Rebuilding lives in Marawi under IS shadow

Girlie Linao –

Hadji Ale Comilao choked back tears as he and family members salvaged whatever they could from their wrecked home in Marawi City, the site of the Philippine’s most serious confrontation with militants.
The family’s antique shop on the ground floor of the three-storey building used to have the biggest collection of rare heirlooms in the city. The only things worth saving now from the crumbling structure were assorted pieces of debris: rusty steel bars, twisted iron sheets and broken wooden planks that were being hauled into a truck.
“We will sell whatever scrap we can get here so we have money to buy food and pay for our basic needs,” he said, before breaking down in tears.
Comilao is one of more than 237,000 residents still displaced one year after hundreds of IS-allied militants attacked Marawi, triggering a five-month battle with Philippine troops.
His family home and business was located in what became the main battle zone, about 250 hectares in size.
Here, most structures were reduced to rubble, both by the fighting and military airstrikes. Those left standing were riddled with bullet marks, shattered by mortars and blackened by fire damage.
Beginning in April, six months after the fighting ended, residents were allowed to visit — but not stay in — their properties in the main battle zone. The maximum length of visit was three days and the window for visits shut on May 11.
A few metres across the street from Comilao’s shop, Jamalia Solaiman Manogangcar, a 34-year-old mother of eight, stared at an empty plot overgrown with weeds, where her home used to stand.
The two-storey wooden house was burned down, leaving almost nothing behind apart from the charred stand of an electric fan, the blasted door of a refrigerator and a broken suitcase she once used during a visit to Manila years ago.
“The government must show that people in Marawi are important so that we are not misled and we don’t become desperate,” she said.
It was this kind of desperation that could lead residents to “cling on to the promises of such groups as the IS,” she added.
Acknowledging this risk, the man in charge of Marawi’s rehabilitation said that the proper implementation of the government’s 17.2-billion-peso ($328-million) development plan would be a key deterrent to extremism.
“We need to do this right because it can be a source of frustration if they think that what we are doing is not what they envisioned the rehabilitation to be,” said Felix Castro, the field office manager of Task Force Bangon Marawi.
The government hopes to start repairing the heaviest-hit areas by next month, and has picked a Chinese-led consortium to take the lead.
“What we are doing will embody their culture and traditions, and it will not be a city that is alien to them,” Castro said.
Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military in Marawi, commented that “infrastructure rebuilding is easy, but rebuilding the lives of the people is more difficult… it could take a generation.”
Brawner said remnants of the group that fought in Marawi were still recruiting and training in the southern Philippines despite the deaths of their leaders last year.
“They have not abandoned the
objective to create a caliphate in South-East Asia,” he said.
While the region has long been a target of attacks by local extremist groups, analysts see the Marawi siege as a watershed moment. It showed both the extent of the IS threat in the region, and the militants’ readiness to engage in a drawn-out urban war.
“What is most sobering about the Marawi episode is the prospect that it could inspire and embolden other groups, if they have the requisite men and material, to emulate or even outdo Marawi in scale, style and substance in other Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) cities and urban areas,” noted Tan See Seng, a professor of international relations at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. — Reuters