Marawi Youth Trilogy: The Displaced Youth, the Young Soldier, and the Christian Researcher

Marawi City residents line up to get travel passes at the Lanao del Sur provincial capitol, October 6, 2017. MindaNews file photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 19 Oct) – “We do not want to return home just yet because there is nothing there to go back for,” said Salahuddin Mohammad Sani, 22, second year student of BSBA Entrepreneur Marketing at the Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi.

“Because of what happened, has hatred surfaced?” Wendy Salva, 21, wishes to know as she embarks on a research among the internally displaced peoples (IDPs).

“I would have volunteered to fight in Marawi in order to prevent further bloodshed,” said Hassanor Marohomsalic Magarang, 22, newly recruited soldier of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

These are unusual voices of three youth leaders whose lives are affected by the ongoing Marawi War.

“Sabra tano”

The morning they decided to evacuate was already the third day of the Marawi Siege. It was May 25. Text messages from unverified sources were warning the people that the entire city will be bombarded, including all the houses. The text message warned, “You must leave the city before 7:00 in the morning because all houses will be bombed.”

Sani, who stopped schooling because of the ongoing warfare in Marawi, was alarmed when he received the text message. This was especially because he saw hundreds of government troopers enter the city the day before. That night he and his family built a makeshift bomb shelter at the ground floor of their two-storey house in barangay Bangon. They tied hammocks and ropes and placed mattresses on top to cushion themselves from possible explosions and debris.

Sani’s family sought refuge at the house of his cousin in Tubod, Iligan City. This became the evacuation center of three other families. They all belong to the same clan. Their number totalled to 25 evacuees, sharing the compound that used to house only five occupants.

Many of them did not bring their valuables and things because, aside from the harried evacuation, they did not expect the war to drag to several months. “In the past, rido wars will not last more than three days,” Sani said.

On the second month of the war, Sani’s cousin was able to visit their house in Marawi. He came back with a sad news that the house was ransacked.

“I am looking for a job now because we are financially hard up,” said Sani. If he cannot find a job in Iligan City, he plans to go to Manila and work there. His father, 63, a teacher in a private school in Marawi, had been out of work since the school stopped operations because of the war.

“We do not want to return home just yet because there is nothing there to go back for,” Sani said.”

He added: “The economy of Marawi has been destroyed and the population has been drastically decreased. We need to rebuild again.”

Of the Marawi War, Sani’s opinion is that: “Those involved are Meranaws. This is why we cannot do anything about it as they are our blood kins. In our culture, even those of fifth degree affinity are still considered important and dear to us.”

Amid the trying times, Sani holds on to what her mother would repeatedly tell him and his nine other siblings, “Let us have patience; this is part of destiny.”

“Based on our tradition and values, we, the Meranaw, will be able to rebuild our communities,” Sani said.

Peoples’ soldier

When he was 20 years old, Magarang, now 22, joined the MNLF under the leadership of Nur Misuari, the founder. “I want my community to be safe,” he said of the reason why he joined the Front.

For a month, he underwent a military training under the MNLF and he now carries a long firearm whenever he keeps watch of their camp somewhere in Lanao del Sur. His usual duty hours is from six in the evening to one in the morning.

During the day, he drives a habal-habal (passenger motorcycle), which he rents at P150 per day. Driving three times a week, he earns P900. To augment his income, he manages a one hectare coconut farm that he took over from his aging father. Weekly, he harvests around 200 pieces of young coconuts and sells them at P10 apiece. These are being sold in the market as fresh coconut juice. The money he earns is used to support his family of five siblings. For the future, he planted mahogany trees in their farm lot.

There was time during the ongoing Marawi Siege that Magarang and his fellow armed members of the MNLF in the province were prompted to be ready to support the government troops in fighting the ISIS-inspired Maute group. Magarang was ready to go to war.

“I would have volunteered to fight in Marawi in order to prevent further bloodshed,” he said.

Asked about his thoughts about the Marawi war, Magarang said: “I hear different views. If what the Maute group is fighting for is agamah Islam, then they should not have brought the war to Marawi where many people will be hit in the crossfire. They should have staged a war in a place where no civilians will be affected.”

“Peace is important because we are all brothers and sisters; we came from one source,” Magarang said.

He stopped schooling when he was on his third year in high school because of economic difficulties.

Gratitude to the Meranaw People

“This is how I want to thank the Meranaws,” said Wendy Salva, 21, graduating student in AB Communications and Media Studies in MSU-Marawi, as she embarked on research that will amplify the voices of the displaced residents.

The debt of gratitude that Salva feels stemmed from her experience at the onset of the Marawi war. Caught in the crossfire of aerial bombs and rampaging armed Maute group, a Meranaw datu rescued her and several other students by securing them in his home for two days until there was an opportunity for them to safely flee the city.

Salva remembered being very scared. Inside the datu’s house, who she did not wish to identify for security reasons, they had to turn off the lights at night in order not to attract attention from both sides of the warring parties. Cellphones had to be turned off as the signal might identify their location. Everybody were jittery and one of their companions had severe asthma. “I have never been that scared in my life as I heard bombs explode from the airstrikes,” Salva said.

“For the first time, I trembled,” she added.

On May 26, Salva and her companions were able to escape the war zone after the 5:30 a.m. airstrike.

Instead of going home to her parents in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur, Salva decided to volunteer in relief work among the evacuees. She joined the Ranao Disaster Response and Rehabilitation Center where she stayed and was given free food.

“I think the root causes of the Marawi War are the corruption in governance and Meranaw people being deprived of their rights,” Salva said about what caused the war. This, she added, fuelled the desire of the Maute group to establish the Shariah.

“For them, this was a last resort to bring back Marawi as an Islamic City,” Salva said.

Salva’s relationship with the people of Marawi started the moment she enrolled in the state university. “They have welcomed me to MSU,” she said, adding that the Meranaws are warm and trustworthy people.

Inside the MSU campus, the Muslims respected the rights of the Christians to practice their faith and conduct religious activities. “The Muslim students even shared with us their spaces where we can do religious activities,” Salva said of her experience in the campus prior to the ongoing war.

“For five years that I spent in the city, my Meranaw friends loved and cared for me,” she said.

Now, Salva is wondering if love is still there or if that feeling has been replaced by hatred because of the war. She wants to explore the feelings among the displaced Meranaw people in her undergraduate thesis, “Lived Experiences of Internally Displaced Youth in Evacuation Centers during the Marawi Crisis”.

“Through this study, I want to help my Meranaw friends so their voices will be heard,” she said.

“I want to change the negative perception of people regarding the Meranaws and the Muslims,” she added.

[Jules L. Benitez is a Zamboanga-based development consultant and currently the Mindanao Field Officer of PeaceTech Inc. The youth interviewed in this report were all participants of PeaceTech’s Empowerment for Peace through Information and Communications (#EPICYouth2017) Workshop held in Cagayan de Oro City, a month before war erupted in Marawi.]