in Marawi that the president destroyed”.
He said Duterte should be “held accountable” for the destruction in Marawi, while calling for compensation for the lives and properties lost during the siege.
“We built Marawi for one hundred years, and they cannot do it in two years alone,” said Atar.
He warned that violence could erupt once again if Duterte fails to deliver on their demands.
“The people will fight the government. It will be a problem.”