MARAWI CITY (MindaNews / 24 February) — Retired Literature Professor Dalomabi “Dolly” Lao Bula of the Mindanao State University’s main campus wants to return home — or whatever is left of it — in Barangay Marinaut at ‘Ground Zero’ if only to look for her USB flash drive that contains her writings, including a thesaurus in four languages (Meranaw-Filipino-English-Arabic), and a collection of Meranaw proverbs and riddles.
“Hindi ko na kailangan ang mga material (na bagay). Yung USB (flash drive) ko lang (containing my writings)” (I do not need any other material thing. All I want is my USB flash drive containing my writings), the 66-year old Bula told MindaNews on Tuesday, after joining a delegation of 140 leaders of Bangsamoro civil society organizations that drove through a portion of ‘Ground Zero’ for 22 minutes.
The flash drive was in the drawer of her worktable when she left her one-floor, four-bedroom house early morning of May 23, 2017 to attend an Islamic seminar and a kanduri in the village of Matampay.
Like most residents of ‘Ground Zero,’ Bula had no idea when she leftt at 8 . a.m. that that would be the last time she’d see her house standing.
Shortly after lunch, members of the Maute Group and their allies took control of vital areas in downtown Marawi after a foiled attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf, preventing her — and thousands in similar situation — from returning home. She spent two nights in Matampay and another two nights in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte, before seeking shelter in Cagayan de Oro.
The last time she “saw” her Marawi house was in August 2017 through photographs posted on Facebook taken from a drone camera, its roof gone. She could no longer see her house in subsequent postings because the grasses had grown tall, she surmised.
The daily air strikes from May to October had transformed the 24 barangays of ‘Ground Zero’ from a bustling commercial and residential district into a landscape of devastation reminiscent of Aleppo and other urban warfare settngs in other countries.
Bula did not mention her wish to look for her flash drive in the rubble of her house in Marinaut when she spoke on behalf of internally displaced persons (IDPs) before Moro CSO leaders from various parts of Mindanao and officials, faculty and students of the MSU main campus, including President Habib Macaayong, who gathered in front of the Administration building after the Solidarity Peace Walk for Marawi on Monday, February 19.
But her speech, and the poem “Meranaw Ako” (I am a Meranaw) that she recited at the end, sent many women, and men, crying or teary-eyed.
Before the Marawi Siege disrupted their lives on May 23, 2017, Bula, mother of six and grandmother to nine, lived in a four-room house with a huge living and dining room. Shuttling now between a modest house in Cagayan de Oro and her daughters’ rented room in the MSU campus, Bula shared the “many mixed feelings of the IDPs, na kanilang kinikimkim sa kanilang mga puso, haunting them for almost nine months.”
“We are asking the powers that be, to give us IDPs peace of mind by giving us concrete, acceptable, culture-sensitive and immediate solutions to our lamentations,” she said.
She spoke of the “inhuman devastation of Marawi City” and the discrimination felt in the neighboring areas where “iba ang tingin nila sa amin, masasama kaming tao, di lang nakakatakot kundi terorista!” (they looked at us differently, like we are evil people, like we are terrorists).
‘We feel so degraded,” she said, citing as an example the cutting off of hospitalization assistance for IDPs on November 26. She told MindaNews later that they had to pay for her daughter-in-law’s hospitalization in Cagayan de Oro because they were told the Department of Health had run out of funds for assistance to the IDPs.
Bula asked tough questions, questions that many Meranaws in the crowd wanted to ask themselves: where did the promised billions of pesos for Marawi go? Did you ever consult us on the rehabilitation plans? Why build another military camp when you could have used the 400 million pesos to help the IDPs? Why did the local government officials abandon us? Why is the national government talking about land titling now when Meranaws have been living in these areas since birth? Why did Congress not investigate what happened in Marawi, the human rights violations committed here? Why can’t we return to our homes?
She said Marawi residents in the “cleared” areas have been able to return home but those in ‘Ground Zero’ like her, “iniiyakan namin na makita man lang ang aming mga bahay at makuha kung mayroon pang natitirang gamit” (we cry because we cannot even return to collect whatever can still be salvaged).
It has been four months since President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi “liberated from the terrorist influence” and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana terminated all combat operations in Marawi.
The irony, she said, is that outsiders were allowed in,”like investors, donors, politicians, showbiz people, and others — all in the name of business and money.”
“It is safe for them to enter Ground Zero, but unsafe for the IDPs kasi mayroon pang mga posibling sumabog?” (because there are still items tat may explode?, Bula asked.
Last month, Housing Secretary Eduardo del Rosario, chief of the Task Force Bangon Marawi, said an estimated 11,000 families in 24 barangays in ‘Ground Zero’ (now referred to as MAA or ‘most affected area’) will be able to return to their villages for a week or up to 10 days in April to “recover personal belongings na puwede pa nilang magamit” (that they can still use) — before the clearing of the rubble starts third week of April.
Del Rosario told reporters in Malacanang that they estimate the 250-hectare area would be cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the first week of April. Residents who will visit whatever is left of their homes, he said, will have to sign waivers that if something explodes or something untoward happens, it will not be the responsibility of the TFBM and the Marawi City government.
Asked why they have to sign waivers when the military is supposed to have cleared the area of UXOs and IEDs by first week of April, del Rosario told MindaNews: “the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) said they can only clear 80 to 90% of the whole MAA.”
Bula said they did not want the Marawi Siege and the aerial strikes that destroyed their houses. “The use of 500 and 200 punder bombs makes us wonder. The flattening of 24 barangays in Ground Zero I want to understand. What made the bombs necessary?” she asked.
The next day, Bula joined three busloads of Peace Summit participants to ‘Ground Zero.’ But instead of stopping by three areas — Rizal Park, St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Grand Mosque as originally planned and approved by the military — the plan was changed into a mere drive-through.
The area where they were allowed to see, however, was far from her home.
Thesaurus, Meranaw proverbs and riddles
The thesaurus in four languages, Bula told MindaNews, is intended for all levels of K to 12. It can also be a valuable reference for non-Meranaws who want to communicate in the language of the Meranaws.
A shorter version of the thesaurus has been published in New York although limited edition, she said, but the file in her flash drive is an expanded version.
Fortunately, she said, she used the laptop of her son who brought it to General Santos City on May 22. The son was able to retrieve her thesaurus file.
But her other unpublished work – four of them ready for publication — about the lakes written in Meranaw, Meranaw proverbs and riddles that she collected over the years and translated to Filipino and English — are in that USB flash drive that she hopes she could still retrieve in ‘Ground Zero.’
Bula finished AB English at the Dansalan College in Marawi, her MA in Education at the Ateneo de Davao University where her thesis was a content analysis of how textbooks portray the Moro people and her PhD in Language Studies at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro where her dissertation was on how communication is being used in Meranaw conflict resolution.
Bula, who retired in 2014, hopes she can retrieve her other papers in libraries and prays there are still copies of the journals that survived the Dansalan College fire on the first night of the siege, as her copies at home are likely gone. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)
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