Marawi’s “Titanic”: refuge for bakwits and relatives in search of missing loved ones

MARAWI CITY (MindaNews / 27 June) — The three-floor building on the left side of the Lanao del Sur Provincial Capitol in Marawi City, is referred to by locals as “Titanic” because when it was completed, its size reminded them of Titanic the ship. Unlike the Titanic which passengers abandoned  to save their lives, this “Titanic” has been a refuge of residents who fled their homes to escape death from the now 35-day clashes between government forces and the Maute Group.

“Titanic” is also where the Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Center (JCMAC) of the Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GPH-MILF) Peace Corridor joined families of “bakwits” (internally displaced persons) as a “bakwit” itself: it collapsed its tent under the trees in front of the capitol as the danger of getting hit by stray bullets was increasing by the day.

Around 20 slugs from .50 caliber guns were recovered near and around the tent. A branch of the nearest tree providing them shade was hit by a stray bullet.

GONE. The tent of the Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Center in front of the provincial capitol in Marawi City has been folded up to avoid getting hit by stray bullets. The JCMAC evacuated to a room on the ground floor of the “Titanic” joining other evacuees temporarily sheltered in that building. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO BUENO
The Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Center (JCMAC) of the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor joined other “bakwits” in the “Titanic” Building within the Provincial Capitol compound in Marawi City as a “bakwit” itself, its tent in front of the Capitol folded up to avoid getting hit by stray bullets. MIndaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

The JCMAC moved to the ground floor of the “Titanic” on June 20, in a storeroom that Vice Governor Mamintal Adiong, Jr. had ordered cleared for the Peace Corridor’s use.

The erstwhile storeroom has become a “story room.”

Every day since the JCMAC moved to “Titanic,” the office has been receiving visitors whose loved ones remain trapped or missing, inquiring about the next rescue operations.

On this early Sunday morning of June 25,  immediately after attending the Eid’l Fitr congregational prayer in the mosque beside the “Titanic,” Camalia Baunto, 42, begged Dickson Hermoso, a retired Army Colonel who is now Assistant Secretary at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, to allow her to join the rescue teams.

The mother of six had not seen her husband Nixon since May 24 when he returned to their house in Barangay West Marinaut to get some important things. Although they kept communicating by phone and by text message, she had lost contact with him since June 14.

Camalia Abunto appeals to OPAPP Assistant Secretary Dickson Hermoso at the office of the Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Center of the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor on Sunday, June 25, 2017 to allow her to join the rescue teams so she could go to their house in Barangay West Marinaut in Marawi City. Her husband Nixon returned to their house on May 24. Her last contact with him by mobile phone was on June 14. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

Camalia hopes it is only because her husband’s phone battery is dead.

“Sir, please,” she asked Hermoso, the focal person of the government in the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor.

Missing husbands

On Saturday night, government declared an eight-hour “humanitarian pause” from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, and reciprocated by the Maute Group, in deference to Eid’l Fitr,  the end of the month-long Ramadan.

Camalia narrated their ordeal since the Marawi Crisis began on May 23, breaking into tears almost every time she mentioned her husband.

Her crying stopped when  Hidaya Taja, 43, walked into the JCMAC office accompanied by a relative, inquiring if rescue volunteers would go to Padian, where they live, or more accurately, where they used to live.

Between sobs, Hidaya, who has a small food stall at what used to be the market, told Col. Cesar de Mesa, Officer-in-Charge of the Peace Corridor’s Relief and Humanitarian Efforts, that the last time she saw her husband Hajamin was on May 23, Day 1 of the Crisis.

Col. Cesar de Mesa, Officer-in-Charge of the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor’s Relief and Humanitarian Efforts, asks Hidaya Taja to point to the location of their house in Padian, Marawi City on Sunday, June 25, 2017, before the rescue teams were sent out to the conflict zone. The last time Hidaya saw her husband Hajiman was on May 23, Day 1 of the Crisis. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

She left their house that Tuesday morning with her mother and four children to bring vegetables to an ailing aunt but were not able to return home as the Maute Group had laid siege that afternoon. There was no way to contact her arthritic, 54-year old husband, not even by cell phone.

As Hidaya cried from across the round table, Camalia fell silent but tears flowed down her cheeks as she listened to the narrative of another woman with a missing husband. Camalia had not heard from her husband since June 14, Hidaya since May 23.

