MARAWI: Scores of people ran to freedom through a terrifying gauntlet of military air strikes and gunmen on Saturday, nearly two weeks after being trapped in a deadly battle for a Philippine city. They included one of Marawi city’s most respected politicians, who hid 71 Christians in his home and led 144 people through downtown streets held by self-styled IS fighters and strewn with rotting corpses. Norodin Alonto Lucman, the former vice-governor of a Muslim self-ruled area that includes the now embattled city, said he twice turned away gunmen, some of them neighbours and distant relatives, at his Marawi home asking for food and weapons.
But supplies eventually ran out and they fled through bombed out downtown streets at the mercy of snipers.
“It’s strewn with debris, dead bodies of chickens, rats, dogs, even the smell of rotting flesh,” he said of their two-kilometre (1.2-mile) route.
“As we walked many people saw us on the street and they joined us,” said Lucman.
Twenty-three Christian teachers and 15 other companions also ran to safety on Saturday from another area of Marawi, a city of 200,000 and the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines.
“We laid on the floor in the dark each night whenever we heard gunshots or explosions. We barricaded the doors with furniture and a refrigerator,” high school teacher Jerona Sedrome, 27, said.
But after two attempts, the militants forced their way in and the teachers hid in a tunnel beneath the house, she added.
The rescued teachers recounted between tears and gulps of coffee and bottled water how they survived on steamed rice and rainwater over nearly two weeks of air strikes, fires, and gunfire that destroyed many of the surrounding houses.
“If it didn’t rain we had no water and we didn’t eat,” said Sedrome’s younger sister and fellow teacher, Jane Rose Sedrome, 25.
“We passed through three corpses being eaten by maggots,” fellow teacher Regene Apao, 23, said.
“We knew they were ISIS because they wore black clothing and black head masks.”
Marawi has been transformed into a warzone since hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the city on May 23.
The onslaught was part of a grand plan to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday during a brief visit with troops.
He added that up to 250 gunmen held strategic buildings in downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later — nearly five times the military’s original estimate.
He said there was no indication they would surrender or flee, and could not say when the military operation would finish as fears over civilian casualties mounted.
“We believe this is ISIS because normally in this kind of conflict the local fighters will just scamper away and maybe hide in the mountains,” he said, using an alternative name for IS.
“But surprisingly this group has just holed up there and are just waiting to fight it out maybe to the last.”
Of the 120 militants killed, eight were from Chechnya, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Lorenzana said.