MARAWI CITY (MindaNews /24 May) – They were “identified” only through the white-painted markers made of plywood, bearing coded numbers and dates when they were retrieved, awaiting the day the results of the DNA matching with relatives will be released so they can be claimed by their loved ones or be properly marked where they are buried now on this patch of land.
The remains of at least 282 persons who were killed in “Ground Zero,” the main battle area between government forces and the IS-linked Maute Group during the “Marawi Siege” from May 23, 2017 until President Rodrigo Duterte declared this city “liberated from the terrorist influence” on October 17 that year, are buried at the Maqbara Public Cemetery here.
But two years later, those who lost their loved ones, like 17-year-old Norsalima Abdurahman, are still waiting for the DNA typing results that would lead her to the graves of her father, Usman, brother Alinor-Mayor and sister Sittie Ainah if at all they are buried in this cemetery (Norsalima’s mother passed away in Baclaran years earlier).
Members of civil society organizations – including guests from Aceh, Cambodia and East Timor – gathered at the burial site Thursday morning, on the second anniversary of the start of the siege on May 23, to unveil a flat granite marker in memory of those “who have fallen during the Marawi Siege (May 23 to October 17, 2017) and yet to be identified and named.”
“We remember, we never forget!” it added.
Speaking on behalf of Norsalima, her uncle Adman Poro Tomawis Rasuman issued a “panawagan na mabigyan ng hustisya ang mga namatayan sa loob ng Ground Zero” (call for justice for those who lost their loved ones in Ground Zero).
The Sultan of Marawi, Hamidullah Atar, described the gathering as “very important” as it is not only visiting the grave but “this is somehow a symbol of oppression that until now the government never recognized the documentation of the people, civilians who died during the siege.”
He said it is “only in Marawi where thousands of civilians died but (there is) no documentation.”
History professor Tirmizy Abdullah of the Mindanao State University, the activity’s emcee, added: “Until today, we do not sense any iota of interest coming from … the government to document, to name, to identify the civilians killed in the Marawi Siege.”
He said in their estimate, some 2,000 to 2,500 Muslims and Christians were killed. But among the hostages reported killed or missing included Lumads (indigenous peoples).
Government records at the end of the war in 2017 put the death toll at 47 civilians, 168 soldiers and at least 900 Maute fighters.
Buried in Maqbara were Maute combatants as well as civilians. Cemetery caretaker Somagayan Puno said they buried the 282nd remains retrieved from a demolition site in Ground Zero, just before Ramadan started on May 6.
There is no marker for the 282nd grave. Just a long stick to indicate where the skeletal remains were buried.
Drieza Lininding, of the Moro Consensus Group, said the gathering at the cemetery was not only to commemorate the “second year of our displacement,” but also to “remind those living the cost of violence, the cost of war.”
He said the number of those buried in Maqbara will likely increase with the ongoing demolition of structures in Ground Zero.
But Lininding lamented that there was “not even an inquiry into what really happened in those five months of the siege.” Instead, he said, the narrative of government is “turning the table and blaming us.”
Brother Rey Barnido, Executive Director of Duyog Marawi, sees the marker as a “simbolo ng ating (symbol of our) continuing fight for justice for the victims and the survivors of the siege.”
“The first 18 people beheaded were our people,” said Barnido, explaining that “Christians were targeted” by the IS-Maute group and its allies.
He said they had discussed the need for a marker earlier but Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Pena told him to wait for the Muslims to decide on it.
The Christian population in Marawi is a minority. Fr. Chito Soganub, Vicar General of the Prelature of Marawi who was among those held hostage, placed the Christian population before the siege at around 2,000, about half of that Catholics, most of them transients such as construction workers or restaurant and shop assistants. The Christian population in the Mindanao State University, however, is several thousands more.
“Sana unahin ng gobyerno ang closure man lang, pag document” (We hope government gives priority to document, for closure).
“Marami sa aming pamilyang Kristiyano naghihintay pa rin na sana mauwi pa rin nila ang remains” (Many of our Christian families are still waiting, hoping they can still claim their loved ones’ remains).
Barnido said he came from the “Yolanda area,” referring to Leyte which suffered heavily when supertyphoon Yolanda hit the area in 2013. He recalled that after three months, the mass graves there were already well documented.
“Ito, two years ganito pa rin ang itsura” (Here, after two years, this is how it looks).
Connecting with DILG
Asked in a press conference at the 103rd Infantry Brigade on Thursday, Secretary Eduardo del Rosario, chair of the Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), said they will follow up with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) on the DNA results.
Del Rosario added that he asked the DILG in the TFBM’s full council meeting in Manila two days earlier about the results but the representative could not answer.
“We will connect with the DILG,” he vowed. He said he has directed the TFBM secretariat to “find out the status” from the DILG.
Relatives who lost their loved ones cannot claim benefits without the DNA results. “That will serve as the basis for future claims of relatives,” he said, adding the results would be the “base foundation.”
He noted that only a few relatives had their DNA tests taken. The exact number is among the data needed from the DILG.
Marker data gone
But even if the DNA matching results are released and a match is determined, finding the remains in the cemetery is another challenge: some of the information written on the markers are gone – many of them faded by exposure to the sun and rain. Some markers have also been dislodged from where they used to be and there were fewer markers now than in May last year.
Mayor Majul Gandamra told MindaNews he will call for a meeting with the provincial government and the DILG to address the problem.
The Maqbara Cemetery, he said, is under the jurisdiction of the provincial government of Lanao del Sur.
“I will call for a meeting with the DILG … (and) call the attention of the provincial government,” Gandamra said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)