The southern city of Marawi was liberated last week after months of fighting which left some 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
ILIGAN — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of the southern city of Marawi last week, bringing an end to a five-month deadly siege by the Islamic State (ISIS) that claimed more than 1,000 lives.
The siege ended after Philippine forces killed two leading Islamic militants, Isinilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, along with 50 other militants and hostages. Nearly 400,000 residents, 90% of the city's population, had been displaced by the fighting, many fleeing to neighboring cities. The refugees have been living in cramped makeshift camps, sleeping on cement floors covered in cardboard boxes, sheltered only by donated plastic sheets.
In Saguiran, the town closest to Marawi, long lines extend for food and basic supplies. Women who fled their homes with nothing are forced to sell the meager provisions they get in order to buy milk and diapers for their babies.
We need to make sure that the youth in Arabic schools are taught the right principles of Islam
Sahara, 32, cries as she recounts the strain of living on the run in temporary shelters. "My husband abuses me. He hits me physically and shouts degrading insults at me," she says. "I reported this to the police but they only warned him. I want to leave him but I don't have money and my three children are still small."
Humanitarian organizations have helped by providing for immediate needs like water, food, shelter and sanitation. But after five months, other problems have emerged. Thousands spent the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on the run. Since then, many women have given birth in the evacuation centers.
Anefel Granada, an aid worker, says humanitarian groups have done their best to accommodate evacuees. "We had to provide things that were not in the approved proposal, like plywood for flooring, especially for pregnant women and mothers who say their children are cold. We also distributed newborn kits because there are several pregnant women with small babies at the evacuation center," she said.
The Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation or AMDF, a Marawi-based women's NGO, set up a temporary office in Iligan, some 40 kilometers north of Marawi. First its members fled their own homes and found shelter for their families, then they dedicated themselves to helping others. But Noraisa Sani, an AMDF project officer, says the community faces big challenges ahead. "We need to make sure that the youth in Arabic schools are taught the right principles of Islam and are not being recruited into terrorism," she said.
It's always a strategy to control the urban center that is predominantly Muslim
Ahmed Harris Pangcoga, of the UN Refugee Agency office in Iligan, says ISIS and its local ally, the Maute group, targeted the mostly Muslim city of Marawi in a strategic attack aiming at expanding their hold in Asia.
"Marawi was targeted by the extremist group because if you look at precedents in the Middle East, in Africa, it's always a strategy to control the urban center that is predominantly Muslim in the hope of getting the sympathy of the Muslim population there," Pangcoga said.
Fighters were joined by jihadists from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Chechnya. After the fighting, Pangcoga says, a much effort will need to be invested in deradicalizing Marawi and other cities where the majority of the population is Muslim.
When the battle broke out in Marawi in May, President Duterte declared martial law in the entire Mindanao region and threatened to apply it to the whole country.
The battle is now over, but martial law is still in place with no sign that it will soon be lifted. Back at the evacuation center in Saguiran, women and girls say they just want to go back to school, their jobs and normal life. But with Marawi in ruins, a massive task of rebuilding lies ahead and normal life looks far-off.