The two wives were later seen talking briefly, after Hidaya pointed to Col. de Mesa the location of their house on the huge map on the wall.

Hidaya and Hajamin have four children, the eldest of whom is 20, the youngest, Abdurahman, 14. She told MindaNews, as interpreted by her relative, that Abdurahman, a Grade 2 student would repeatedly tell his mother during lulls in the fighting that they should go home.

Love in the time of war

Hidaya and her children have been staying in the “Titanic” for over a month now.

MISSING HUSBANDS. Hidaya Taja (left) and Camalia Baunto (right) talk briefly at the office of the Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Center of the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor at the “Titanic” Building in the Provincial Capitol compound on Sunday, 25 June 2017, while waiting for the rescue teams to move to the conflict zone. The two rescue teams, however, were not able to enter the conflict zone that day. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

Camalia left her six children with Nixon’s parents in neighboring Ditsaan Ramain town in Lanao del Sur and has been staying at the provincial capitol compound to ensure she gets updated regularly. She had enrolled five of her six children in Dansalan College, a private school here, and had bought uniforms and school supplies for the June 5 opening of classes.

She has not enrolled her children in Ditsaan-Ramain even as the Department of Education has waived the requirements for Marawi evacuees.

She says she has no time for that now.

Rescuing her husband is her priority. And if only she could trade places with her husband, she would, she told MindaNews,  sobbing as she explained that Nixon would be able to provide their children a better future than if she were left alone to look after them.

Camalia works in their hardware store on the ground floor of their house.

As the hours passed, Camalia was getting increasingly worried. Each hour’s delay was an hour taken away from rescuers to reach their house which has been estimated to be a kilometer away. Four hours to end of ceasefire. Three. Two.

Equally worried about the delay, Hermoso succeeded at least twice to make her smile a bit at his attempts to lighten up the mood, explaining to her how many times he had cried during the month, overwhelmed by the stories of love in the time of war.

Camalia took out her tablet and showed MindaNews photographs of her husband taken during the graduation of a relative in Cagayan de Oro City on that fateful day of May 23. “Ang saya-saya namin o” (We were so happy). Her face lit up, mirroring her own radiance in that photograph beside her husband Nixon.

“We were so happy here,” Camalia Baunto says of the photograph showing her beside her husband, Nixon, on May 23, 2017 in Cagayan de Oro City. They were barred from entering Marawi City late afternoon, Day 1 of the clashes between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Nixon returned home the next day but was trapped. Camalia has not heard from him since June 14. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

While the graduation ceremony was ongoing, Camalia recalls receiving messages from Marawi that something bad was happening in their city. Immediately after the graduation, she, her husband and three young children rushed to Marawi but were barred at the checkpoints from proceeding to the country’s lone Islamic City.

They were forced to spend the night in a relative’s house in Iligan City.

A sibling of her husband took their three older children (eldest is 17) to safer ground on May 24. The three could not join them in Cagayan de Oro because they were attending summer classes in Dansalan College. Fortunately, her children were home before the burning began.

Welcome home

The couple tried to enter Marawi on May 24 but traffic was heavy. This was the start of the mass exodus. Nixon asked a relative to go down from Marawi and meet him along the way. From their meeting place, Nixon returned home.

Camalia said her husband informed her by phone that he tried several times to flee but returned home, afraid he’d be shot at.

Food would not have been a problem, Camalia said. The house, located on the second floor of their hardware, had a supply of rice and other foodstuff. But she was worried about water. Nixon, she said, had complained of lack of water since June 11.

She instructed him to open a window and collect water when it rains. “But he must have been afraid to open the window. Baka may Maute doon” (There might have been Maute members there).

Camalia and Hidaya heaved a sigh of relief when they saw the names of their husbands written on post-its on the map, at the locations they pointed to.

De Mesa, during his briefing for Teams 1 and 2 rescue volunteers, instructed them to use their megaphones to call on residents who may still be trapped, including the husbands of Camalia and Hidaya.

Camalia’s perseverance paid off.  She eventually managed to convince the JCMAC to allow her to join them at the Processing Area for rescued civilians, at Agus 1 in Barangay Datu Saber.

“Gusto ko nandon ako pagdating ng asawa ko” (I want to be there to welcome my husband), Camalia added.

Teams 1 and 2, however, were unable to enter the conflict zone. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)