By Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel
Thousands of Filipino Muslims displaced by last year’s gunbattles in the southern Philippine city of Marawi demanded Tuesday that they be immediately allowed to return to their destroyed homes – one year after the Islamic State-led siege left more than 1,200 people dead and turned the former Muslim trading hub into a virtual ghost town.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi liberated a year ago following a five-month siege led by Insilon Hapilon, the local head of the IS, who led fighters from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Middle Eastern countries in taking over the lakeshore city of more than 200,000.
The Philippines, backed by U.S. and Australian intelligence, rained down bombs into enemy positions, scarring the landscape of the only predominantly Muslim city in the Catholic country.
But the militants engaged the security forces in fierce running gunbattles, and prevented the military advance by holding dozens of hostages they used as human shields.
Hapilon, however, was slain exactly a year ago Tuesday, and Duterte had promptly declared the siege over, even as troops continued to take potshots from militants trying to escape from the city for days later.
“One year since it was flaunted that Marawi has been liberated, we do not feel liberation,” said Drieza Abato-Lininding, a displaced Marawi resident who leads the Bangsamoro National Movement for Peace.
“One year since we were promised the rebuilding of our homes and yet we still live in tent cities and temporary shelters, living off the overspent generosity of our relatives until now,” he said.
He said the government had assured them that plans were being made for their return to the city, although the government has yet to present concrete plans.
The government’s inter-agency Task Force Bangon Marawi (Rise Up Marawi), which was set up to lead the rehabilitation efforts in the city, had earlier said that the city’s full rehabilitation would be completed by December 2021.
It had presented blueprints, although choosing the consortium that would lead the rehabilitation had recently come into delays. One consortium that was backed by a Chinese developer was disqualified in June after authorities determined that it did not have the funds to complete the project.
The government selection committee is currently consolidating its due diligence on another Chinese-led group, the Power Construction Corporation of China or PowerChina.
Task force head Eduardo Del Rosario on Tuesday appealed for the public’s patience. The ceremonial groundbreaking for the rehabilitation of the 24 villages within a 250-hectare area hardest hit in the fighting would commence this month, he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that at least 65,000 Marawi residents remain displaced, either staying with their relatives or in evacuation centers and transitional sites.
Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy military chief in Marawi, said there were still many unexploded ordnance in the area, making it dangerous for residents to check their homes.
But, he said, Marawi can now be considered the safest city in the country, the southern third of which remains under tight military control.
“We believe the terrorists have already left the city,” he said. “However, we are not resting and are making sure the city is indeed safe because of the martial law implementation.”
But the longer the evacuees remain in transitional sites, the greater the chance that they would be recruited by militant groups, who are known to offer money for jobless youths in the camps to join their cause, authorities and NGO leaders say.
Earlier this month, the International Alert Philippines, an NGO engaged in monitoring peace, warned that the Marawi crisis had shown that extremists had the ability to mount warfare with the government over extended periods of time.
And this likely points to their “access to funds from many sources, including shadow economies,” the group said, without elaborating.
“Their organizational skills suggest some longevity to their actions,” the group said in a study.
US envoy unveils project
Also on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim unveiled the Marawi Response Project, which is backed with $26 million in grant money that would be used to build transitional shelters and jumpstart the local economy through livelihood projects.
“We will help youth obtain the skills they need for employment, as well as link them to Mindanao’s thriving production and services sector to help them find gainful employment,” he said.
The project aims to organize dialogue and to increase mutual understanding to prevent conflict, officials said.
“Yes, the US still sees the IS as the number one threat in Asia,” Kim said. “But we have to maintain a balance between operations and the causes of extremism.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Marawi contributed to this report.