Isnairah 6 years after Marawi Siege: the “Little Mermaid” is now a “Superwoman”

MARAWI CITY (MindaNews / 19 May) — “Ayoko na sa kanya; break na kami (I do not want him in my life anymore; we have parted ways).” 

With a pained laughter, this was her first reaction when asked to share her  experience. She wanted to forget everything as recalling the experience brings back the horror, the pain, and the frustration. “I just want to move on,” Isnairah Cayongcat-Casan,48, said, as if she were talking about a failed romantic relationship.

But Isnairah’s story is not at all a love story. Hers is about an urban warfare 

occurring in thickly populated Marawi (officially known as the Islamic City of Marawi) in Lanao del Sur, where she was caught in the crossfire.

Six years ago, on May 23, 2017, in what is now known as the Marawi Siege, Isnairah’s house in Basak Malutlut, a barangay within the city center of Marawi, was where the battle started. “The first government soldier who was killed in that siege was in my store on the ground floor of our house,” she said, as she slowly narrated her experience as if the event happened only recently.   

Trapped at home

“It was about 2:00 in the afternoon when all of a sudden, the street leading to our neighborhood turned green,” Isnairah, a Meranaw, recalled the event as it unfolded before her eyes. 

Speaking in Tagalog, Isnairah recalled that the “government soldiers filled the streets down to our block in a few minutes. One soldier who was positioned across the store was signaling me with hand gesture to pull down the roll-up closure of our store. I did not understand him at that time. I thought the military was just conducting a raid of a suspected drug den and the commotion will soon be over. Then the first shot was fired followed by several more. One soldier who was positioned in our store was hit and died there.”

Coming Back Stronger. Isnairah Cayongcat-Casan,48, did not waste time wallowing in misery after the 2017 Marawi Siege. She immediately re-established her convenience store within the first week that the evacuees of Barangay Basak Malutlut were allowed back to their homes in October 2013. MindaNews photo by JULES L. BENITEZ taken on May 4, 2023.

At this point, Isnairah lost the chance to close her store. She, her son, and her nephew hid themselves in the bathroom, leaving the entire house open. She thought the bathroom was the safest place in their three-story house as it was located on the ground floor. They would stay there until the firefight is over, she thought. But the fighting did not stop. “Lahat ng klase ng putok ay narinig na namin (We heard all kinds of gunshots.),” the mother of four children said.

It took hours before the shooting subsdided but Isnairah and the two children remained holed up in the bathroom. They could hear the soldiers talking, running up and down their house, and eating the food in the store. The three of them were hungry and thirsty. The children will not drink the stored water in the bathroom because they knew there were mosquito larvae in it. Isnairah filtered the water with her hijab (head scarf), collected it in the tabo (dipper), and drank from it. It was past dinner time and they had been trapped in the bathroom for five hours. Still, they did not dare make a sound, much less go out.

Sniper in the Bedroom

Close to midnight, the two children were chilling from the Marawi cold weather. They asked Isnairah if they could go to the second floor to get their jackets. By then, the house was quiet. Seemingly, the soldiers had moved out. Isnairah was not sure if it was safe to get out of their hiding place. So she asked the children to stay hidden while she ventured upstairs.

On her final ascend, she saw a lone soldier and she gasped and froze on the stairs. 

The soldier sensed her presence and immediately pointed his long firearm towards her. “Huwag kang gumalaw! (Don’t move!),” the soldier ordered. 

Sino ka? (Who are you?),” the soldier demanded an answer.

Isnairah nervously but slowly explained that she is the owner of the house and was trapped by the firefight.

Sino kasama mo? (Who are with you?), was the next question.

Ang anak ko po at pamangkin, (My son and my nephew.),” Isnairah answered as politely as possible. 

The soldier, without lowering his firearm pointed at Isnairah, asked her to call the children. She obeyed, and cautiously called on the two children to come upstairs and not to be afraid. When the two children came up, she immediately embraced them close to her bosom, shielding their sight from the soldier. In her mind, she did not want the children to panic. She thought that if the soldier would kill them, at the very least they will die together in her arms.

Isnairah kept praying until she saw the soldier lower his firearms.

She them asked if she can get the jacket from the closet, and if they can go back to the bathroom. The soldier said yes.

Isnairah and the two children were not allowed to leave the house util 2:00 in the afternoon, the next day. By that time, the running gunbattle had moved from Barangay Malutlut to the town center or what would be referred to as ‘Ground Zero,’ the main battle area between government forces and the armed groups. (After Marawi’s liberation, this area would be known as “Most Affected Area.”)

After they were allowed to leave the house, they went to the house of her mother,  where she was reunited with her three other children, whom her mother rescued from the school the previous day. Together they sought refuge at their relatives’ house in Iligan City in Lanao del Norte, the nearest urban center from Marawi.

