MARAWI, Philippines – The Muslim-majority city of Marawi in the southern Philippines is still in ruins and some 17,400 families are unable to return home two years after extremist groups loyal to the Islamic State terror organization raised their black flag in the city, prompting a vicious conflict with the national army that lasted five months.
Twenty-four months later the remnants of Maute and Abu Sayyaf, the two Filipino Islamist militant groups that besieged Marawi, have been banished in the area, but the specter of terrorism still hangs over the city, whose wounds are still bleeding and visible.
The Bangulo neighborhood, a financial and commercial center considered the “ground zero” of the conflict, served as a refuge for the militants and was devastated by bombings, heavy artillery and shrapnel.
Ruined buildings, houses reduced to rubble and leaky mosques still make up the landscape of this city, the only one with an Islamic history in the Philippines and which became one of the most prosperous in the area known as Muslim Mindanao.
Saphia Makakir, who is Muslim, lived there with her husband and two children in a large house with three floors that they shared with other relatives.
“The first day of the fighting, today two years ago, we were on the ground floor and suddenly the third floor burst into flames,” the 51-year-old told EFE.
In that instant they fled their home, left behind a whole life, thousands of memories and all their belongings. Makakir, who used to sell handbags, shoes and beauty products, lost the stock she kept in her house, valued at 20 million pesos (about 340,000 euros, $379,033).
Since then, she has been forced to live with another 1,130 families in the temporary evacuation center of Sagonsongan, in the outskirts of Marawi, where she shares a small, 10-square-meter square room with her five siblings and their children, that is, more than 20 people under one roof and just two beds.
“When we sleep on the ground, we look like sardines in a tin,” said Makakir, who, like many neighbors in “ground zero,” does not want to give consent to demolish her house – a necessary step for reconstruction – for fear of being reimbursed with a smaller property.
For those displaced by violence – the exodus in the midst of the war exceeded 400,000 people – the fear of terrorism is ever lurking.
“I’m scared because I do not know how to recognize them, they’re like us, they dress like us and they pray like us,” she said.
In total, there are some 6,000 families in temporary evacuation centers; while another 11,400 have settled in the homes of relatives and friends, waiting for the reconstruction of their houses devastated by the war, which caused about 1,000 deaths, most of them militants.
Mansawie Hadjimohaymen, 26, has also lived in Sagonsongan since the onset of the war, and shares his refuge with his wife, two young children and parents, as well as another family of close relatives.
Thanks to government aid to the tune of 73,000 pesos (1,250 euros), Hadjimohaymen and the eleven other people sharing the space subsist on basic food and cleaning products available at a store at the entrance of their refuge center.
“Our house was completely destroyed but we have been told we can return in September of this year,” Hadjimohaymen said. He expects the government to take care of the expenses because their meager savings are not enough for the work.
Some families who are willing to assume the cost of rebuilding their homes are set to return to ground zero next month, according to the plan of the Working Group for the Rehabilitation of Marawi, the government agency created for that purpose.
The government, highly criticized for the continuing delays in the rehabilitation of the city, ensures that by December 2021 Marawi will have reemerged from the ashes and that by November this year, the 6,000 structures in ruins will have been demolished.
The main reason for the delay is that there are still about 100 unexploded artifacts in ground zero, explained the president of the Working Group, Eduardo del Rosario, promising that the city will be clean of explosives by August.
“Today we celebrate two years of the triumph of peace over barbarism, it is good news because peace and development go hand in hand,” Del Rosario said.
The international community has turned to the reconstruction of Marawi, which has already received 35.7 billion pesos (600 million euros) from donors such as Japan, Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank; in addition to another 6,600 million pesos (113 million euros) in humanitarian aid.