By Carolyn O. Arguillas
MindaNews and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
MARAWI CITY (MindaNews/PCIJ / 17 October) -– The groundbreaking for the government’s ambitious rehabilitation of this city was supposed to take place today, the first anniversary of Marawi’s “liberation” from the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group that had laid siege on it last year.
Last October 14, however, Falconi Millar, head of the Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM) Secretariat, said that the event would be postponed since President Rodrigo Duterte would be unavailable today. The new target date for the groundbreaking, he said, was “likely October 28.”
According to Malacañang, the President has two items on his schedule today, both taking place at the Palace: the 102ndanniversary celebration of the Cooperative Movement in the Philippines at 5:30 p.m. and the Traditional Dinner of the AFP Council of Sergeant Majors at 6:30 p.m.
The groundbreaking for the Marawi rebuilding and rehabilitation project had already been pushed back at least 10 times previously, yet TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario is confident that the project’s completion target date of yearend 2021 will be met. Still, until rehabilitation activities actually start, what used to be Lanao del Sur’s proud and beautiful capital will continue to lie in ruins, and thousands of its residents will remain displaced.
The Siege of Marawi, a city of about 250,000 in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), had resulted in more than 1,100 fatalities, including at least 47 civilians. Other areas of Iligan City and Lanao del Sur were also affected, leading to the displacement of as much as 350,000 people, many with their homes damaged or totally destroyed.
The five-month fighting between the Maute Group and government troops last year rendered at least 24 of Marawi’s 96 barangays within what is now called the “Most Affected Area” or the MAA uninhabitable, and wiped out the city’s cultural, commercial, and business center.
Meranaws have since repeatedly said that if President Duterte had only tapped into the cultural resources of his fellow Meranaws, the crisis would have been over in a few days and Marawi would have been saved from massive destruction.
In a policy paper on postwar Marawi submitted to the President last November, Dr. Macapado Muslim, former president of the Mindanao State University (MSU), also noted that while many of the local residents generally blame the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf for attacking the city, a number of them “resent the government’s use of massive air strikes and heavy artillery fire (that) caused much of the destruction of their houses and properties.”
But Duterte – the first Mindanawon to lead the nation and the first to claim Meranaw roots – has shrugged off such criticisms, including the assertion that his response to the crisis was disproportionate: martial law all over Mindanao barely eight hours after the first shot was fired, and massive land, air, and sea operations.
And yet, there had been previous instances when a full-blown armed conflict was avoided even after an attack by rebel forces here. Among these was the 2007 siege by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) where its forces took control of the bridges in Marawi.
At the time, Meranaw leader Aga Khan Sharief asked the military and the mayor for two hours to talk with the rebel leaders and convince them to leave. “Usapang Meranaw (Meranaw talk)” was how he later described what had taken place. The situation ended peacefully.
On the night of May 23 last year (the start of the siege) and early the next morning, concerned Meranaw leaders, among them Sharief, had made attempts to dialogue with the Maute brothers — their fellow Meranaws — to spare Marawi. The Meranaw leaders who managed to contact the Mautes would later recount that they had immediately informed local government officials about the result of their talks. But, they said, the officials claimed that their hands were tied as the military was already in charge. “Martial law” was the reason given.
Those who met with the Mautes also urged them to release Fr. Teresito ‘Chito’ Soganub, Vicar General of the Catholic Prelature of Marawi, who was among those grabbed by the Maute Group as hostages. According to Sharief, a businessman invoking the Meranaws’ maratabat(personal esteem or honor) even offered to shell out money, if ransom was demanded, to avoid the shame the hostage-taking of a Catholic priest would cause the Meranaws.
The armed men in black did indeed have demands, which they ordered Soganub to relay by phone to Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena on the evening of May 23: no air strike and the withdrawal of military forces in Marawi.
Forced into diaspora
It wasn’t just the Maute Group who didn’t want air strikes, however. Local government officials, residents, and civil-society groups made similar appeals to the authorities. The Ranao Rescue Team also urged the President to order a “half day of no fighting” for a humanitarian corridor that would allow the safe passage of thousands of trapped civilians out of the battlegrounds.