Terrorist in her neighborhood

Through the news and social media, Isnairah came to know that the armed firefight in her neighborhood was not an assault on a drug den, but a massive raid on the suspected hideout of the leader of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon. 

Hapilon, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), was listed as among the world’s most wanted terrorist by the US State Department with a reward of up to US$5 million for his capture. He was reported to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Published news reports in the Philippines quoted military sources as saying that Hapilon was chosen as the Emir to lead the ISIS in Southeast Asia.

The ASG was established in 1991 and operated in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, western part of Mindanao. The US State Department designated it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. 

The raid against Hapilon’s hideout eventually led to a full-scale battle, as another local proscribed terror organization, the Maute Group, also known as Dawlah Islamiya (Islamic State), reinforced the embattled ASG. Within hours, the armed supporters of the Maute Group, led by Omar Maute, occupied several government and private buildings, mosques and villages in the town center, akin to an all-out siege of the city. 

The Marawi Siege lasted for five months, leaving 1,200 dead, 47 of whom were civilians. Amnesty International reported nearly 360,000 displaced people at the height of the armed conflict. 

The Task Force Bangon Marawi, on the other hand, estimated the damage to properties at PhP 11 billion and economic opportunity losses at P6.6 billion. It estimated the rehabilitation cost at Php 75 to 80 billion. As of the end of 2022, the task force reported 85% completion of the rehabilitation of government buildings and properties.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported that by the end of 2022, out of the 17,793 households in the “most affected areas” only 100, or less than one percent of the displaced residents have returned. 

Hapilon, along with Omar Maute, was killed in the firefight against government forces on October 16, 2017. Their death paved the way for the eventual end of the Marawi Siege. 

“I did not know that Hapilon was our neighbor, hiding just few meters from our house,” Isnairah said.

Moving On, Rising 

Her mother used to call Isnairah “sirena” (mermaid) because she was laggard, always lying down, and often given to anxiety attacks. “Sometimes, I find myself crawling on my way to the bathroom because I feel like falling down when anxiety strikes,” Isnairah said, describing her condition prior to the Marawi Siege.

“I do not know how, but my ordeal during the siege made me stronger,” said this Meranaw woman who is a holder of a bachelor’s degree in radiologic technology. 

Isnairah was married off to her uncle at the age of 22, but with her degree, she worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for eight years before deciding to return home to take care of her children. Her mother, a public school teacher, raised her and her siblings through sheer hard work and the Meranaw concept of social obligation. It is with these values that she faced the challenges of recovering and re-building their lives after the siege.

Like many of her fellow siege survivors, rebuilding was not easy for this business woman. Her store was totally destroyed and her cash capital gone. But she is not one who would complain. With loan from a wholesaler in Iligan City, she re-opened her store in the first few days that the government allowed them to go back to their barangay. 

“Left and right, in front of me and at the back, our (survivors) situation was the same,” Isnairah said. “So, who am I to complain?” she added.

Her husband, who was working abroad at the time of the siege, wanted to immediately come home to attend to the family. Isnairah prevailed upon him not to do so because they needed his income to rebuild what they have lost.

Anticipating the most basic commodity that families who were returning to the barangay will be needing, she opened her store selling “kandila (candle), posporo (matches), katol (mosquito repellant), and cellphone load.”

She said: “Hindi pwedeng umasa na lamang sa DSWD at LGU. Paano kung wala na silang maibibigay? (We should not just depend on the Department of Social Welfare and Development or the Local Government Unit for our recovery. What if they run out of relief goods to give to us?)

Lakas ng loob ang kailangan; Bumangon ka, (Courage is what we need. Let us rise and rebuild our lives),” Isnairah said.

Six years after her Marawi Siege ordeal, Isnairah has been able to repair her house and re-establish her store. “I have learned to focus on the essentials and the important things, and not on whims and wants,” she said.

Resilient Women. Women of Barangay Basak Malutlut in Marawi City organized themselves into an association to help their community recover from the Marawi Siege. Photo taken on May 5, 2023 as Isnairah Cayongcat-Casan and other women leaders of the village discussed how to democratize the gender and development focal system of their barangay. MindaNews photo by JULES L. BENITEZ

On top of her own business, Isnairah is helping other women survivors of her village get back on their feet and bearing. They organized the Basak Malutlut Women’s Association and trained women on conflict resolution and livelihood development through the Women Engaged in Responsive Solutions to Conflicts and Violence in Mindanao (WE RESOLVE) project. Recently, the women’s association launched its food catering business. The peacebuilding project is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) and implemented by Relief International and the Balay Mindanaw Foundation in 40 barangays in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. 

Smiling at the end of the retelling of her ordeal, the woman survivor of Marawi Siege said, “Hindi na ako isang sirena, ako si Superwoman (I am no longer a helpless little mermaid; I am Superwoman.” (Jules Benitez / MindaNews)