A six-hour window on June 3, negotiated with the Mautes by the Meranaws in the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities of the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels, allowed for the safe passage of 182 trapped civilians. On the whole, however, the appeals went unheeded, and air strikes were launched.
Marawi residents were forced into a diaspora, fleeing to neighboring as well as faraway towns and cities. In all, some 77,000 families were displaced from Marawi City and nearby areas, according to records of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Residents in 20 of the city’s 96 barangays were able to stay put as they were quite far from the war zone. But those in Marawi’s 76 other villages had to leave, especially in the 24 located in what would be known as Ground Zero, the 250-hectare main battle area between the warring forces, now referred to as the city’s “Most Affected Area.”
That war would befall Marawi had been unthinkable. Until that fateful day in May last year, the Meranaws had been considered the luckiest among the Moro ethnic groups, having been spared for several decades from suffering a cycle of mass evacuations that had been endured by the residents of Maguindanao, Basilan, and Sulu.
They voted for DU30
Luck seemed to smile even more at the Meranaws when Duterte ran, and later won the Presidency.
Records from the Commission on Elections show that Marawi and Lanao del Sur voters elected a city mayor and provincial governor from the Liberal Party but did not elect Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II, the Presidential standard bearer of the then ruling party. They gave Duterte, their fellow Meranaw, an overwhelming victory: in Marawi, 34,165 votes or 82.98 percent of the total number of votes cast; and in Lanao del Sur, the second vote-richest among the five-province, two-city ARMM, 303,184 votes or 80.14 percent.
Of 81 provinces nationwide, Lanao del Sur ranked 15th in giving Duterte the vote, more than the combined Ilocos Norte and Sur votes for him (189,758). Among Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities, it ranked fifth.
Nationwide and overseas, thousands of Meranaws campaigned and voted for their brother Duterte.
It is said that even members of the so-called Islamic State voted for Duterte, with talks here saying how a Meranaw Islamic State spiritual leader had admonished his flock that it was haram (forbidden) not to vote for Duterte.
In the end, Meranaws voted overwhelmingly for the Presidential candidate who claimed to be one of their own. In turn, Duterte rewarded them immediately with three Cabinet posts and several more appointments to key positions.
What the Meranaws did not expect was that Duterte would make a decision that would change the course of their personal and collective histories even long after he would have finished his term in 2022.
The President, for his part, has said that he felt betrayed by the Meranaws for allegedly allowing IS elements into Marawi and not telling the government about it.
‘Go ahead… burn it’
On October 17, 2017, the day he declared Marawi “liberated from the terrorist influence,” Duterte said: “So ‘yan ang paghinakit ko. Hindi namin ito gusto. Ginusto ‘to ng mga Maranao, ng mga Maute, at sinakyan ng ISIS. Hindi amin ‘to. Hindi ‘to sa gobyerno. Tandaan ninyo(I am disappointed because we did not want this to happen. The Meranaws did, the Mautes, and ISIS took advantage. This is not our fault. This is not government’s. Remember that).”
Yet while he may not have wanted the destruction of Marawi to take place, Duterte had also said that he wouldn’t care if it happened.
Five months before the Marawi Siege began, the President had dared the Maute Group to “go ahead” and “burn” Marawi.
Addressing the Wallace Business Forum at a dinner hosted by Malacanang on December 12, 2016, Duterte took note of the Maute Group’s demand for government to stop the offensives “in the forest” of Butig, Lanao del Sur, otherwise “they will go down upon Marawi to burn the place.”
The President’s response: “Go ahead, do it!”
“We need to do a lot of constructions in this country,” said a visibly combative Duterte. “There are a lot of materials there and we will be glad to rebuild and rehabilitate every structure that you destroy. As long (as) it’s confined in the areas of Lanao, I don’t really care.”
Unfortunately, the Maute Group and its allies took up the challenge and did “go ahead,” invading Marawi on May 23 last year while the President was on a state visit to Russia. Maute Group members took over key areas in the country’s lone Islamic city, burned buildings, and unfurled their black IS flags.
Bad, no intelligence?
But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, speaking at a press briefing in Moscow near midnight (Manila time) on May 23, 2017, chose to explain what happened this way: “Elements of the Army and the Police were trying to serve a warrant of arrest on Isnilon Hapilon at Barangay Basak Malutlut in Marawi City when they were met with firefight or firearms — gunfire from the group of Hapilon Isnilon.”
Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf and the proclaimed emir of IS in Southeast Asia, was allegedly holed up in an apartment near the Markaz mosque in Basak Malutlut. He and Omar Maute would end up dead on October 16, 2017, killed by government troops.
Then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año, who was also in Moscow at the start of the siege, would later say that the failed raid on Hapilon’s apartment foiled the plan of the Mautes and the Abu Sayyaf to take over Marawi at the beginning of the Ramadan on May 26. But it also apparently prompted them to advance their timetable instead.
Interestingly, Lorenzana at the Moscow press conference had also said that he did not think there was a “lapse of intelligence” but “it’s just appreciation of the intelligence that was lacking there.”
A few weeks later, the President himself would tell the media at Camp Evangelista Station Hospital in Cagayan de Oro City: “We had known (all) along the buildup here in Marawi. That is why if you were tracking me, my statements in public was ‘do not force my hand into it.’”
DU30: Mea culpa
It was a more somber Duterte, however, who spoke last May 22, on the eve of the first anniversary of the start of the siege, describing what took place in Marawi as a “very sad experience.”
He also admitted to having “fallen short in some respects” in the way the crisis was handled, but assumed full responsibility for it, explaining he “did not anticipate or even guess that there would be so much ordnance and that the fight (would take) about four months to finish.”
It had actually lasted five months.
“All of these faults, if it is indeed one, or our faults, it belongs and it falls (sic) on my shoulders as Commander in Chief,” said Duterte at the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Navy at the Coconut Palace, at the CCP Complex in Manila. “And I assume full responsibility to the nation of what’s going to happen.”
Soon after the President declared Marawi “liberated” on October 17 last year, displaced residents from 52 of the 76 villages vacated were allowed to return to Marawi, in batches, from evacuation centers, their relatives’ houses, or rented dwellings in neighboring Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities, the municipalities of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur, and other parts of the country.
But it took more months before residents of the 24 villages in Ground Zero – estimated by TFBM to number about 27,000 families – were allowed to visit what used to be their homes or shops and collect whatever they could still salvage from the rubble.
They were also to visit only from last April 1 to May 10, and for just three days each, per sector. Ground Zero has been classified into nine sectors.
‘He betrayed us’
Salic Cadalay was among those who took the opportunity to return even for a very brief time to Ground Zero. The owner of a hardware store along Dangcal St. in Padian (market), Cadalay during his short visit last May had quickly begun putting up makeshift signages asserting ownership of his store that had collapsed from the air strikes, and of what used to be his residence and warehouse a few steps away.
It had been a year since he and his family had fled the city and he kept shaking his head in disbelief at the sight of the devastation.
“Lahat ng kayamanan namin, kaisa ra nawala(All our wealth gone in an instant),” said the businessman who had set up his store here 32 years ago, laying down the future for his 13 children and 20 grandchildren.
“One time, big time,” he said of his losses.
Cadalay estimated his losses as reaching some P100 million, aside from the debts he has yet to settle.
“Kadugo, pero nag-unay sa kadugo(He is of our own blood, but he betrayed us),” he lamented, referring to Duterte. “YangPresident, kababayan namin ‘yan(The President is one of our own).”
Cadalay then took out his wallet and showed off his laminated ‘Duterte Volunteer’ ID that he used during the presidential campaign in 2016. His message to his “kadugo” President: “Help us rebuild our homes and stores, provide us reparation and capital to start anew.”
Several observers have already warned the government of dire consequences otherwise, including yet another round of violence.
In his policy paper submitted to President Duterte last year, Dr. Muslim pointed out that Marawi City today is “essentially a powder keg” because of the “destruction and losses and continued sufferings, hardships and indignities in evacuation centers and in private and commercial dwellings in other cities, the growing disillusionment with the never-ending Mindanao peace process, and the perceptible spread of violent extremism and radicalism to the Muslim communities in Mindanao.” — MindaNews and PCIJ, October 2018